There is little else as important as the safety, health, and wellbeing of our children. In an effort to protect our children, every state in the country has a statute that outlines who is required to make a report when they suspect or become aware that child abuse or neglect has taken place—they are referred to as “mandated reporters.” However, each state’s laws are different.
Most states require those who work directly with children, like teachers and doctors, to report any suspected abuse, but only 50% of states include clergy members in that category. Legislators in Virginia, however, are seeking to change the laws in their state in order to add members of clergy to their list of mandated reporters.
Nearly every state has laws on the books that require any citizen who learns of a crime against a child to report it, but if a person who is designated a mandated reporter fails to report, he or she can be charged with a crime. A mandated reporter would be breaking the law if he failed to report any suspected child abuse or neglect. If a citizen fails to make a report, there is very little legal recourse that can be taken against them because they do not have the designation of a “mandated reporter.”
Clergy Members as Mandated Reporters
Twenty-eight states and Guam include members of the clergy as mandated reporters, but Virginia is not one of them. When a 16-year-old in Virginia informed her parents that she had received sexually implicit text messages from the youth leader at her church, her parents immediately informed their pastor. The pastor, Pastor David Baird, said the church would investigate, but the youth leader who sent the text messages also happened to be his son. Whether the church actually investigated or not is unknown, but law enforcement was not informed.
Nothing ever came of the parents’ report to the Pastor, and many other girls in the congregation reported sexual misconduct of varying degrees. After the authorities became aware of the allegations, they told the girls’ parents that no legal recourse could be taken against Pastor Baird as he was not required by law to alert them. Had the Pastor been required to alert the authorities, however, it’s possible the girls the youth leader allegedly abused could have been protected from what may have been a serial child molester.
In an effort to change the law and prevent these situations from occurring in the future, many parents involved in in this case contacted their state representative, Karrie Delaney, who joined other legislatures in introducing a bill.
Most states that include clergy members in their list of mandated reporters also allow for clergy penitent privilege. In other words, if a clergy member becomes aware of the possible assault or neglect of a child during the course of pastoral communications, that conversation could be considered privileged, and the member of the clergy would not be required to make a report. A classic example of clergy penitent privilege would be if a Catholic priest learned of abuse during the course of taking confession. This is where the waters become murky. Exactly what is considered a privileged “pastoral communication” is different in each state and is mostly decided on a case-by-case basis.
Opponents of laws like the one Virginia argue that the relationship between a member of clergy and his or her congregation is sacred and laws making clergy mandated reporters would dissuade congregation members from seeking counseling from their clergymen.
Proponents of these laws argue that it is a clergy member’s responsibility to protect our children and that the need to protect of our children outweighs the need to protect the confidentiality of the congregation members.
Virginia’s current bill would allow for the clergy penitent privilege to remain in place. The bill proposed by Virginia’s legislators has not been voted on, but a sponsor of the bill, Senator Jill Holtzman, said she is “cautiously optimistic” that the bill will become law.