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Spotlight Report

Churches say clergy bill is too lenient

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 2/01/2002

Setting up a possible confrontation between Protestant and Catholic leaders, the heads of two Protestant denominations yesterday criticized proposed legislation aimed at stopping clergy sexual abuse as too lenient.

The heads of the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association said the legislation, which was written with the assistance of the Catholic Church and purports to require that clergy report to state officials allegations of sexual abuse, creates a giant loophole by barring the reporting of allegations "provided by a person who reasonably expects it to remain confidential."

The two denominations are arguing that confidentiality is less important than child protection.

"We value the possibility of help that pastoral and spiritual counselling with ministers can provide, but the inarguable value of protecting children outweighs the questionable value of confidential counselling for pedophiles," said William G. Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a historically Protestant denomination whose membership now includes non-Christians as well as Christians. "We Unitarian Universalists want it known that we put children first."

Nancy S. Taylor, president of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, the largest Protestant denomination in Massachusetts, sent a letter to all House members yesterday asking them not to support the legislation as proposed. Also, the Massachusetts Council of Churches, which represents Protestant and Orthodox Christians, sent an electronic alert to its member churches yesterday, advising them of the concerns, suggesting that the proposed legislation may be unconstitutional and asking them to contact their lawyers and then consider contacting lawmakers about the bill.

"We're not a repository of people's sins for the sake of preventing them from addressing them," Taylor said. "This bill takes us a step backward from where we are today."

In the past, Protestant denominations have been more cooperative with law enforcement than the Catholic Church when it comes to clergy sexual abuse, although the Catholic church this week turned over to law enforcement the names of dozens of priests accused of sexual abuse over the last four decades. The United Church of Christ, for example, went to court last summer to defend its decision to turn over to law enforcement a youth minister accused of sexual abuse, while the Unitarian Universalist Association asserts that only two of its ministers have been accused of sexual misconduct in 20 years and that both were convicted in the courts.

Taylor recently sent an e-mail to all United Church of Christ clergy, warning them that "in the United Church of Christ we will not protect our ministers at the expense of innocent children or other victims."

A key House lawmaker said yesterday that the Protestants are right.

"The Senate bill creates an illusion of protection, but makes it hard to report almost anything," said Representative Antonio F. D. Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat and chairman of the House Human Services Committee.

Senator Susan C. Tucker, an Andover Democrat and the sponsor of the Senate bill, did not return a call seeking comment.

Gerry D'Avolio, who as executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference is the lobbyist for the Catholic bishops of Massachusetts, said he is willing to work with the Protestants to try to fix the legislation, and Cabral said he is hopeful a compromise can be worked out. But the Catholic Church has been adamant about protecting the privacy of conversations between priests and parishioners, while Protestants are now arguing that some conversations are too incriminating to be kept private.

The dispute between the Protestants and Catholics reflects two fundamental differences between Christian churches.

Although clergy counsel worshipers in all denominations, that counseling often takes the form of confession among Catholics, while Protestant churches' counseling sessions tend to be more informal.

This story ran on page B11 of the Boston Globe on 2/01/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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