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Spotlight Report

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House closes loophole on clergy abuse

Churches back a compromise on reporting

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff and Chris Tangney, Globe Correspondent, 2/27/2002

The Massachusetts House unanimously approved legislation yesterday that would require clergy and church employees to report suspected cases of sexual abuse to the state, closing what critics said were broad loopholes in a measure previously approved by the Senate.

The legislation, which is being rushed through the Legislature in the midst of public outcry over the Catholic Church's handling of pedophile priests, protects the confidentiality of allegations made during confession, but eliminates a proposed exemption for more general spiritual conversations.

Senate leaders said they would now negotiate a final version with the House. A spokeswoman for Acting Governor Jane Swift said the governor expects to sign the proposed legislation, which would make Massachusetts the 30th state to require that clergy report to authorities allegations of sexual abuse of minors.

The new, tougher language was agreed upon last weekend during negotiations between Catholic and Protestant leaders, who had been feuding over the legislation. The Catholic Church had initially wanted broader protection for conversations between clergy and parishioners, while Protestant churches wanted to force more reporting by clergy.

''This is a great piece of legislation, with real teeth to it,'' said the Rev. Nancy S. Taylor, president of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, the state's largest Protestant denomination. ''This legislation will help to protect the children who, until now, have simply not had the protection they deserve from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts or, sadly, from its religious institutions.''

Catholic leaders also welcomed the new version of the legislation. The church, which says roughly half the state's population are Catholics, had for years opposed legislation that would require clergy to report sexual abuse allegations, but switched its position last summer after publicity over the case of John J. Geoghan, a pedophile priest.

''It's our intention to support, in any way we can, mandatory reporting language,'' said Gerry D'Avolio, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, which lobbies on behalf of the state's Catholic bishops.

The compromise was negotiated under the auspices of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, which brokered talks among five denominations concerned about mandatory reporting laws: the Catholic Church, the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Assocation, the American Baptist Churches, and the First Church of Christ, Scientist. The compromise language exempts clergy from reporting information learned ''if disclosure is enjoined by the rules or practice of the church or religious body.''

''The challenge was, how do we honor the free exercise of these different religious practices, but make it clear that except in very narrow places we want to have clergy be mandated reporters and that everybody clearly has the well-being of children uppermost in their minds,'' said the Rev. Diane C. Kessler, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches.

The proposal to require clergy to report allegations of abuse is complicated by the fact that the state's religious denominations have varying attitudes toward the confidentiality of conversations between congregants and clergy.

For Catholics, private confession is a mandatory sacrament, and penitents are promised that whatever they tell a priest in confession will be kept secret. Priests who reveal information they learn during confession are subject to automatic excommunication.

For Christian Scientists, conversations between a member and a a Christian Science practitioner, who works to heal illness through faith, are accompanied by a promise of confidentiality.

But most Protestant denominations do not have a tradition of private confession. Today, liberal Protestant denominations are relatively unsympathetic to the notion that clergy might keep knowledge of a crime secret under any circumstance.

For example, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ went to court last summer to defend its decision to turn over to prosecutors a church employee who confessed to ministers that he had sexually abused children. The employee argued that his confession was confidential, and he lost his case because of the specific circumstances of his conversation with church leaders. But the case illustrated the murkiness of the state's mandatory reporting law.

''For Unitarian Universalists, the protection of children has always been our prime concern,'' said Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. ''By making clergy mandatory reporters, this bill increases protection of children from the crime of sexual abuse, while also respecting the traditions of different communities of faith.''

Lawmakers, who have been spurred to action by the Globe Spotlight Team's reporting on clergy sexual abuse, were generally delighted with their proposal, even as they continued to argue over the details.

''Our first and highest priority is to protect the safety of our children,'' said Representative Antonio F.D. Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat who sponsored the House version of the legislation, which passed by a voice vote.

A cautionary note was sounded by Representative Francis L. Marini, Republican of Hanson and the House minority leader, who said that relatives of abusers might be reluctant to seek counsel from clergy because of concern about getting family members in trouble. But Marini ultimately voted for the legislation.

Senate advocates of the legislation welcomed the House changes, but said they would have to negotiate the details. They pledged speedy action on the measure.

''We're all working in the same direction,'' said Senator Cheryl A. Jacques, Democrat of Needham.

But Jacques said she believes that the House legislation is still too broad and would allow cults to keep sexual abuse allegations private. She also said the House legislation doesn't go far enough in requiring retroactive reporting of allegations.

Senator Susan C. Tucker, Democrat of Andover, said: ''The Senate wants to pass legislation with the fewest loopholes that will pass constitutional muster. If this had been done years ago, we could have avoided a lot of the problems that we see now.''

The compromise was welcomed by victims' advocates, who had been unhappy with the Senate legislation.

''The unfortunate reality of the prior language was that the loophole was too large,'' said Nancy L. Scannell, legislative director of Jane Doe Inc., a state coalition against sexual assault and domestic violence.

Scannell said that rape crisis counselors, like clergy, face some tension between their desire to offer confidentiality to callers and their need to report certain allegations to the state.

''We fully understand that it can be difficult to balance the confidentiality of communications with the protection of children, but it is possible,'' she said. ''We've been doing it for years.''

Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 2/27/2002.
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