DC attorney general proposes bill to make clergy mandatory reporters

shutterstock 1272626302 Office of the Mayor and Council of the District of Columbia. | Jer123/Shutterstock

A law has been proposed in the District of Columbia which will broaden the classification of those required to report instances of child abuse or neglect. The bill would apply to clergy but make exceptions for the sacrament of confession.

"Teachers, health professionals, and clergy have a special responsibility to protect children, but far too often abuse goes unreported or is covered up," said Attorney General Karl Racine in a statement to the media.

"To help stop child abuse in the District, this bill requires more adults to report it and trains them on how to spot it."

A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington released a statement saying that the archdiocese was aware of the draft bill but had not yet seen a final version.  Director of Media and Public Relations Chieko Noguchi noted that the archdiocese had "long been supportive" of such policies.

Currently, everyone over the age of 18 in the District of Columbia is required to report suspected or known abuse of a child under the age of 16 to police. Mandatory reporters, however, are subject to enhanced requirements, and can receive thousands of dollars of fines and up to six months in prison for failing to report cases of abuse.

The new law would require training for mandatory reporters so they can better spot abuse and increase penalties for those who fail to report abuse.

The bill would extend to a range of positions and professions across church, state, and private insitutions, but provides explicit exemptions for the confessional, and priests would not be required to report abuse they learned about in that context.

"Ministers shall not be required to report 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, or of any personal observations made by the minister in the course of that communication," the bill states.

As long as the confession was made "in confidence," for "expressly for spiritual or religious purposes," the law would not apply to someone acting in a professional capacity for the church or organization to which the minister belongs.

Violation of the seal of confession is one of the gravest crimes in canon law, priests who do so are subject to a range of penalties, including removal from the clerical state.

A statement from the Archdiocese of Washington said that they were "appreciative" of how the Attorney General's Office had "shared its views and policies and procedures" for the protection of children as it developed the proposed bill.

The statement from the archdiocese said that it "has for many years trained and required all priests, religious, employees and all volunteers of the archdiocese to serve as mandated reporters, and 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."

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