A growing number of state legislatures are responding to the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church by changing laws to make it a crime when church officials don’t report allegations of abuse of minors.
Since January, four states — Massachusetts, Illinois, Missouri and Colorado — have passed laws that add clergy to the list of professions specifically required to report abuse to law enforcement authorities. Eleven already had listed clergy, while 18 had required everyone to report sexual abuse.
Bills are moving forward in several states, and more state legislatures are expected to take up the subject when they convene this fall or next year.
”The scandal is so far-reaching it was important to make a stand,” says state Rep. Rosemary Mulligan, a sponsor of Illinois’ legislation. ”We have to put in safeguards for the welfare of children.”
All states have mandatory reporting laws for hospital workers, teachers and other professionals who come in contact with children. Often, the laws were established to provide a broad web of surveillance to spot signs of abuse.
The new laws are part of the response to accusations that Catholic Church officials have covered up abuse by priests.
An estimated 250 priests nationwide have resigned or been suspended since January, when the conviction of a pedophile priest in Boston drew national attention.
States also are cracking down in other ways. California and Connecticut have passed laws rolling back statutes of limitations, allowing prosecutors and victims more time to pursue cases of childhood sexual abuse. The California law awaits the governor’s signature.
Many states with reporting laws offer some form of exemptions for clergy. Roman Catholic priests are prohibited by church law from disclosing information learned in confessions, and other clergy often have confidentiality rules for counseling.
Much of the new legislation has faced little opposition. The Massachusetts bill passed in April after Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law said the Church would drop its long-standing opposition. Law is a defendant in lawsuits that accuse him of covering up or ignoring sexual abuse of minors by several priests. But clergy in Connecticut and Minnesota have fought the laws, saying they could infringe on religious freedoms.
John Garvey, dean of the Boston College Law School, says the legislative efforts are understandable given public concern. ”It’s a healthy move in the right direction.”