News: Making the Clergy Tell

Critics say abuse-reporting rule is too weak

Apr 13, 2005 at 2:06 pm
David Sorcher

Christy Miller, abused by a Catholic priest, says proposed rules for reporting abuse are too loose.

Soon Ohio law will finally require clergy to report suspected cases of child abuse and neglect — sort of.

Promoted as the "clergy abuse bill," Senate Bill 17, unanimously passed by that chamber, is now pending in the Ohio House of Representatives. Supporters want passage during April, which is Child Abuse Prevention Month. But the bill limits the amount of actual protection it provides children.

Senate Bill 17 would add clergy to the group of people required to report to police suspicions of child sexual abuse; the law now requires reporting by teachers, counselors, medical personnel and others.

But the bill stipulates that only accusations made against people acting on behalf of the church — and deemed "known or reasonably suspected" — are subject to reporting by clergy. Accusations against volunteers are excluded. More importantly, any abuse outside the church doesn't fall under this law and the reporting that is required includes a significant loophole.

"If a child goes up to a priest and says, 'This happened to me,' the priest is not necessarily obligated to report that," says Christy Miller, co-leader of Cincinnati Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "The key words are 'reasonably' and 'suspected.'

All they have to say is, 'I thought (the accusations) were made up' or 'I didn't believe what I saw' and they get out of it."

Catch 'em if you can
Miller's co-leader, Dan Frondorf, says the new requirement does little.

"The mandatory reporting is smoke and mirrors when it really doesn't require them to do anything," he says.

The Catholic Conference of Ohio (CCO), which lobbies on behalf of the Ohio bishops, helped draft the law. The Catholic Church has done everything necessary to train clergy, staff and volunteers to prevent abuse, according to Tim Luckhaupt, executive director of the CCO.

"The Catholic bishops approved a charter for the protection of young people and children," he says. "They made various promises to do things so that these events never happened again and to deal with the persons who have been abused, no matter how long ago the abuse took place."

But clergy won't have to report all cases of abuse. The bill maintains the "sacred trust" exemption. Any confidential communication between any cleric and another person, including a report of sexual abuse, is considered a "sacred trust," giving the clergy a privilege similar to attorney-client or doctor-patient.

If passed, the bill won't make a difference to many religious institutions with extensive training and strict reporting policies already in place. Cannon Ann Wrider of Christ Church Cathedral, coordinator for sexual misconduct and abuse training for the Episcopalian Church in Southwest Ohio, says reporting is as a moral obligation.

"I tell our people, 'Whether or not you are legally mandated to report, you are morally mandated,' " she says. "We tell people to err on the side of reporting too much."

Similarly the clergy, staff and volunteers at the interdenominational Crossroads Church are extremely cautious about charges of abuse, according to Darin Yates, executive director.

"We have a policy that, if we suspect or if a child brings up abuse, we report it to 241-KIDS," he says.

While not pleased with the ambiguity of the reporting language, Miller says SNAP supports the bill.

"It's a step in the right direction," she says. "Is it everything it needs to be? No. The most important part is the extension of the reporting."

SNAP was instrumental in amending Senate Bill 17 to include changes in the statute of limitations for lawsuits over child sex abuse. Initially SNAP opposed the legislation because it mandated only reporting.

The organization brought in people from all over the state to testify before the Senate to explain why the change was needed.

'We ask for time'
Studies have proven that it takes most child victims a long time to report abuse, Miller says.

"It's been proven in psychological studies that victims don't come forward at least until their late 20s or mid-30s," she says. "It's not that they don't remember being abused. Children that are abused are silent. As much as you tell your child, 'Tell me, tell me, tell me,' they don't. They're threatened. They're told that their parents won't believe them. Oftentimes they or their loved ones are threatened with physical harm if they say anything, and they can't come forward with that information until adulthood."

The proposed bill gives a victim up to 20 years after turning 18 — up from the one-year statute of limitations under current law — to file suit. This would bring the civil code into alignment with the criminal code. In 1799 the criminal code extended the statue of limitations to 20 years.

Another victory for the victims is a "look back window" allowing anyone who was abused in the past 35 years to file suit against her or his abuser during the 12-month period following passage of the law. If a person turned 18 in 1970 she or he would be ineligible; only victims aged 52 or younger could participate.

The CCO supports the change in the statute of limitations but opposes the "look back window."

"In a lot of cases, the persons who committed these crimes are dead," Luckhaupt says. "Memories fade, facts are no longer (available) to determine what truly happened. That is the reason for the statue of limitations."

Miller sees it differently.

"We're not changing evidence laws," she says. "The only thing we ask for is time. If you give us the time, we can prove our cases."

Miller charges that the church opposes the clause because it opens the door for more litigation against the Catholic Church. Luckhaupt doesn't argue.

"There's only a certain amount of money we can come up with," he says. "There's only a finite amount of money. No amount of money is going to heal some of the wounds that have been inflicted upon people, so what we have done is we have finally become very pro-active in dealing with this situation."

He says the Catholic Church has taken steps, including the payment of damages, needed to effect real healing. In addition to apologizing to victims, the church has provided free counseling services and support, Luckhaupt says.

Miller believes public disclosure is another means of healing — and preventing — abuse. She reported being abused by a priest in her school in 1985 and has a lawsuit pending. Through her research, Miller learned that she was one in a long line of victims a priest abused as early as his days in the seminary.

"I want my perpetrator's name on a legal document stating that he did this," she says. "That way we have a means to stop him and others."

Court documents can be used to notify employers, such as school districts or counseling centers, of perpetrators' past behavior, Miller says.

Wrider believes religious institutions are a breeding ground for perpetrators.

"The reason that the church has been particularly vulnerable to childhood sexual abuse is because we, as church people, tend to be in such denial about it that we cannot imagine that anyone would do anything like that in our church," she says. "We wouldn't (abuse), so we naively assumed that nobody would. And that has made us a prime target for predators."

Rabbi Ruth Alpers, campus chaplain at Hebrew Union College, agrees.

"(Abuse) happens in all the faith traditions and it's tremendously under-reported," she says. "Anything involving children — whether it's a member of the clergy, a teacher, a coach — is predatory in nature and that person should not be allowed to be with that population until the situation is resolved to everyone's satisfaction. This is my own feeling based on my own training. I've always considered myself a mandated reporter, and I teach my students accordingly."

Studies show that 86 percent of all victims know their abusers, so the likelihood that abuse still occurs within religious institutions — as it does in families, neighborhoods and scout troops — is high. But Luckhaupt seemed surprised at the notion.

"I just can't imagine that it's going on and I don't think that it is," he says. ©