Reporting Child Abuse Not Optional

Dayton Daily News [Dayton, Ohio]
January 4, 2004

In the category of important, unfinished legislative business:

The Catholic Church's child sexual-abuse scandal brought to light a possible crack in Ohio law about who must report known or suspected child abuse.

Some lawyers for the Catholic Church hinted to prosecutors who were investigating which priests and officials knew about abuse allegations that if anyone was indicted, the lawyers might argue that priests don't have a legal obligation to report such suspected crimes. Even the prospect is amazing.

After all the evidence that's come out about church officials turning a blind eye to criminal offenses against children, imagine a priest's lawyer standing in court arguing that his client was exempt from the law that applies to teachers, social workers, nurses and all manner of people who are mandated to alert police if they think a child is being hurt. You have to hope that it never would have come to that.

But, still, prosecutors are on notice that there's arguably a vagueness in the law. The Ohio Senate has passed legislation that spells out that religious authorities specifically are required to report child abuse unless the cleric learned of the abuse as part of a confession. In that situation, a priest or minister could keep the information confidential, just as physicians and lawyers are obliged to keep their professional conversations with patients and clients private.

But the confession would have had to be made directly to the priest or minister, and in a manner and context that follows church doctrine. Importantly, this means that if clerics learned of abuse from a victim or in their capacity as a church administrator, they would have to go to authorities. In those cases, they'd be treated like all other so-called "mandatory" reporters.

It's too bad that lawmakers have to go to these lengths to spell out the obvious.

When the higher-ups in the Catholic Church got reports about abusive priests, it was not the offenders who were coming to them asking for forgiveness. Rather, it was victims and people close to them who were sounding the alarm. Some of them were doing so because they wanted criminal action to be taken against an offender.

The Senate legislation also would give prosecutors a bigger window of time to bring charges. Many documented abuse cases can't be prosecuted now because too much time has passed. Under the Senate's proposed changes, the clock allowing for the prosecution of child-abuse cases would not start ticking until law enforcement is informed of a complaint or until a victim turns 18. The goal is to make sure that young victims have the chance as adults to prosecute their abusers.

There isn't any big controversy about the changes even Catholic Church officials support the legislation. The only complaints being raised are from some members of the Christian Science religion. They complain that Christian Science practitioners wouldn't be covered by the special confidentiality privilege extended to ordained, licensed or accredited clerics.

When the Ohio House comes back for business, it needs to take up the Senate's proposed changes. There's no reason to oppose the proposal, and good reasons to pass it.

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