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Why Aren't Clergy Members Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse?

Hands of priest holding rosary and praying over black background
By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

No matter what your religious denomination, it's been hard to ignore the recent sexual abuse scandals involving the Catholic church. Widespread allegations of abuse of children, against dioceses from California to Pennsylvania, have led to class action lawsuits and Department of Justice investigations. Similar accusations have plagued the Church of Latter-Day Saints.

But how did these scandals -- and their coverups -- become so widespread? Aren't people who work in contact with children required to report abuse and neglect? Not always, as it turns out.

State Mandates

Most states have mandatory reporting laws that require certain professionals and volunteers to report suspected child abuse and neglect. These include day care workers, medical and dental office staff, child services personnel, social workers, psychiatrists and psychologists, teachers and school administrators, police officers, firefighters, and EMTs. Eighteen states don't list mandatory reporters, meaning anyone and everyone who knows or suspects that child has been abused is required by law to report it. Failing to do so could result in criminal charges.

There is however, one big exception to almost all those laws: members of the clergy.

There are certain conversations and communications that the law requires to remain privileged, or confidential, and kept out of the courtroom. The idea behind privileged communications is that there are some relationships  based on privacy and trust that can only be fostered through the belief that what is shared between the parties will remain private. The most prominent of these are communications between spouses, attorney and client, psychotherapist or physician and patient, and, yes, clergy and communicant. So, generally speaking, what someone says to a member of the clergy is inadmissible in court.

Changes in Clergy Protections

But some states are pushing back on religious privilege, at least in child abuse cases. Six states (New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas, and West Virginia) have already passed laws voiding the privilege in child abuse cases. And Mother Jones reports lawmakers in Utah and New York are currently considering legislation to eliminate the confession exception, while a similar proposal in California is (slowly) moving its way through the state capitol.

But it won't be easy. Legal researchers discovered that clergy members have sought blanket protections in cases of child abuse, covering not only oral confessions but documents and other evidence as well. Oakland, California Bishop Michael Barber called that state's bill "an attack on the very heart of our faith, our freedom of religion and against the protections given to all Americans by our Constitution," adding, "I will go to jail before I will obey this attack on our religious freedom."

For now, most clergy members don't have to report sexual abuse of children. But if you know of or suspect a child is being abused or neglected, you should contact local police or an attorney for help.

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