Bill No Longer Requires Clergy Report Abuse
Lawmakers Cite Confidentiality Issues and Constitutionality Concerns

By Lynn Okamoto
Des Moines Register [Des Moines, Iowa]
Downloaded February 21, 2003

The Iowa House has decided against adding clergy to the list of "mandatory reporters" required by law to report suspicions of child abuse to the state.

House File 156 was scheduled to be debated on the House floor this week. But House Majority Leader Chuck Gipp, a Decorah Republican, said Thursday that lawmakers had too many concerns about the bill and support waned quickly.

"In many cases, your priest, your minister, your clergy, is the ultimate trust person that you can go to," Gipp said. "If you take away that option because now you have suspicion about anything you might say might be held against you, it would become a problem."

Supporters of the legislation were bewildered by the turn of events, especially since the legislation was supported by clergy such as the Rev. Joseph Charron, bishop of the Des Moines Catholic Diocese, and the Rev. Jerome Hanus, archbishop of Dubuque.

"We're as surprised as anyone," said Sara L. Eide, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference. "This bill came out of committee without significant dissent."

Lawmakers who opposed the bill said they feared that putting mandates on clergy would violate the constitutional separation of church and state. They also were worried about intruding on the confidentiality between priests and parishioners.

"Essentially, what we're doing is making every minister of every religion an arm of the state," said Rep. Jim Kurtenbach, a Nevada Republican. "For me, that's moving the wrong direction in child protection."

More important, Kurtenbach said, it would be wrong for the government to interject itself into a relationship in which many Iowans feel they have a level of trust.

"People have to have someone in a position of authority, in a fiduciary, who they can go talk to without fear of reprisal by the government," he said.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a Des Moines Democrat, pointed out that 33 states already include clergy as mandatory reporters of child abuse.

"I have not heard any opposition against this bill from any of our denominations," said the Rev. Sarai Schnucker Beck, executive director of Ecumenical Ministries of Iowa. "I am surprised it appears to have been killed, especially because clergy are already mandatory reporters in a majority of states."

The legislation would not have required clergy to report information disclosed in confession. It would have exempted clergy from mandatory reporting training.

It also wouldn't have addressed concerns from last year's Catholic sex abuse scandal. That's because the bill would not have required clergy to report on other clergy in all circumstances. The bill only addressed abuse committed by "caretakers" of children. Caretakers under state law are defined as people who have direct supervision of another person.

Like other bills in the Legislature, this one could resurface in another form, or as an amendment to another bill. A related piece of legislation, House File 133, will be considered by the House as early as next week, Gipp said.

More reaction

EPISCOPAL: "Keeping God's people safe under all circumstances is a sacred responsibility of the church," said the Rev. Mollie Williams, an Episcopal priest and interim dean of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, 815 High St., Des Moines, who considers herself a mandatory reporter of child abuse regardless of what state law says. "The only circumstance under which I am not obligated to report is when the information has been shared with me under the sacrament of confession."

LUTHERAN: "I am sorry to hear the bill apparently won't be considered," said the Rev. Philip L. Hougen of Iowa City, bishop for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Southeastern Iowa Synod. "I had no problem with the bill. Our church policy is consistent with the bill and our clergy would report suspicions of child abuse to proper authorities in any event. I think we need to give a priority to protecting our children."

CATHOLIC: "The bill being killed probably relieves individual priests and pastors of a certain amount of pressure," said the Rev. James Barta, vicar general of the Catholic archdiocese of Dubuque. "The diocese will report cases of child abuse brought to us. We feel the protection of young people in these matters can be promoted even without the mandatory reporting bill."


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