Nassau Requires Churches to Report Sex Abuse Complaints

By Bruce Lambert
New York Times
April 30, 2002

Garden City, NY - The Nassau County Legislature voted unanimously today to require religious organizations to report complaints of child sex abuse to the district attorney -- a measure legislators said they believed was the nation's first local law dealing with the sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy.

Adjacent Suffolk County may not be far behind. Offering a different solution to the problem, one legislator, Jon Cooper, today proposed a bill to require businesses and institutions doing business with Suffolk to report abuse cases. The county hires church groups to run various programs.

And in Albany, state lawmakers are also responding to the growing public debate over the Roman Catholic Church's handling of sexual abuse cases. The legislators are considering expanding state laws to add the clergy to the list of professionals -- including teachers, doctors and social workers -- who are required to report suspicions of child abuse to a state registry, which prompts investigations by child-protection workers.

Nassau's new law specifically mandates the reporting of complaints to the district attorney by bishops, pastors, rectors, priests, rabbis, ministers, imams, nuns and other religious figures of authority. The district attorney is then required to report to the state registry. The law is not retroactive and applies only to future incidents of abuse.

"We're here to fill the gap left by the State Legislature," said the author of the Nassau law, Legislator Lisanne Altmann, a Democrat. "We want to make sure our children are protected." She voiced hope that new statewide legislation would supersede Nassau's law. "Our idea is to be the catalyst," she said.

In Suffolk, Mr. Cooper predicted passage of his bill within a few weeks.

How Nassau's law will be enforced is not clear. The county district attorney, Denis Dillon, sent a representative to the legislative session who questioned the law's constitutionality in singling out the clergy. The representative, Lawrence Zinn, also questioned Nassau's power to legislate on an issue covered by state law.

Although Mr. Dillon has said his office will investigate all allegations of sexual abuse, Mr. Zinn declined to say if the office would prosecute religious authorities who violated the new law by failing to report abuse. Violations are punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or a year in prison.

Coinciding with today's vote, Mr. Dillon issued a statement saying that the statute of limitations prevented prosecution of the sex abuse complaints in the files that he recently subpoenaed from the Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre, which covers Nassau and Suffolk. Complaints from other sources also were too old, he said.

Mr. Dillon urged better state laws "to require all individuals and organizations that work with young people to report any allegations of abuse."

Suffolk's district attorney, Thomas Spota, who has convened a special grand jury on sex abuse complaints against priests, declined to comment on his investigation or on the new local legislation.

In the diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., officials said today that the Rev. William D. Donovan, the pastor of Holy Family Church in Fairfield, had resigned on Saturday after being convicted of drunken driving and amid recent allegations that he had once had a sexual relationship with a young male parishioner.

Father Donovan, 66, was convicted today by a State Superior Court judge of a third drunken driving charge and sentenced to 150 days in jail, according to a statement from the diocese.

Diocese officials said they learned of Father Donovan's alleged sexual misconduct on Thursday, during a meeting between church officials and the parishioner and his stepfather. On Friday, the diocese referred the matter to the state's attorney's office, which is investigating it, a prosecutor said.


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