States weigh child abuse reporting vs. clergy’s duty of confidentiality

Some bills would require clergy to disclose knowledge gleaned through religious rites such as confession

By: - May 15, 2023 6:30 am
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By Elaine S. Povich

From the time Washington state Sen. Noel Frame was 5 years old until she was 10, she was sexually abused by a teenage cousin. The abuse only stopped when she told a teacher, who reported it to the authorities and to her parents. 

Now, Frame, 43, wants to require members of the clergy in Washington to notify authorities if they hear about abusive situations involving children, just like the teacher who helped her. Frame, a Democrat, wrote a bill to add clergy to the ranks of educators, counselors and doctors already designated as “mandatory reporters” in the state.   

I have been very public about the fact that I am a survivor of sexual abuse,” Frame said in a telephone interview with Stateline. “It came to light when I told a mandatory reporter, a teacher.”   

Frame’s bill originally contained an exemption for clergy who receive information on abuse through the confessional or during a similar religious rite. But House lawmakers removed that exception, and her legislation failed after the two chambers disagreed over the provision. 

At a hearing, Frame said she was not opposed to including information gleaned from a private confession, but initially exempted it because previous legislation — including a bill 20 years ago in Washington state — had foundered on that issue.  

Similarly, a handful of other states have been considering bills this year to require clergy reporting of child sexual abuse. The debate often centers around whether to exclude information learned during confidential religious rites.  

Those who oppose an exception say the welfare of children should trump religious doctrine, while faith leaders insist that requiring clergy to break their vow of confidentiality would violate church teachings as well as the constitutional separation of church and state.  

About half the states designate clergy as mandatory reporters, and in at least 18 others, any person who suspects child abuse or neglect is required to report it, according to the Child Welfare Agency of the federal Department of Health and Human Services. But most laws also carve out an exception for information clergy learn during a religious rite or prayer with a member of their congregation.

While not singled out in the laws, the Catholic rite of confession is referenced most often in public debate because it is the best known of those confidential rituals. The Catholic Church also has been the most public in its opposition. Catholic confession involves a one-on-one conversation with a priest and admitting to sins, doing penance and receiving absolution.  

Six states now require clergy who learn of child abuse in a private religious rite such as confession to report it: New HampshireNorth CarolinaOklahomaRhode IslandTexas and West Virginia, according to a 2019 report from the Children’s Bureau, a division of the federal Department of Health and Human Services.  

Ninety percent of kids who are abused know their abusers and 30% of the abusers are family members, according to Darkness to Light, an organization committed to reducing child abuse. In many cases, abusers are authority figures who often tell their child victims to keep their actions secret, according to the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse.

Hawaii is one of several states with legislation that would require priests to break the confidentiality of the confessional to report such abuse.

Last month, Hawaii lawmakers sent Democratic Gov. Josh Green a bill that would require clergy to report information they learn through religious rites if there is “substantial risk that child abuse or neglect that is especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel, manifesting exceptional depravity, may occur in the reasonably foreseeable future.” Green has not yet signed or vetoed the bill, which passed with little opposition 

 The bill’s sponsor, Democratic state Rep. Linda Ichiyama, told Hawaii Public Radio the reporting requirement aims at abuse that may occur in the “foreseeable future” because sponsors did not want to “go after folks who are confessing to past acts that happened long time ago that do not have a reasonable chance of reoccurring.” 

 A bill in Delaware would require priests to report child abuse and neglect even if learned during confession. Delaware state Rep. Eric Morrison, a Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, told Stateline that he has the support of the state attorney general and the state office of the child advocate, but “the only group opposed is of course the Catholic Church.” 

Robert Krebs, a spokesperson for the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, explained the church’s opposition to liberal website Blue Delaware: “No Catholic priest or bishop would ever break the seal of confession under any circumstances. To do so would incur an automatic ex-communication that could only be pardoned by the Pope himself.”  

Morrison, who said he was raised in the evangelical Christian church but now considers himself an atheist, said the bill is not about religion, but about “kids and fairness.” The bill has yet to have a hearing.  

A bill in Vermont would repeal the exception allowing clergy to not report information on child abuse and neglect if it is received in confidence while they’re acting as a spiritual adviser. The Senate Judiciary Committee is considering it.    

In Washington, Frame said the major sticking point to her legislation was opposition by the Catholic Church. She will try again next year, she said.  

Mario Villanueva, executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference, which represents Catholic bishops, said in an interview that while the legislative process was “not adversarial,” the lawmakers and religious leaders could not reach a compromise that would allow priests to be mandatory reporters everywhere but the confessional. 

“Somewhere along the way, someone came up with the idea that they … wanted to reach into the confessional and dictate how the church conducted its liturgy,” he said. “It’s part of the way we worship God and the state wanted to reach in and say how you do that. We couldn’t do that.” 

He said the church opposed the requirement on constitutional grounds of the separation of church and state and because it views the confessional as “sacred and protected.” 

Villanueva said if the confessional was seen as a “mandatory reporting” place, child abusers would probably avoid it. “If I am a child abuser and I know the priest will report me, do you think I will go to confession? No, I won’t,” he said.

There are ways around the religious restrictions, according to research published in 2017 by Buffalo Law School professor Christine Bartholomew. 

Practically speaking, according to the study, clergy often find scriptural interpretation to justify breaking that confidentiality, or getting around it, in legal proceedings if the welfare of a child is at stake. In her study, Bartholomew advised legislators to use that finding to modify state laws.  

“Neither clergy nor courts are willing to blindly privilege a wide swath of spiritual communications. Thus, it is time to dispel the long-standing myth preserving absolutist clergy privilege statutes. By clergy’s conduct, the privilege has already shifted towards qualified protection. Now is the time to recognize that shift,” the study concluded.  

Victor Vieth, chief program officer for education and research at the Zero Abuse Project, a nonprofit that trains prosecutors on handling child abuse cases, said mandatory reporting is the key to bringing child abuse charges.

“Mandatory reporting is the lifeblood of the child protection system,” he said in a phone interview. And he said while it’s true that most states protect the confessional, “very few faith traditions would require keeping a secret when doing so would harm the child.” 

Vieth, a former prosecutor of child abuse cases, said a “deeper theological analysis” can provide biblical reasons for protecting kids at the expense of a long-held faith tenant. “Judges very often turn to clergy and say, ‘OK, the law says you can’t talk about this.’ … Almost every clergy person bends over backward to say, ‘Yes, there is an exception here.’” 

His 2019 article on the Lutheran clergy said that faith’s history and the Book of Concord, the foundational documents of the Lutheran Church, “do not support the concept of keeping a confidence if it risks the ongoing abuse or death of a child and requires the pastor to violate civil or criminal laws designed to protect children from abuse.”

Reporter Elaine S. Povich wrote this story for Stateline, a branch of States Newsroom, which supports the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. 

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