Evangelical Churches Resist Ohio Abuse-Reporting Bill

First Amendment Center [Columbus OH]
February 20, 2004

COLUMBUS, Ohio Several fundamentalist churches oppose a bill that would require the clergy to report child abuse, saying the legislation is an unnecessary intrusion into the separation of church and state.

The bill, supported by mainstream churches including Roman Catholics and Methodists, easily passed the Senate last year but is stalled in a House committee because of the ministers' concerns.

Pastors of independent Baptist churches and evangelical congregations around Ohio say the requirement raises privacy concerns about pastors' approach to counseling and even church teachings on corporal punishment.

"If corporal discipline is considered abuse and the pastor preaches that the Bible teaches corporal discipline, what should the pastor do if the parishioners follow his preaching?" said Daniel Whisner, pastor of the Church at Chapel Hill in Mount Vernon. "Should he then turn them into the state for abuse?"

Kevin Folger, pastor of the 3,500-member Cleveland Baptist Church in Brooklyn in suburban Cleveland, said the bill could force ministers to report abuse whether it occurred or not.

"We don't necessarily know it to be true, but we're going to be held to report it and let the government decide," Folger said. "That's just not right."

Sen. Robert Spada, a North Royalton Republican, introduced the bill following reports of child sexual abuse by Cleveland priests and at the Trinity Lutheran Seminary in the Columbus suburb of Bexley.

Ohio law already requires professionals such as doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, social workers and child-care employees to report suspected child abuse cases to child-protection agencies or police.

Failure to report abuse carries a fine of up to $250 and up to 30 days in jail.

Spada's bill adds clergy members and designated lay representatives of a congregation or religious group, such as Sunday school teachers or youth leaders.

However, Spada's bill would not force ministers to report abuse if doing so would violate the "sacred trust" of a confession or something said confidentially to a minister.

Even so, the concerns of evangelical ministers are so strong they have tied up the bill for now, said Rep. Bob Latta, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee.

The sacred-trust exception also troubles prosecutors, who expect that denominations will define all conversations under that phrase.

"The definition of 'sacred trust' is so amorphous," said John Murphy of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association. Despite the concern, prosecutors back the bill, he said.

Spada sent a letter to committee members earlier this month trying to clarify the bill's intent and keep it moving.

The legislation balances requiring clerics to report child abuse with "protecting the relationship between a member of the clergy and their parishioners," Spada wrote.

Twenty-one states already include clergy among professionals required to report child abuse, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data.

At least five states New Hampshire, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Texas and West Virginia deny a sacred trust-type privilege in child-abuse cases, according to the federal data.

Ministers are opposed to child abuse but question how many potential cases the bill would really stop, said Whisner, president of Ohio Legislative Watch, which monitors church-related legislation.

He also said such a law would put an unnecessary burden on churches to follow state policies.

"We try to teach our workers to operate based on scriptural principles that are the same as churches have been teaching for 50, 100, 200 years in the state of Ohio," Whisner said. "We don't want to be tethered to public policy for our programs, procedures and the policies of our church."

The United Methodist Church supports the legislation but wants language added that would exempt church volunteers from the reporting requirement.

The mandate could dramatically raise churches' insurance premiums or discourage volunteers such as Sunday school teachers from helping out altogether, said Philip Moots, legal counsel for the West Ohio Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.