Md. Panel Rejects Child Abuse Bill after Uproar
Catholics Objected to Plan to Require Clergy to Report Details from Confessional
By Jo Becker
March 1, 2003
Outraged Catholics beat back a proposal in the Maryland General Assembly yesterday that would have expanded child abuse reporting requirements for clergy members, persuading lawmakers to kill a measure that Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick said would violate the sanctity of the confessional.
Lawmakers were deluged with complaints after McCarrick, who leads the Archdiocese of Washington, published an article last week in the Catholic Standard raising the specter of priests going to jail in civil disobedience protests. Yesterday, sponsors of the measure gave up after members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee voted unanimously against it.
"I must have gotten 1,000 e-mails," said Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr. (D-Prince George's County), one of the 11 committee members to vote against the measure.
The proposal would have required priests to report any information about child abuse obtained in the confessional unless it was a direct admission from the perpetrator.
Officials from the Washington and Baltimore archdioceses mounted an aggressive lobbying campaign, arguing that the bill would have required priests to break church law -- and be excommunicated for doing so -- by violating the sacramental seal of the confessional.
Maryland law requires all citizens to report suspected child abuse but, as in many other states, contains a broad exemption for clergy members. Child abuse prevention advocates, backed by victims who say they were abused as children at the hands of priests and others, argued that the exemption was too broad.
They also hope to extend the time limit for victims of child abuse to file civil suits against perpetrators and the institutions that protect them, a measure that is still under consideration. Currently they have until age 21.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said that measure has broader support.
Virginia resident Mark Serrano, of the national advocacy group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he was disappointed by yesterday's vote.
"If the church is truly committed to the principles of healing for victims and protection for children, they would roll up their shirt sleeves and work with abuse survivors," Serrano said.
The Catholic Church's clout has been tested in legislatures across the nation in the wake of revelations that church officials have covered up abuse by priests and reassigned them to other parishes.
Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the Washington Archdiocese, said it has long instructed its clergy and lay employees to report any abuse they learn of outside the confessional and provides counseling for those who say they were abused. But the problem with extending the state's civil statute of limitations, she said, is that it is very difficult for institutions to defend themselves against charges of long-ago abuse.
Lawmakers who supported the two measures complained about what they called McCarrick's heavy-handed methods and the church's refusal to compromise. "There was no talking to them," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore). "They were unwilling to meet."
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