D.C. Attorney General Karl A. 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.
If the bill is approved by the D.C. Council and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), pastors, rabbis and other clergy would be required to report suspected abuse to police or to the Child and Family Services Agency, as well as the leaders and boards of directors of their own religious institutions.
Racine’s bill also would increase penalties for failing to report abuse and require all mandatory reporters — clergy, teachers, health-care workers and others — to attend training on their responsibilities under the law.
Mandatory reporters would face fines of as much as $2,500 and 180 days in jail upon the first failure to report. Survivor advocates have said training and penalties are an important part of making such requirements effective.
“Teachers, health professionals, and clergy have a special responsibility to protect children, but far too often abuse goes unreported or is covered up,” Racine (D) 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 D.C. are already required to tell authorities if they suspect that a child under 16 is being sexually abused. The requirements of mandatory reporters, however, are more extensive.
Among the requirements, mandatory reporters must inform authorities about threats as well as actual alleged incidents of abuse, neglect or prostitution. They also are required to inform about cases even if they occurred long ago.
The legislative proposal in the District — and a similar one in Virginia — comes as the past two Catholic archbishops of D.C. remain at the center of a national clergy sex abuse crisis.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, current administrator of the D.C. archdiocese, was criticized in a Pennsylvania grand jury report last summer for being inconsistent in his handling of abusers.
Wuerl’s predecessor in D.C., Theodore McCarrick, a towering figure in the U.S. church, has been suspended a few weeks earlier, 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.
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. Some reporting provisions have raised concerns among religious leaders and advocates for potentially weakening clergy members’ ability to keep their conversations with parishioners private.
Racine’s office originally considered requiring mandatory reporting even if allegations were revealed in confidential conversations with clergy. The requirement would have included information obtained during confession — a sacrament in Catholic doctrine through which parishioners seek forgiveness for their sins.
But after conversations with faith groups, the attorney general added an exception in such circumstances, saying clergy 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.
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue in Northwest Washington questioned the provision in Racine’s bill that requires mandatory reporters to inform church leaders, which he said could lead to unverified claims spreading around the community.
“Rabbis shouldn’t be deciding what’s true — that’s the civil authorities’ job,” Herzfeld said.
Racine said the provision is necessary to protect other children in the institution.
D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the public safety committee, said he had not yet read Racine’s bill and did not have a position.
“I have to do my due diligence to consider and weigh the balance between religious liberties as well as protecting survivors and those who have been abused,” said Allen, who successfully sponsored legislation last year to extend the statute of limitations for prosecuting childhood sexual assault. “I would err on the side of those survivors and those who are abused.”
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.