March 22, 2002

NEW YORK (AP) - The child-molestation scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church has led to a push in some states for laws adding the clergy to the list of professionals such as doctors and teachers who are required to report abuse.

Over the years, many states, wary of invading the privacy that protects confessions and spiritual counseling, have placed no legal obligation on the clergy to report suspicions of child abuse.

But child advocates say the laws need to be strengthened following accusations that some dioceses covered up sex charges, sometimes transferring pedophile priests from parish to parish.

``Anyone who deals with children - whether it's a coach, the band instructor, the priest or the summer camp counselor - anyone who is in a position of trust needs to be responsible,'' said Chris Monaco, director of the child abuse hot line for Childhelp USA, an advocacy group.

Massachusetts, where the Boston Archdiocese is at the very center of the scandal, is considering legislation to require clergy to report abuse. So are New York and Wisconsin. New Hampshire added such a provision last year. Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the group supports toughening the reporting laws as long as the privilege of confession, and other private conversations with worshippers, are protected.

``If clergy know that they must, outside of sacramental privilege and those seeking pastoral guidance, report incidents of molestation of children, they will feel more comfortable in sharing that kind of information, and they will realize the church is taking this seriously,'' he said. In all states, the law requires professionals who work with children - such as doctors, teachers and social workers - to report abuse.

Twelve states specifically require clergy to report suspected abuse, according to the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information, a federal agency. Several of those states exempt information learned during confession or spiritual counseling.

An additional 16 states have laws saying in broad terms that anyone with knowledge of abuse should report it.

In Massachusetts, the House and Senate have each passed bills but have yet to agree on how to exempt the various types of conversations considered sacred by different denominations.

The majority of child abuse reports are filed by those required under law to do so. In Connecticut, for example, 62 percent of the 28,304 child abuse reports received by the Department of Children and Families in 2001 came from people obligated to report such allegations.

The penalty under the various mandatory-reporting laws is usually a fine, and prosecutors rarely go after those who fail to report abuse.

In addition, states whose reporting laws extend to the clergy have limited definitions of the abuse they must divulge. For example, clergy in Connecticut do not necessarily have to report colleagues they suspect of abuse. They simply must report allegations that involve a teacher, guardian or caregiver.

Still, such laws ``send a message that the state takes the issue of child abuse seriously, and that we expect all Californians to do everything within their power to prevent child abuse and identify abusers,'' said Nathan Barankin, spokesman for the attorney general in California. The state is among those that require clergy to report abuse.

Some church leaders say the obligation should have certain conditions. Cardinal Edward Egan said this week that the New York Archdiocese would report allegations if it found probable cause after its own investigation, and if the alleged victim consented.

``We have to respect the rights of all persons involved, the rights of the accuser as well as the rights of the accused,'' Egan said.

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