Wisconsin currently bars victims of child sex abuse from bringing legal action after age 35.
The bill would also grant those previously unable to pursue legal action because of the statue of limitations a three year window after its passage to do so.
“Every 9 minutes, Child Protective Services agencies substantiate or find strong evidence indicating a child has been the victim of sexual abuse,” Chris Taylor, sometime public policy director for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, said Aug. 7.
She claimed that “in Wisconsin, clergy are not mandatory reporters of most child abuse, unlike large categories of physicians and health care providers, school teachers and staff, counselors and social workers, to name a few. And members of the clergy do not have to report the sexual abuse of children, even by other clergy members, if they received evidence of this abuse through private, confidential communications.”
Priests who violate the seal of confession by sharing anything learned within the sacramental context to anyone, at any time, for any reason is subject to automatic excommunication and and further punishments, including loss of the clerical state.
Vercauteren said priests already have an obligation to report child abuse committed by other clerics. The 2004 Clergy Mandatory Reporter Act already requires that they report any knowledge of sexual abuse gleaned in any circumstance but confession.
“With the clergymen reporting, there is actually an additional requirement instituted at the time [of the previous bill],” she said.
“If they have a reasonable case based on information received or observations made to presume that child abuse is occurring or will occur that they have to report that as well as relates to another member of the clergy,” she said.
Vercauteren emphasized the importance of the confidentiality of confession. She said the anonymous structure allows the penitent to be truly transparent, while a lack of secrecy might otherwise prevent this vulnerability.
“If you look at our teaching, [confession] is ultimately between the person and God, and the priest acts as an intermediary in that relationship,” she said. “The need for secrecy and to be able to candid in that circumstance is kind of the whole premise behind confession that this is the opportunity to completely unburden your soul.”
She said the confessional has not been used as a tool to conceal sexual abuse in the past, nor has the bill cited such a case. She said the bill ignores difficult practical obstacles, like the anonymous structure of the confessional, where many Catholics confess from behind screens.
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When asked about how Catholics can best respond, she said parishioners should encounter victims with compassion and learn more about the safety measures already in place.
“Catholics should always respond with care and consideration for the victims. I can’t stress that enough because these individuals have suffered irreparable damage in their lives and we have to meet them where they are at in this process.”
“There are ways in which we can provide greater reporting of child abuse in Wisconsin and elsewhere, expanding that to other forms of abuse or setting up a third party reporting mechanisms.”
She stressed the importance of investigational reviews from third parties. She said numerous dioceses have begun to involve themselves with outside independent groups to review records and confirm the diocese is aligned with reporting policies.
“We are serious about doing something about child abuse and trying to help them surviving what has been a horrendous act in their lives,” she said.
A similar bill was introduced in California this year, but it was withdrawn before it was to be debated in committee.
California's Public Safety Committee had released a report on the bill raising a number of First Amendment concerns.