By: Kevin M. Ketner, Penn Law
Spurred into action by the recent Catholic Church child sex abuse scandals, lawmakers from Virginia and Washington, D.C. have announced their intent to propose legislation that would add clergy members to the list of people legally required to report cases of suspected child abuse or neglect.
In an article published by the Washington Post, Michelle Boorstein reveals that the recent sex abuse scandals in churches and organizations involving young athletes “have prompted conversation about broadening legal responsibility to extend beyond positions such as teachers and doctors.”
Penn Law works with clients seeking justice against institutions and organizations that choose to harbor those accused of sexual misconduct, rather than protecting the children entrusted into their care. For example, we have represented numerous victims of abuse by the Catholic Church, including recent filings against the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta.
The same archdiocese led opposition against the Hidden Predator Act, legislation proposed in the 2018 Georgia General Assembly that would have extended the statute of limitations for victims from age 23 to 38 and created other avenues for adults to sue long after that age. It passed unanimously on the floor of the House of Representatives last spring but was defeated in the Senate following an intense lobbying effort by the church, the Boy Scouts, and other entities fearing greater risk of financial liability.
Legislative efforts focused on former victims of abuse in Georgia and other states have encountered heavy resistance, D.C. and Virginia lawmakers hope extending mandatory reporter requirements to clergy members will quell future instances of abuse and prevent children from becoming victims.
D.C. Attorney Karl Racine has even proposed removing the confidential conversation exemption for mandatory reporters, “possibly including those that occur in the Catholic Church’s confessional.” Racine also recently shared other key goals for the legislation, including:
- Requiring mandatory reporters to report suspected abuse, even if they don’t personally know the child, or even if the child is now an adult;
- Requiring mandatory reporters to report suspected abuse to their own boards of directors, thus extending responsibility to their institutions;
- Increasing the penalty for people who fail to report; and
- Requesting funding to train mandatory reporters on their obligations.
In Virginia, Senator Janet Howell of Fairfax County and other delegates have sponsored narrower legislation that is scheduled to be considered before the state legislature during the upcoming legislative session, which begins January 9, 2019.
While the current draft of the proposed legislation adds clergy to the list of mandatory reporters, it also contains an exception for when a faith’s doctrine requires the report “to be kept confidential.” Specifically, this carve-out was added to protect the Catholic Church’s confessional.
According to the Children’s Bureau, an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services that works to end child abuse, twenty-eight states currently make clergy mandatory reporters. However, these laws vary drastically between states, especially regarding religious leaders and whether their confidential conversations are protected.
In light of these recent proposed legislative responses to the Catholic Church child sex abuse scandals, lawmakers in other states may soon decide to mirror these proposals. They may adopt similar mandatory reporter laws or bolster their existing legislation through the removal of confidential conversation exemptions. Some may opt to add requirements similar to what Racine recently proposed for new legislation in D.C.
Kevin M. Ketner is a law clerk at Penn Law. He graduated from Clemson University with a B.S. in 2015 and will earn his J.D. from the University of Georgia School of Law May 2019. At UGA, Kevin participates in the Prosecution Clinic with the Morgan County District Attorney’s Office and serves as an Articles and Notes Editor on the Journal of Intellectual Property Law. In the Fall of 2018, he was selected as a Pupil for the Orr Inn of Court.