Amid a sex-abuse scandal that has rocked the U.S. Catholic Church, state lawmakers are seeking to put clergy members on the list of those required to report child abuse.
The irony of Virginia legislators debating such bills in a Capitol designed by Thomas Jefferson patron saint of the separation of church and state isn’t lost on some observers.
“This is the first time that you have reached into the ministry and told the pastor what he must do,” said Jack Knapp, executive director of the Virginia Assembly of Independent Baptists, who spoke before a House subcommittee recently. “You’re reaching in, in a way you haven’t done before.”
Catholics make up about 8 percent of Virginia’s population. And many of the cases of sexual abuse of children and teenagers by priests in Boston, where the scandal broke, and elsewhere around the country took place decades ago.
Yet lawmakers’ discovery that Virginia excludes clergy from those required to report allegations of child abuse or neglect raised concerns in light of the other component of the Catholic Church scandal: The culture of secrecy that allowed bishops to shuffle offending priests from church to church.
“They won’t be allowed to do that anymore,” said Del. Robert G. Marshall, R-Prince William, a Catholic. He is sponsoring HB2372, one of four bills pending in the House.
None of the proposed laws would require a clergy member to break a confidence with a churchgoer, although at least one would require that information about child abuse shared in such a setting be reported if learned independently through a third party.
“When clergy members find out about child abuse outside that confidential exchange, they’ll be required to report it,” said Del. Dwight C. Jones, D-Richmond, the sponsor of HB1800. That bill is being packaged with SB1011, co-sponsored by Sen. Janet D. Howell, D-Fairfax, and Sen. James K. O’Brien Jr., R-Fairfax.
Officials from the Catholic dioceses of Arlington and Richmond support the legislation, saying they already have policies requiring the reporting of any allegations.
“You are considering legislation to require clergy to report child abuse, particularly sexual abuse of minors,” the Rev. Pasquale J. Apuzzo, a Catholic priest and spokesman for the Richmond Diocese, told a Senate committee last week. “I can sum my testimony in a single earnest request: `Please make it happen.’ ”
As far back as 1992, Richmond Bishop Walter F. Sullivan met with priests about the sexual abuse of minors, Apuzzo added.
“He told us then, `If you sexually abuse a minor, I will be visiting you in jail,’ ” Apuzzo told legislators. “Let me point out that none of the incidents of sexual abuse we have had to address in the diocese took place after those meetings.”
A statement by Bishop Paul S. Loverde of the Diocese of Arlington also expressed support for the legislation.
“I will watch this legislation with interest, and I commend the various delegates and state senators for their diligence in seeking ways to protect children from abuse,” he said. commended lawmakers for “safeguarding the priest-penitent relationship which is rooted in the doctrine of the Catholic Church.” Virginia law mandates that doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers and other professionals report any cases of suspected child abuse or neglect to local authorities.
Most of the proposed bills would add any “regular minister, priest, rabbi, or accredited practitioner, including a duly accredited Christian Science practitioner” to the list.
If the legislation is approved, Virginia would join about 15 other states with such laws on the books, including Massachusetts and Colorado, which enacted similar bills last year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Catholic, said news reports last year prompted him to look into Virginia law governing the reporting of child abuse. After consulting with the Arlington and Richmond dioceses, he played a role in the shaping of the Howell-O’Brien bill, which was approved this week in committee and is expected to go to the Senate next week.
“Five percent of its effectiveness will be matters within churches, dealing with clergy members,” Kaine said. “But 95 percent of it will be what clergy members can observe in the thousands of families and children they deal with on a regular basis.”
Del. Richard H. Black, R-Loudoun, said he drafted HB1489, in part, to ensure that the “seal of confession,” assuring absolute confidentiality for those confessing sins, is protected.
“Traditionally, Virginia has protected confidential communication between a minister or priest and someone who is making a confession,” Black said. “The other side of it is that there’s such an egregious problem, playing shell games with pedophile priests, that we have to get control of that for the good of the church.”
Not everyone in the General Assembly supports the legislation.
“I think we’re moving away from freedom of religion here, and we have to be very, very cautious,” said Sen. Nick Rerras, R-Norfolk, a member of the Greek-Orthodox Church. “My big concern is that we’re getting into excessive or intrusive government regulation of the clergy. This is a slippery slope.”
Black, however, said he doesn’t believe the proposed legislation raises flags about church-state issues.
“It doesn’t go to the spiritual aspects of the church,” he said. “It only addresses the administration of the church bureaucracy.”
Though he, too, is Catholic, Black said he believes a law is needed and will, in the long run, help the church.
“I think it’s a shame when legislators have to tend to the morality of the church,” he said. “But it has come to that.”