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Spotlight Report

  A Boston Globe Editorial  

Careful balance on abuse


SQUABBLING BETWEEN the Massachusetts House and Senate should not delay passage of a bill to require that priests and other members of the clergy report allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated against young people. The version approved by the Senate ought to offer guidance as legislative leaders devise a final bill that should be quickly sent to the governor for her signature.

After prolonged discussion with the House, the bill is much improved over a version that the Senate was considering early this year. It no longer includes a loophole for ''pastoral counseling'' but narrowly focuses the exemption to information gained in the confessional or ''similarly confidential spiritual counseling with other faiths.''

The language in the House version, approved in February, is slightly different. It would add an exemption ''if disclosure is enjoined by the rules or practice of the church.'' There's not much difference between that and the improved Senate version, but the tighter Senate focus is better. Attorney General Thomas Reilly has endorsed this language.

The Senate version is significantly better when it specifies that in cases where the allegation involves an adult victimized as a child, the information from the clergyman should go to the local district attorney's office. The House is silent on this reporting, merely saying that abuse involving young people under age 18 will be reported to the Department of Social Services.

All of these differences ought to be easily resolved in a conference committee, but one provision in the House bill, having nothing to do with reporting by the clergy, could stall the entire legislation.

In current law, social workers have an exemption from testifying about abuse in court. The theory here is that this exemption encourages victims to talk freely about sexual abuse in their past without the worry that the embarrassing information will be aired in public.

The House version would remove this exemption. This is the kind of change that could provoke an intense public debate at a hearing, but it has been overshadowed by the archdiocesan scandal. The provision was added to the bill at the behest of prosecutors, who believed it important to make all evidence of abuse available in court.

The prosecutors are now content to sever this provision from the main bill and to press for its approval later. They understand that it is important, while the archdiocesean abuse scandal is fresh in the minds of nearly everyone, to establish a legal mandate that all clergy report sexual abuse of young people. The House and Senate should make this a priority for immediate action before they get bogged down in budget deliberations later in the spring.

This story ran on page A16 of the Boston Globe on 4/15/2002.
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