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Are clergy members required to report child abuse suspicions?

Most people would feel a moral obligation to go to law enforcement if they believed a child was being sexually abused. It is, quite simply, the right thing to do. For members of some professions – including clergy – the rules are sometimes different.

There are certain circumstances under which clergy members in most states are not required to inform law enforcement of suspected child abuse. Here is an explanation of why.

Mandated reporters and state laws

Many states have laws about reporting child abuse, PEW Stateline explains in a report. In general, there is an expectation that someone who learns of possible child abuse report it to authorities. In addition, many states specify certain professionals as “mandated reporters.” In these cases, a mandated reporter can face criminal penalties if they hear about child sex abuse allegations and do not provide that information to law enforcement.

Twenty-eight U.S. states specifically list clergy members as mandated reporters. Eighteen others require anybody – including clergy – who suspects child abuse to inform authorities.

However, there are some exceptions to these laws that apply to clergy.

Clergy-penitent privilege and pastoral communications

Of all the states that require clergy to report suspected child abuse to authorities, some carve out an exception for pastoral communications. These are private conversations between a clergy member and another individual that is seeking consultation. Confession is one example of this.

Under the doctrine of many religions, these types of conversations are considered sacred and must remain confidential. This is called clergy-penitent privilege – similar to doctor-patient privilege, or attorney-client privilege.

There are 31 states, including Michigan, that specifically grant an exception to clergy members who learn of suspected child abuse during the course of pastoral communications. That means they are not legally required to report it to authorities, as they otherwise would be.

Six states – New Hampshire, West Virginia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Texas – outright deny clergy-penitent privilege when it comes to reporting suspected child abuse.

What the future holds

Time and time again, we have seen evidence uncovered that clergy members took drastic steps to cover up what was happening, not only excusing the behavior but enabling it. By choosing not to report what they learned to law enforcement, they failed countless children.

Some states, in the wake of continuous news reports concerning clergy sexual abuse over the past 70 years, are choosing to focus in part on mandated reporting and pastoral communications. Virginia in 2019 made clergy members mandated reporters (though with the pastoral communications exception). Washington D.C. has explored doing the same.

For survivors who feel ready to pursue accountability, know there are options to get help doing so.

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