The Concord Monitor
is reporting that for the second time in three years, lawmakers have proposed a bill that would require religious leaders to report suspected cases of child abuse, even if they learn about that abuse in the privacy of a religious confession.
The Diocese of Manchester opposes the bill, saying it would interfere with religious freedom without making children safer.
The Child Protection Act, enacted in 1979, requires any person in the state who suspects abuse or neglect to report those suspicions to law enforcement. That law specifically includes religious officials. But another state law exempts clergy from having to testify in court about anything said in confession or in a similar spiritual-advice setting.
That ambiguity led Rep. Mary Stuart Gile, a Concord Democrat, to introduce a clarifying bill three years ago. Lawmakers killed that bill in 2004.
Church officials spoke out against the legislation yesterday.
"First of all, there's no question that child abuse is a terrible crime," said Diane Quinlan, chancellor of the diocese. Since 2001, the church has trained thousands of priests, deacons, employees and volunteers on the need to comply with the law that requires them to report abuse they learn about in all settings -with the exception of the priest-penitent confessional, she said.
Allowing a "limited exception" for confession is crucial to the free practice of Catholicism, said Quinlan, the highest-ranking lay official in the diocese. For the sacrament of penance - commonly known as "sacramental confession"- to be valid within the church, it needs to be strictly confidential. Any priest who violates that confidence would be excommunicated, she said. "That's how serious this is in our belief," Quinlan said.
Lobbyists from Child and Family Services - a nonprofit that advocates for the well-being of children - and the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic both spoke in favor of the bill, as did representatives of the Hillsborough County Attorney's office, which prosecuted the Jehovah's Witness case and provided victim advocacy services.
Northfield Police Chief Scott Hilliard, representing the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, also spoke, identifying himself as a practicing Catholic and eucharistic minister - and a former child-abuse investigator. "(We) feel it's important that there be no exemptions from the mandatory reporting statute," he said, supporting the bill.
The attorney general's office has not taken a position on the bill, but in a statement the office said the measure would conclusively resolve possible conflict in existing laws.
The subcommittee members expressed unanimity for the idea behind the bill - to protect children - but seemed mixed on whether it would be constitutional, practical, or both.
"How can we protect children without setting up an inherent constitutional conflict?" said Rep. Mary Beth Walz, a Bow Democrat. "Because I fear that's where we're going with this."
Getting Catholic priests to comply could be a major issue, said Rep. D.J. Bettencourt, the chairman of the subcommittee, whether or not the bill would be challenged legally. Bettencourt, a Catholic, said he consulted his own priest about the bill. His priest would rather go to prison than divulge something learned in confession, he said.
"I certainly don't want priests to go to prison," said Bettencourt, a Salem Republican.
Advocates for both sides yesterday cited U.S. Supreme Court cases that they said supported their positions about whether or not the bill would be constitutional. The subcommittee will meet again tomorrow morning to continue discussing the matter, with hopes of hearing from a constitutional lawyer.
"I feel that civil law supercedes canon law. But I'm not a Catholic, and I know that the doctrine of the confessional is very, very important to people who are Catholics,"Gile said afterward, adding that the bill is not about trying to single out one religion. "We have to protect our children."
An earlier bill that tried to compel religious figures to report abuse was sidelined because of a legal case that lawmakers hoped would resolve the issue.
Paul Berry, who belonged to a Jehovah's Witness congregation in Wilton, was convicted of abuse in 2000 and sentenced to 56 to 112 years in state prison. His daughter and stepdaughter sued the church in 2001, alleging that church elders repeatedly ignored their mother's complaints in the 1980s that Berry was abusing the girls. (The police later learned of the abuse through a teacher.)
According to the mother, the church elders said the matter should be handled by the church, not by secular authorities, and advised the mother to be silent about the abuse, pray and "be a better wife."
A superior court judge recognized the church's obligation to report abuse but dismissed the civil claims on the grounds that state law exempted church elders from revealing anything disclosed in confession. The sisters appealed to the state Supreme Court, which heard the case in late 2004.
Gile said she and others who supported the bill thought the high court would clarify the matter. "I just assumed that they would see the problem that was inherent in the two statutes," she said.
But the court issued a split decision in July that affirmed the trial court's dismissal without addressing the two laws.
"So I figured, let's try again,"said Gile, who sponsored both the previous bill and the new one, along with Rep. Don Brueggemann, a fellow Concord Democrat. The House Children and Family Law Committee held a hearing on the current bill earlier this month and referred it to a subcommittee, which held its first work session yesterday. Jeff's View from the Soapbox : I feel that this law should not pass. Not unless that is, that priests would be required to divulge ALL illegal activity, or at least those which rise to the level of felonies. To say it's ok to hide a murderer, but not a child abuser is ridiculous. All or nothing.