Senate panel gets first look at bill to scrap clergy exemptions for reporting child abuse and neglect

VTDigger [Montpelier VT]

February 22, 2023

By Alan J. Keays

A proposal to do away with clergy exemptions for reporting child abuse and neglect got a first look Wednesday from a Vermont Senate committee. 

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee took no action on the bill, S.16, after listening to several witnesses speak about it. The senators said they wanted to hear from more witnesses, including constitutional scholars.

Vermont law says members of the clergy are obligated to report abuse and neglect, but the law adds exemptions for what they learn while hearing a confession or acting as a spiritual adviser.

According to current law, the exemptions include information received in a communication that is:

  • Made to a member of the clergy acting in the capacity of a spiritual adviser.
  • Intended by the parties to be confidential at the time of the communication.
  • Intended to be an act of contrition or matter of conscience.
  • Required to be confidential by religious law, doctrine or tenet.

The bill would do away with those exemptions. Vermont is one of 33 states with exemptions for clergy in laws requiring mandatory reporting of child abuse, Benjamin Novogroski, legislative counsel, told committee members Wednesday.

A person who violates the mandatory reporting requirement faces a fine of up to $500. If a person violates the mandate with the intent to conceal abuse and neglect, the penalty can be up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. 

Under the law, Novogroski said, a mandated reporter who reasonably suspects child abuse or neglect must report those suspicions within 24 hours after the information was first observed or received.

“What this does is, it would mandate clergy to report any information that they received reasonably suspecting child abuse or neglect,” Novogroski said of the bill. 

“There does seem to be some concern over whether or not this could create a conflict with canon law for certain religions, essentially placing priests in a position where they have to keep confessions confidential or abide by the law,” he added. “I’m not an expert on what the consequences would be if they went against canon.”

Novogroski also said court rulings are “sparse” on whether such a law would interfere with a person’s constitutional right to practice religion.

Sen. Robert Norris, R-Franklin, a committee member, said he has questions about what would happen if a person violated the law because it went against their beliefs.

“How would you ever know?” he asked.

“I think how people would find out would be as unique as each situation,” Novogroski said, adding that the legislation would apply to all religions, not just Catholics and confessions. 

Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio, who testified on the legislation Wednesday, said his office “doesn’t have a particular position” on the proposal, but his office would challenge it on the First Amendment’s freedom to exercise religion if it came up in court.

Judge Thomas Zonay, chief superior judge, also testified, and declined to take a position. He said it’s a policy matter that it’s up to lawmakers to decide.

Aryka Radke, deputy commissioner of the Family Services Division in the state Department for Children and Families, spoke in favor of the legislation.

“Because of DCF’s particular role, which is in service to the most vulnerable children and youth in our state and to protect them from harm, eliminating this clergy exception could provide an additional path for reporting child abuse, which is definitely consistent with our department’s child welfare mission,” she said. “And for that reason, we are in support of the bill.”

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the committee chair, did not take part in the hearing. He left the committee room Wednesday before the hearing after testing positive for Covid-19.

Sears, in speaking about the bill earlier this year to The Associated Press, said he had been unaware that the mandatory reporting law contained exemptions for clergy.

“My gut reaction is nobody should get a free pass,” Sears told the AP.

As Wednesday’s hearing came to a close, Sen. Nader Hashim, D-Windham, said he wanted to hear from the Vermont Attorney General’s Office and constitutional scholars before taking action on the legislation. 

Norris also said he wanted to hear from Vermont Catholic Bishop Christopher Coyne on the issue. Email and phone messages sent Wednesday to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington seeking comment were not returned. 

No date has been set for the committee to take up the bill again.