Still No Clergy Abuse Law

By Michael Gormley
Newsday [Albany NY]
February 21, 2004

ALBANY, N.Y. -- It was after 9 p.m. in the closing days of the legislative session when the word in the darkened Capitol hallways was that one of Albany's thorniest issues was settled: A law would compel religious leaders to report to authorities any child sex abuse by priests and other clergy.

Two years later as the clergy abuse scandal and cover-ups played out nationally, there still is no law in New York _ not even a two-house proposal _ despite the handshake agreement and bills printed that night in June 2002. Even in often contentious Albany, a deal falling apart so completely is rare, said Sen. Steven Saland.

Now the Poughkeepsie Republican and Albany Democratic Assemblyman John McEneny are down to one disputed section of the two versions of the bill, which have unanimous support in their chambers.

Saland and McEneny would require religious leaders to be added to the list of 30 professions including teachers and physicians that are "mandated reporters" of child abuse by colleagues. Clergy would then be required by law to report child sexual abuse by priests and other clergy.

But Saland's bill would also require clergy as well as other mandated reporters such as teachers and physicians to inform law enforcement of any abusive adult in a "position of trust" that used that authority to sexually abuse a child.

He said positions of trust include coaches, athletic team managers, teachers, guidance counselors, and family members living outside the household but who have contact with children.

"I just want greater universality, greater reporting," Saland said. "If the object is to try to protect children and deter child abuse, there are other categories of people and we shouldn't have to wait for the plethora of sensationalized stories. Why not make the mechanism now?

"Whether it be clergy or coaches," he continued, "we should seize the opportunity to provide greater protection of children."

The Assembly fears Saland's provision would destroy trust between the clergy and other mandated reporters and the people they serve confidentially.

"The Senate bill makes a major change in public policy," McEneny said.

McEneny said a priest who works as a school counselor complained that loss of confidentiality would keep students from trusting him. That trust, McEneny said, helped the priest avoid suicides, assaults and other crises.

"The idea is to keep these avenues open to kids, not to shut them off," McEneny said.

Other elements of the bills are the same and effort to resolve the differences could begin in March.

Under the bills, clergy would be added to a list of 30 mandated reporters of sexual abuse to law enforcement or face up to a year in jail and civil penalties; must review records of current and former employees dating back for 20 years and report to any cases of forced resignation and cash settlements resulting from sex abuse claims; and must search records for any current employees accused of sexual abuse.

Statements made in confessions or similar religious functions would be protected from disclosure under both bills.


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