A bill that would legally mandate pastors, rabbis and other clergy to report instances of child abuse or neglect is pending review by the Washington, D.C. Council.
Under current D.C. law, teachers, school officials, medical professionals and daycare workers are mandated reporters for suspected child abuse or neglect. Mandated reporters are required to report incidents of abuse to the Metropolitan Police Department or to child protective services.
The bill, titled Protecting Children Through Mandatory Reporting Amendment Act of 2019, was introduced Jan. 23 by Washington, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine and referred to the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety on Feb. 5. If the 13-member D.C. Council and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) approve Racine’s proposal, the bill will be enacted into law.
If passed, the bill would also raise the penalty of failing to report a suspected instance of abuse up to a fine of $2,500 and 180 days of jail time.
Following The Boston Globe’s 2002 report on the widespread sexual abuse in the Catholic church, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a charter that required all dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Washington, to report allegations of abuse toward a minor to the public authorities.
The bill is a necessary expansion of the protection of minors against sexual assault, Fr. Gregory Schenden, S.J., director of campus ministry at Georgetown, said.
“Such a bill will make legal what has already been in effect for the Society of Jesus (and other Catholic religious orders) nationally since shortly after the sexual abuse crisis in 2002,” Schenden wrote in an email to The Hoya. “It is most encouraging to see the District of Columbia rising to these standards in striving to protect minors.”
Under the proposed legislation, any information revealed during confession remains confidential and outside the realm of mandatory reporting. Worldwide, confession remains a privileged space, according to Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., the chaplain-in-residence in Kennedy Hall.
“Across the board in every state in the United States, confession is considered sacred and privileged, and that is true actually around the world too, because of the particular nature of the relationship with an individual who is confessing something they’re trying to deal with in their minds,” Carnes said in an interview with The Hoya. “A good confessor, a priest, would really encourage the person then to go out and report something they themselves have done or if it’s something they might’ve been hurt in.”
This exemption could potentially be exploited, according to Becky Ianni, the D.C. leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, an advocacy group for survivors of institutional sexual abuse.
“I am glad that the bill is adding ministers to those who must report child abuse but am afraid the exemption for confession or penitential communication may be misused to protect the perpetrator,” Ianni wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Carnes hopes that confession will continue to assist sexual assault survivors by providing them with resources for psychological and sexual assault counseling.
“I remember in my very first confession counseling class the first thing we talked about was making sure you always have the resources around in case somebody needs additional counseling,” Carnes said. “So confession, whilst this privileged space, hopefully leads to then those other options.”
The bill also requires any mandated reporter to take a certification course, which focuses on the process of filing a report and the legal definitions of abuse and neglect. Any mandated reporter who fails to complete the course is fined $300.
The mandatory training will aid prosecutors in pursuing those who claim they did not report due to lack of procedural knowledge, according to Ianni.
“I am pleased with the training of mandatory reporters. This will help prosecute offenders when they use excuses such as I didn’t know that was abuse, I didn’t know who to report to, and so forth,” Ianni wrote.
The proposed legislation comes amid sexual assault accusations against notable members of the Catholic clergy.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s resignation from the position of D.C. archbishop was accepted in October following a Pennsylvania grand jury report that revealed Wuerl had mishandled cases of sexual abuse during his time as bishop of Pittsburgh.
In July 2018, former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Wuerl’s predecessor, resigned from the College of Cardinals after an investigation found credible evidence of several decades of sexual abuse. Wuerl was aware of an allegation of sexual assault against McCarrick as early as 2004, and kept his knowledge of the accusation confidential until late in 2018.
Both Wuerl and McCarrick hold honorary degrees from Georgetown. Student have called for the university to revoke the degrees since August. In November, Georgetown formed a working group to reevaluate the honorary degrees and has yet to announce a decision.