Washington • District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine is proposing legislation to add clergy to the list of mandatory reporters who must tell authorities about suspected child abuse or neglect, the latest fallout from a growing clergy sexual-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.
Racine's bill also would require mandatory reporters to attend training on their responsibilities under the law and would increase penalties for failing to report abuse. Survivor advocates have said training and penalties are important for making such measures effective.
Clergy, teachers, health-care workers and others would face fines of as much as $2,500 and 180 days in jail upon the first failure to report.
"Teachers, health professionals, and clergy have a special responsibility to protect children, but far too often abuse goes unreported or is covered up," Racine, a Democrat, said in a statement. "To help stop child abuse in the District, this bill requires more adults to report it and trains them on how to spot it."
All adults in Washington are already required to tell civil officials if they suspect that a child under 16 is being sexually abused. But the requirements of mandatory reporters - and the penalties - are much more extensive and include threat of abuse, neglect or prostitution, as well as past cases.
Clergy are mandatory reporters in 28 states, according to the Children's Bureau, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
If the 13-member D.C. Council and Mayor Muriel Bowser approve Racine's legislation, clergy would be required to report suspected abuse to police or to the Child and Family Services Agency, as well as the leaders and board of directors of their own religious institutions.
Racine's office has been proactively meeting with faith groups in the nation's capital to discuss his proposal.
His aides originally considered mandatory reporting of sexual abuse even if accusations were revealed in confidential conversations with clergy, including during confession - a sacrament in Catholic doctrine for parishioners to seek forgiveness for their sins. Several representatives of different religions raised concerns about protecting the rights of clergy to have confidential conversations with their parishioners.
But Racine's bill has an exception in such circumstances, saying ministers are not required to report abuse if "the basis for their knowledge or belief is the result of a confession or penitential communication made by a penitent directly to the minister."
Texas, West Virginia and a few other states do not exclude the confessional in mandatory-reporting laws.
Racine says that the part of his bill that would require mandatory reporters to inform the leadership of their church, school or day care about sexual abuse claims is necessary to protect all the children in the institution. But one rabbi said this could lead to unverified claims spreading around the community.
"Rabbis shouldn't be deciding what's true - that's the civil authorities' job," said Shmuel Herzfeld, rabbi of Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue, a modern Orthodox community in Washington
D.C. Council member Charles Allen, who chairs the public safety committee and successfully sponsored legislation to extend the statute of limitations to prosecuting childhood sexual assault, said religious freedom concerns would be the toughest part of passing mandated reporting among clergy.
"I would want to tread very carefully to understand how do you protect somebody who has suffered sexual violence and also to make sure you understand the religious construct, but I'd probably almost always err on the side of protecting the individual who suffered violence," Allen said in an interview last month. "I can see there would be questions or concerns about it, but that's why any proposal would go through a public hearing."
The legislative proposal in Washington - and a similar one in Virginia - comes as the past two D.C. Catholic archbishops remain at the center of a national clergy sex abuse crisis. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, current administrator of the Washington archdiocese, was criticized in a Pennsylvania grand jury report last summer for being inconsistent in his handling of abusers. The report came out a few weeks after Wuerl's predecessor in Washington, Theodore McCarrick, a towering figure in the U.S. church, was suspended after church officials found credible an allegation that he groped an altar boy decades ago in New York.
Racine announced in October that his office was investigating sexual abuse in the church, using his authority to enforce laws that govern nonprofits.
Wuerl apologized last week for untruthful statements about his knowledge of sexual-misconduct allegations against his predecessor.
A spokesman for the Catholic archdiocese of Washington said their office had not seen the proposal and couldn’t immediately comment. For decades, the archdiocese has had an official policy of requiring abuse and neglect to be reported to civil officials. The archdiocese “has long been supportive of policies that required all public and private institutions to meet a similar standard for the protection of young people and the vulnerable in their care,” Ed McFadden wrote in a statement.