State May Require Clergy to Report Abuse

By Steve Schultze and Marie Rohde
Downloaded January 11, 2003

A version of this story appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Jan. 11, 2003.

Wisconsin priests, bishops and other clergy could be prosecuted criminally for failure to report suspected sexual abuse of minors, and their churches could be sued for monetary damages by victims, under draft legislation unveiled Friday aimed at toughening the state's child protection laws.
The draft includes a provision that for the first time would require clergy to report known or suspected abuse, under penalty of a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. Information gleaned from "pastoral communication" - confessions or other confidential discussions - would be exempt.

The measure would expand the time period for victims pressing civil or criminal abuse charges, to ages 26 and 35, respectively. Wisconsin currently permits abuse lawsuits by minors only until the victims reach age 21, and court rulings have all but halted any attempts to sue clergy.

The proposed overhaul was the product of months of consultation with religious, child advocacy and law enforcement groups, said state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills). Darling and Rep. Peggy Krusick (D-Milwaukee) sponsored the measure but won't formally introduce it for several weeks in hopes of reaching a compromise acceptable to all sides.

"This is going to be a controversial bill," Darling acknowledged in an interview Friday. Wisconsin's law needs fixing to better protect children and bring it in line with more restrictive laws elsewhere, she said.

"Nationally, we are out of the mainstream," with weaker state abuse laws, she said. More than 30 states have open-ended periods for filing abuse suits, and 31 states already require clergy to report suspected abuse, according to research by Darling and the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information.

The law change is also needed because a 1995 state Supreme Court ruling suggests religious organizations can't be held accountable for an abusive priest, Krusick said.

An effort to upgrade Wisconsin's abuse law in 1994 ended in partial failure, after lawmakers were inundated with calls of protest from listeners of a conservative Christian radio station. The concern then, and likely now, was weakening the church-state boundary.

The legislation follows a year of startling revelations of abuse by Catholic priests around the U.S. and efforts by church officials to cover it up. Though the state law changes aren't limited to the Catholic Church, they were developed against a backdrop of the high-profile accounts of abuse by priests over the past year.

While some of the proposed Wisconsin law changes were cautiously praised by both church leaders and victim advocates, both sides Friday expressed reservations.

Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan was on a retreat and unavailable for comment Friday.

Wisconsin's Catholic bishops support mandatory abuse reporting for clergy, a stance they have had for nine years, said John Huebscher, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference - the public policy arm of the state's bishops.

However, he said the bishops have reservations about the broad circumstances the new bill says would trigger reporting - any information of possible abuse. Huebscher said bishops favored a more restrictive reporting requirement based on first-hand observations.

Huebscher also was leery of the extension of time limits for civil and criminal abuse cases, saying there needed to be a balance between the rights of victim and the accused.

And he wasn't ready to sign on to another key provision: subjecting clergy and churches to civil suits over abuse.

"Churches should not be held more liable than other entities for actions by their members that are clearly illegal, outside the expected scope of their duties," Huebscher said.

Darling, however, said the purpose of the bill would be to hold churches to the same - not a higher - standard of conduct for its employees as any institution.

Peter Isely, a spokesman for the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, said he was generally pleased with the proposed legislation, but he said his group wanted a limited period in which any case could be filed, regardless of its age. Isely said nearly 100 lawsuits had been filed or were being prepared when they were halted by the 1995 ruling.

A recent California law opened a one-year window starting Jan. 1 for victims of child sexual abuse to file lawsuits, regardless of when the molestation occurred.

Darling said the California law is under challenge and it's unclear whether it can withstand judicial scrutiny.

The Rev. Vic Eliason, the conservative Christian founder of a Milwaukee radio and television ministry who opposed the '94 legislation, remains opposed, he said Friday.

"Any time a man of the cloth falls under the regulation of the state, then the principle of separation of church and state goes out the window," Eliason said. "Mandatory reporting would make a clergyman an agent of the state."


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