State Senate: Toughen Abuse Law
Clergy Must Report: Senators Pass Bill; House Review Is Next in Springfield

By Colt Foutz
The Herald News
May 10, 2002

A plan to require churches to immediately report instances of suspected child abuse gained ground Thursday as the Illinois Senate unanimously passed House Bill 5002.

The amendment to the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act would require clergy members and church ministers to immediately report suspected abuse to the Department of Children and Family Services.

A "religious summit" Thursday at Benedictine University in Lisle drew more than 30 leaders from several area churches, who met with DuPage County State's Attorney Joe Birkett to discuss the amendment in detail.

The meeting was the second of its kind this week. On Monday, Birkett met in Chicago with church representatives. Reaction to the amendment was positive at both meetings, he said.

"I think that especially the Roman Catholic church's leaders now recognize the tremendous tragedy of failing to report what happened," Birkett said. "No one's interest is served except the abuser who escapes justice. For the victim, there is the horrible nightmare that nothing has been done when the abuse is reported. And that period is over in Illinois."

If passed, the amendment would hold church leaders to the same standard as school officials, social workers, teachers or psychologists, who are already required to report physical and sexual abuse of children to civil authorities. State law now permits — but does not require — church officials to report abuse.

The proposed amendment also extends the statute of limitations for crimes of sexual abuse to 10 years beyond the victim's 18th birthday. Currently, victims of child abuse must report the crime by the time they turn 21.

The proposed change will not require clergy members to report confessions made to them in a spiritual setting, a confidentiality that has long been protected.

The Rev. Hugh Anderson, head of Procopius Abbey in Lisle, attended the meeting and supports the bill. Allowing clergy to maintain the privilege of confidentiality in matters of confession or counseling, he said, enables the church to remain a safe and private first step to get help.

"If a person knows it's confidential, then healing is capable of being experienced," he said.

Birkett did encounter resistance from at least one clergy member — whose name Birkett would not reveal — who thought that requiring churches to report abuse violated separation of church and state.

"I respect that view," Birkett said, "but we've researched the issue, and I don't think it's unconstitutional. If I did, I wouldn't put my name on it."

The meetings also served as a forum for church leaders to seek clarification of some parts of the bill, including whether churches should be required to post phone numbers where victims can get help. That will be left up to individual churches, said Laura Pollastrini, a spokeswoman from Birkett's office.

All church members in a ministerial capacity — whether they are priests, lay ministers or Sunday school teachers — will be required to report cases of abuse, Pollastrini said.

Another issue — what constitutes a "reason to believe" abuse is taking place — was clarified to church representatives.

"It can't be like a third-hand rumor that's running around the church," Pollastrini said.

The amendment is scheduled for House review before the General Assembly's scheduled adjournment May 17. Rep. Patti Bellock, R-Westmont, is thought to be a candidate to sponsor the bill, Pollastrini said. Dan Cronin, R-Elmhurst, sponsored the amendment in the Senate.

If the bill becomes law, the state's attorney's office will sponsor an orientation in the fall for church leaders to go over their new responsibilities, Pollastrini said.

Contact reporter Colt Foutz at (630) 416-5196 or


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