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Spotlight Report

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Sex abuse reporting measure hits snag

House, Senate divided over clergy exemptions

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 3/7/2002

Reporting child abuse
Reporting child abuse
States differ on whether to require clergy to report suspected physical and sexual abuse of children.
State legislation that would require clergy to report suspected child abuse has run into a roadblock as lawmakers spar over when a priest, minister, or rabbi should be allowed to keep a conversation with a worshiper secret.

House and Senate leaders agree that they cannot pass legislation unless they allow Catholic priests to keep secret information they learn in confession, and allow non-Catholic clergy to keep secret information they learn in equally sacred conversations.

But the chambers, which just a year ago were united in their unwillingness to pass any measure requiring clergy to report abuse, are now sharply divided over how to pass the toughest measure possible because of public outrage over the Catholic Church's decision not to report multiple instances of clergy sexual abuse.

The House last week unanimously passed a measure that, following the language used by numerous other states, would require clergy to report suspicions of child abuse except when ''disclosure is enjoined by the rules or practice of the church or religious body.'' That exemption is supposed to cover confession for Catholics, conversations with faith healers for Christian Scientists, and other conversations considered sacred by religious denominations.

But the Senate had earlier passed a measure that, like laws in a handful of other states, exempts confession and information gleaned from someone ''seeking religious or spiritual advice or comfort'' unless that person consents to the disclosure.

Both sides, even though they claim to have the same goal, are accusing the other of including a loophole that would lend itself to abuse.

''Quite frankly, I'm concerned with the Senate version, because their version makes clergy mandated reporters, but then they cannot report anything without the consent of the person,'' said Representative Antonio F.D. Cabral, a Democrat from New Bedford. ''I think we can work this out. But our intent is to have a bill that first and foremost protects kids, and we believe the version we passed in the House is the one which accomplishes that goal.''

But Senator Cheryl A. Jacques, a Democrat from Needham, disagrees.

''We believe their bill is voluntary - anything a religion doesn't want to disclose, they don't have to,'' Jacques said. ''What I don't want to create is a toothless law. The status quo has failed miserably, and we want to go to the other extreme. Clergy, like social workers and teachers and doctors, if they see abuse anytime, anywhere, it ought to be disclosed.''

The House and Senate also disagree over which cases must be retroactively reported, with the House suggesting that people who are now adults should be able to decide for themselves whether to report that they were abused as children, while the Senate says any past case of abuse should be reported to the state.

The issue is further complicated by the objections of Massachusetts Citizens for Children, a statewide child advocacy group that opposes any exemption for clergy, and which is concerned that all the proposals would allow Christian Scientists not to report serious illnesses of children to the state. A spokesman for the First Church of Christ, Scientist, said the church, which advocates healing through faith instead of medicine, does not believe the proposed legislation would change current state law, which makes egregious cases of abuse or neglect a felony.

The Rev. Diane C. Kessler, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, said any legislation that does not include an exemption for confession and other similar religious practices would provoke a court challenge from religious groups.

Cabral, Jacques, and other lawmakers are scheduled to meet today in an effort to work out their disagreement.

In the most widely publicized cases in the Catholic Church, priests have learned of sexual abuse allegations against other priests not via confession or some other sacred conversation, but when a parent complained, when the gossip mill started whirring, or when one priest observed another doing something untoward with a child. Cardinal Bernard F. Law declared in January that he is now requiring all clergy, employees, and volunteers to report allegations of sexual abuse.

The power of the mandated reporter law is largely symbolic - the punishment for violation is a $1,000 fine, and few people are ever prosecuted for failure to report. But the law has had significant impact on child abuse investigations in this state and others. Last year, the state Department of Social Services received 62,156 reports of child abuse, and after social workers investigated those reports, the agency turned over 3,285 cases to prosecutors.

Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly has been trying to help work out a compromise. ''We're looking to have the most narrow exception possible,'' said Reilly's spokeswoman, Ann Donlan.

Other states have a variety of ways of dealing with exemptions for clergy; California, for example, exempts information learned in ''penitential communication,'' which it defines as communication made to clergy who have ''a duty to keep those communications secret'' according to their denomination. North Dakota, by contrast, exempts clergy from reporting information ''if the knowledge or suspicion is derived from information received in the capacity of a spiritual adviser.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 3/7/2002.
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