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Spotlight Report

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State lawmakers agree on clergy reporting bill

By Yvonne Abraham, Globe Staff, 4/24/2002

Breaking a deadlock, House and Senate negtiators agreed yesterday to pass a bill that would require clergy members to report suspicions of child abuse to legal authorities, saying church officials can never again sweep the issue of abuse under the rug.

Child advocates have fought to pass the law since the 1980s, but their cause took on new urgency this year after revelations that Catholic Church officials knew of abuse allegations against priests but failed to report them.

''If this law had been in effect 10 or 20 years ago, we might have prevented untold pain to victims and their families,'' said Senator Susan Tucker, an Andover Democrat. ''No ifs or buts. No sweeping it under the rug. If you know about it, you report it.''

The House approved the bill 143-1, with only Rep. John A. Locke, a Wellesley Republican, opposed. The Senate is expected to pass it later this week. Acting Governor Jane Swift said she expects to sign it, which would make Massachusetts the 31st state to require clergy to report abuse allegations.

The measure stalled last month when lawmakers sought to exempt information a clergy member received during confession or similar communication without creating a loophole so large it would render the law meaningless.

House and Senate sponsors agreed that priests should not be required to report information received in confession, but could not agree on how to define exceptions for similar confidential counseling conversations in other faiths.

Each chmber accused the other of supporting a bill that was too vague about which types of communications should be considered confidential. The House would have allowed churches to decide, and the Senate would have left it up to the judgment of a ''reasonable person.''

In the new bill, clergy members are exempt from reporting information received ''in a confession and any similarly confidential communication.'' The language was added by the bill sponsors, Tucker and Senator Cheryl Jacques, a Needham Democrat, and Democratic Representatives Antonio Cabral of New Bedford and Byron Rushing of Boston. They say it provides the narrowest exceptions.

''We think this one strikes the right balance between protecting children and respecting religious institutions,'' said Sarah Nathan, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Thomas Reilly. ''Our goal is to have the narrowest exception possible and this accomplishes that goal.''

Though the abuse allegations became the lawmakers' toughest hurdle, Tucker noted that none of the charges against Catholic clergy that have come to light so far were conveyed in the confessional.

Until now, clergy members and other religious personnel have been exempt from a 1979 Massachusetts law that requires others who work with children to report any suspicions of child abuse to the Department of Social Services. Catholic officials had lobbied against lifting that exemption for years, but relented after the controversy over unreported sexual abuse allegations engulfed the church in January.

Once the bill becomes law, the clergy, like teachers, foster parents, police officers, counselors, and others who work with children must report those suspicions to DSS if the alleged victim is under 18, or to district attorneys if the victim is 18 or over. If they fail to do so, a misdemeanor offense, they could be fined $1,000.

Law enforcement officials and child advocates hailed the compromise yesterday.

''This is real. What the Legislature is doing today in terms of child protection will have far more impact than what's happening in Rome this week,'' said Reilly, referring to this week's Vatican meetings between American cardinals and Pope John Paul II. ''This will force change and it will tear down that wall of secrecy. They need to open up and recognize these are crimes. That's why they're in the mess they're in.''

Reilly said he expects the law to be followed.

''We only get a handful of instances where there hasn't been a reporting,'' the attorney general said. ''The law sends a strong message that children come first, and you will see compliance.''

Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley said she could recall only one case of a prosecution for failure to report abuse allegations.

''I have always seen this statute more as a carrot than a stick,'' she said. ''It is a protective statute, to make people aware of their obligation, and to give them immunity when they report.''

The new law requires that clergy report all child abuse suspicions, no matter how long ago they came to light, within 30 days from the bill's passage.

Legislators and Reilly said that would probably not lead to a flood of new allegations, since Catholic leaders have already turned over the names of priests accused of child abuse over the years, following a Globe Spotlight Team investigation. In Boston, after initially refusing, Cardinal Bernard Law gave district attorneys the names of nearly 100 priests against whom credible allegations of abuse have been made.

Gerald D'Avolio, lobbyist for the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, which represents the Boston Archdiocese on legislative matters, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/24/2002.
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