Beyond the Roundhouse: Law Would Make Clergy Responsible for Reporting Child Abuse

By Susan Montoya Bryan
Associated Press State & Local Wire
February 12, 2003

At 39, Tom Nowak has a degree from a prestigious photography school, extensive knowledge about designing web pages and musical talent. But he doesn't believe he has much to show for it.

Unemployed and plagued by self-doubt, he still lives with his parents north of Albuquerque and finds himself unwilling to try new things for fear of failure.

"The last thing I finished was college. Everything I start, I just never finish it," the soft-spoken man says.

His mother, Marlene Debrey-Nowak, says her son has a beautiful singing voice, knows how to play the trombone and has an eye for taking pictures. But it's been a long time since he used any of these talents, and she thinks she knows why.

Nowak was abused while he was an altar boy during the 1970s. He suffered in silence for months before finally gaining enough courage to tell his devoutly Catholic parents.

The abuse stopped after Nowak's mother reported it to church officials, but the damage was done. Nowak's faith disappeared and he was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Nowak and his mother are hopeful a bill pending before New Mexico lawmakers will be the first step toward keeping other families safe from the long-lasting effects of abuse.

Rep. James G. Taylor, D-Albuquerque, wants to add clergy to the list of professionals who have a specific duty to report known or suspected child abuse to authorities.

"In terms of the issues the Vatican has been dealing with and the Catholic community elsewhere, I think we need a direction in New Mexico statute so that we can make sure more people don't become victims," Taylor says.

New Mexico's current law states that "every person" is responsible for reporting child abuse. It also specifically mentions doctors, nurses, police officers, teachers, school officials, judges and social workers as those with a duty to report abuse.

Taylor hopes that adding clergy to the list would prevent the kinds of scandals that have rocked the church.

"It's not a matter of grandstanding," he says. "It's just the right thing to do."

The proposed law would apply whether the suspected perpetrator is a fellow clergy member, a parishioner or someone else. Clergy, however, would not have to report information disclosed during the sacrament of confession.

Those accused of violating the law would face a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to a year in prison and/or a $1,000 fine.

More than a dozen states already include clergy as mandated reporters of abuse, and lawmakers in Washington, Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia are considering similar measures.

Taylor has the support of the New Mexico Catholic Conference, which is made up of the state's three Catholic diocese, and the New Mexico Conference of Churches.

Archbishop Michael Sheehan, leader of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, says clergy in his diocese already consider themselves mandated reporters of child abuse under the current law and that church doctrine encourages all clergy members to abide by local laws and report abuse.

"And we're committed to that," Sheehan says.

Victims advocates contend the church's attitude was one of secrecy before the priest abuse scandals broke in the 1990s. They say Taylor's legislation would put the church on notice that it will be held accountable for keeping children safe.

"These laws need to be in place in every state to protect the vulnerable from those abusers in positions of trust and authority," says Mary Grant, head of the western chapter for the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "These laws will help break the good old boy network among the clergy."

Catholic leaders in New Mexico say they have been working for years to ensure their parishes are safe by expelling priests who are guilty of sexual abuse and establishing strict guidelines for screening and training would-be priests.

When Sheehan took over the Santa Fe archdiocese in 1993, he removed 20 priests and instituted a "zero tolerance" policy for abusive priests.

The archdiocese was hit by a series of sexual abuse allegations in the early 1990s, with some cases dating back decades. The allegations mushroomed into more than 180 lawsuits and claims that cost the archdiocese over $50 million in settlements.

Nowak's case was one of those. The Rev. Arthur Perrault was accused of molesting him, his brother and other boys during the mid-1970s. Perrault disappeared after allegations of his sexual misconduct surfaced in 1992 and his whereabouts remains unknown.

In Gallup, Bishop Donald Pelotte forced sex offenders in the diocese to leave their positions when he took over in 1990. He also implemented background checks for all employees and volunteers.

And in Las Cruces, Bishop Ricardo Ramirez drafted a comprehensive policy spelling out the responsibility of all diocese employees, including clergy, to report abuse.

Santa Fe attorney Steven Tinkler, who brought nearly a third of the abuse cases against the Santa Fe archdiocese, acknowledged that the situation in New Mexico has improved.

But given his experience with the church in the courtroom, he says including clergy in the reporting law would be an important step toward greater accountability.

"I believe it's necessary because of the history," Tinkler says. "When these cases were most prevalent eight to 10 years ago, initially their position was they didn't have a reporting responsibility."

While Nowak says that adding clergy to the reporting law now would be a move in the right direction, he does not believe such a law would have helped him through the Catholic climate of the 1970s.

"The church still would have put it under the rug. They would have found a way to hide things, to put blame on other people," he says.

Archbishop Sheehan says he has offered a personal apology to past victims. His advice is to them, and to others Catholics hurt by the scandal, is not to put their faith in priests or bishops.

"We are all human beings and we do the best we can but sometimes human beings fail," Sheehan says. "Your faith should depend on God."


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