Senator drafts bill to require clergy to report sexual abuse
SUMMIT COUNTY – Sen. Joan Fitz-Gerald wants to end the secrecy of sexual abuse within the ministry.
Recent headlines across the nation have outlined the prevalence sexual abuse on children – and its secrecy – within the ranks of the religious. Most of the accused are in the Catholic church.
According to a national survey conducted last month, 6 percent of respondents – Catholic and non-Catholics – said they were aware of instances of such abuse within their own parishes. The survey also indicated 80 percent be-lieve church officials’ refusal to report suspected child abuse to the police merely contributes to the problem.
Under Senate Bill 110, drafted this week by Fitz-Gerald, a Catholic, and supported by state House Representative Betty Boyd, D-Jefferson County, members of the clergy would be added to the list of doctors and school officials who must report child abuse or neglect to the authorities.
Fitz-Gerald was attending church services during which a letter from the archbishop was read addressing the recent allegations. The archbishop said the issue is not a problem in his region.
“Joan’s response was, “How do you know?'” said Senate Majority Media Relations Director Ellen Dumm. “She thought the church needs to be a little more proactive than that.”
“A crime is a crime, no matter who commits it,” Fitz-Gerald said. “We need this law as a matter of child welfare and safety.”
Fitz-Gerald’s archbishop has policy in place regarding sexual abuse reporting, Dumm said.
“But that’s only one church,” she said. “It doesn’t cover the southern half of the state, and it doesn’t cover other denominations. Her take on it is, if it’s a crime, it’s a crime for everyone.”
As part of that reporting, Fitz-Gerald’s bill would require the victim to be named.
“Under her proposal, the name would have to be reported to the district attorney and other proper authorities,” Dumm said. “Without the name and specifics, there can be no charges. There can’t be this institutional cover-up.”
Fitz-Gerald’s bill addresses the confidentiality expected of a priest during confessions, as well.
“That’s not typically where the issues arise,” Dumm said. “What this bill is after is the institutional secrecy. When someone reports an instance of their child being abused, it usually goes to the hierarchy of the church. The clergy can’t be exempt from this law.”
Because of laws regarding the separation of church and state, there are no requirement for members of the clergy to alert authorities outside the church. Such has been the case in recent months, when Catholic priests have been accused of abusing children – in some cases, many decades ago.
When discovered, it has been church policy to keep the news under wraps. Sometimes, priests were transferred to other churches; others resigned from their positions.
“It’s dangerous to assume that the problem is taken care of in-house – recent news stories across the country say otherwise,” Fitz-Gerald said. “There should be no doubt in the law that all child abuse cases should be handled immediately and tracked through the criminal justice system.”
Jane Stebbins can be reached at 668-3998 ext. 228 or email@example.com.
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