Government's Role in Policing Church

By Teri Finneman
Dickinson Press
September 5, 2010

This week’s Ask Your Government question comes from a reader in northeastern North Dakota:

“Can the government step in and do an investigation into the Catholic Church clergy abuse of children and women instead of the Catholic Church policing itself?

Even in rural North Dakota, we aren’t exempt from this problem of clergy abuse. I’d like to know what the government has to say.”

A spokeswoman for the North Dakota U.S. Attorney’s Office said there would be “no comment from our office on this subject.”

North Dakota State’s Attorneys Association Executive Director Aaron Birst said: “From a legal perspective, law enforcement has the ability to investigate any person or organization that it suspects is or has been involved in criminal activity.

“Generally, those investigations start when someone makes a specific allegation of wrongdoing to a law enforcement agency or someone who is otherwise required by law to report the allegation.

“Law enforcement can seek court orders compelling searches for evidence, but those orders cannot be issued unless law enforcement first provides the court probable cause that such property, potentially, constitutes evidence of a crime.”

Marlys Baker, administrator of Child Protection Services with the state Department of Human Services, said: “County social service agencies accept all reports of suspected child abuse or neglect.

“When a county social service agency receives a report of suspected child abuse or neglect, the report is first reviewed to determine whether the report concerns a child under age 18. Adults who want to report past abuse are referred to law enforcement.

“Another part of this analysis is whether the person suspected of abusing the child was in one of the ‘caregiver roles’ listed in the North Dakota child protection law:

- A person who has responsibility for the care or supervision of a child and who is the child’s parent, an adult family member of the child, any member of the child’s household, the child’s guardian or the child’s foster parent.

- Employees and persons providing care for a child in a public or private school or child care setting.

“So, if a clergy person meets this definition, the social service agency will begin an assessment. If the person suspected of abusing or neglecting a child is not in one of these roles, social services cannot intervene, and it may become a law enforcement matter.”

Catholic Diocese of Fargo spokeswoman Tanya Watterud said information about what the Catholic Church has done nationally to respond to abuse is at

“The Catholic Diocese of Fargo reports incidents or suspected incidents of sexual abuse of minors to civil authorities as required by law.

For additional information about victim assistance, visit www.fargo

The Diocese of Fargo is audited for compliance with The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People annually, with on-site audits, like the audit currently underway for the Diocese of Fargo, being conducted every third year. It was found to be in full compliance with the charter following the 2009 audit.

Do you have a question for a state government official or agency? E-mail (Subject: Ask your government). You may also write to Teri Finneman c/o Forum Communications, Press Room, State Capitol, Bismarck, ND 58505.

Please include your name, town and a phone number to reach you for verification.

Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.


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