Senate OKs Requiring Clergy to Report Suspected Abuse

By Justin Bergman
The Virginian-Pilot [Richmond VA]
January 29, 2004

RICHMOND After lengthy and at times forceful debate on the floor, a divided Senate passed legislation Thursday that would require clergy to report suspected instances of child abuse.

The bill, which passed on a 22-17 vote and now heads to the House, would add clergy to the list of professionals already required to report suspected abuse. They include teachers, health care workers and law enforcement officials.

Democratic Sen. Janet D. Howell's proposal was seen by many as a response to the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church.

"What we've read in the newspapers and heard in the media over these past few years speaks volume about the silence, the silence of these abuses," Sen. H. Russell Potts, R-Winchester, said in a passionate appeal in the Senate chamber.

"...Some of these ministers or priests did not have courage nor the integrity to speak out about abuses that they know happened."

The measure, already law in 37 states, does not specifically target child abuse committed by clergy members, but abuse committed by anyone family members or any individual that is noticed by a priest, rabbi or other cleric.

Failure to report within 72 hours of the first suspicion of child abuse or neglect is a $500 fine. Subsequent failures to report would be additional fines of $100 to $1,000.

The bill provides clergy with immunity from any litigation resulting from incorrect accusations, provided they were not made in malice. It also would exclude any information provided to priests in confessional, or to clergy of other denominations in a similar covenant, such as counseling.

Opponents said the measure unfairly turns church officials into de facto law enforcement officers.

"This is the biggest intrusion in the minister-congregate relationship that we've had in a very long time," said Sen. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, R-Fairfax County. "The state is going to turn (clergy) into policemen and their job is to deal with the eternal salvation of the members of the Virginia's religious communities."

The bill passed the Senate last year with virtually no opposition. Sen. Nick Rerras, R-Norfolk, was the only vote of dissent. It later failed in House committee. Opposition to the measure has increased as lawmakers have become more aware of the implications of its passage, said Jack Knapp, executive director of the Virginia Assembly of Independent Baptists.

"The vote (in the Senate) indicates the shaky foundation the bill had last year," he said. "This shaky foundation has not changed. It's still a poor piece of legislation."

Howell said the leaders of most denominations and religious organizations in Virginia support the bill, including the bishops of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Richmond and Arlington.

However, Cuccinelli said support among individual clergy members is harder to gauge.

"We create tremendous public pressure to support bills like the one before us," he said. "That does not mean it is good for the long-term health of the church."

The bill is SB314.


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