Should Clergy Report Confessions of Child Abuse?

It's a dilemma that crosses denominations. And the laws can be surprisingly inconsistent.

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A parishioner, wracked with guilt, goes to his minister to confess the unthinkable: that he has been sexually abusing a child. But that minister, instead of going to police, decides to pray w­ith the abuser instead.

On the face of it, this seems a legitimate ethical dilemma for any minister --   keep the confession confidential or turn that person in. But is it? This scenario actually happened in 2003 at Homestead Heritage, a religious community in Waco, Texas.   The confessor ultimately gave himself up to police a year later, but the specter of his confession reappeared in 2009 when another man from the same community was also prosecuted for child sex abuse and was sentenced to 35 years earlier this month.

Secular society would say there is no choice: pedophiles should be stopped and children protected at all costs. But it's a dilemma that has dogged some religious denominations for a while. Where penitent-clergy privilege is not protected by law, is a minister's loyalty still to his confessor? The question is complicated by the fact that there is no legal uniformity across the U.S.; in some states, the law is gray at best. In Virginia, for example, the confession box is sacrosanct and a priest is not compelled to report a child abuser. In Texas, meanwhile, the clergy is offered no such privilege .

Under the Texas Family Code, all professionals who suspect abuse or neglect of children are obliged to report their concerns to police or child protective services within 48 hours. The law applies to clergy as well as schoolteachers, doctors, nurses, therapists, mental health professionals, social workers, child-care providers and others. Failure to comply is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $4,000, up to a year in jail, or both. Before this law was introduced in 1995, the legal code simply held accountable "any person having cause to believe" the abuse was happening. But even then, an Attorney General's opinion in 1985 clarified that this category certainly included clergy.

Twenty-six states currently specify members of the clergy among professionals required to report child abuse. In 18 other states, "any person" who suspects child abuse is required to report--a mandate that would appear to include clergy but could be interpreted differently.

To clear up what is essentially a legal mess and--for some, a moral minefield--Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) introduced the Speak Out to Stop Child Abuse Act in November, a bipartisan bill that would require all adults to report.

Child welfare campaigners say it can't come fast enough. Jim Hmurovich, president of Prevent Child Abuse America, supports mandatory reporting for everyone, but he warns that any such law needs to be thoroughly considered first. "There must be a political and a public will to promote public awareness of the requirement, provide adequate and on-going training, and a willingness to enforce it."

Many religious denominations agree. Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention says professional privilege is not as ironclad for protestant pastors. "And I think 99 percent of ministers would say the first requirement is to protect the innocent."

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Alex Hannaford is a British journalist based in Texas, where he writes about human interest and political issues, religion, crime and culture. You can follow him on Twitter @AlHannaford and read more of his work at his website and blog.

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