Bills Aim to Make Clergy 'Fess up'

By James V. Franco
Troy Record [Albany NY]
May 28, 2004

ALBANY - The Senate's latest version of a bill mandating clergy to report allegations of sexual abuse could be voted on as early as Tuesday, but the bill is still a bit different from the one passed by the Assembly in January.

"From my point of view, I would like to see two extremely similar bills passed by both houses, then let the public and those with a vested interest decide," said Assemblyman Jack McEneny, D-Albany, the bill's sponsor in that chamber. "I am comfortable with what we already passed."

Sen. Steve Saland, R-Poughkeepsie, did tighten up his bill by putting age limitations on who "people of authority" are, but many feel it is still too broad and would scare young people away from seeking treatment from doctors or counselors.

The so-called "high school sweetheart" glitch emerged from the fear that a 17-year-old would not seek treatment if he or she was sexually active with an 18-year-old partner, which is technically considered statutory rape and would have to be reported by a counselor or doctor.

In the latest version, Saland answers the dilemma by requiring any of some two dozen professions that are mandated reporters to report abuse to law enforcement if it is committed by a person over 19 years old against a person younger than 14, or if the abuse is committed by someone over 21 years old against someone younger than 16.

In both scenarios, Saland said the perpetrator is someone who has supervisory authority or disciplinary authority over that younger person by reason of occupation, profession or clerical status. That, too, must be reported directly to law enforcement, he added.

Saland said his bill is, in part, based on a definition used by 20 states to define "people of authority" and a study that found 40 percent of incidents of clergy abuse are against children between the ages of 11 and 14.

"We tried to come up with a better, tighter way of dealing with those types of people and those types of perpetrators and those types of pedophiles," Saland said.

The New York Civil Liberties Union, in a memorandum in opposition to Saland's bill, said it would "undermine the original intent of the legislation and, as a practical matter, will actually put children at risk."

"The risk of a police report will discourage young people from confiding in adults about sexual issues when doing so could bring the police to their door and send their girlfriend or boyfriend to jail," said the memo.

The bill was first introduced three years ago in response to the clergy sexual abuse scandal that continues to rock the Catholic Church nationwide. In widely publicized accounts, it was revealed the church routinely covered up for abusive priests, paid off victims and transferred priests to different parishes rather than contacting authorities.

McEneny's solution to the "high school sweetheart" dilemma is to require that those in professions that are mandated reporters only involve law enforcement if the presumed abuse is committed by other mandated reporters. For example, under McEneny's bill, a teacher would have a legal obligation to report abuse by a priest, but not abuse by a plumber.

McEneny said his bill would directly address the problem of members of the clergy covering up for one another.

Other professions who are mandated to report abuse include health-care professionals, day-care workers, counselors and law-enforcement personnel.

Outside of the one phrase, the rest of the two bills are essentially the same. They would require that the records of a clergy member accused of abuse - dating back 20 years for a retired priest, with no time limit for those in active ministry - be turned over to law enforcement officials.

They also provide the same reporting agency: law enforcement for abuse committed by a non-related person and the hotline for abuse committed by a family member.

The bills would not require members of the clergy to report allegations that were disclosed in confession.

Failure to report would be a class A misdemeanor under both versions.


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