Clergy Must Report Child Abuse Cases

By Marvin Eckfeldt and Mary Ellen Stone
Seattle Post-Intelligencer [Seattle WA]
Downloaded March 19, 2003

Clergy play an important role in the lives of their congregants. People turn to their priest, rabbi, minister or imam in times of great stress. Most of the time we are equipped to counsel our parishioners through these events but sometimes there are situations that require the help of secular professionals.

Sexual assault is one of those. Although no one wanted to admit it 20 years ago, today we know sexual assault happens among families that regularly attend houses of worship; even trusted clergy can be perpetrators. For too many families, the horror is very real. One in three girls and one in five boys will be victims of sexual abuse before they're 16. These are not random -- nine of 10 children who came to King County Sexual Assault Resource Center last year knew their abuser, and nearly half were victimized by a family member.

Historically, the perpetrators of sexual assault have been protected by silence and shame surrounding the whole topic. Clergy, like teachers, doctors, nurses and others, must help end the silence. Victims need specialized counseling -- beyond what we were taught in seminary -- to be able to move forward with their lives and become survivors.

The state Senate is considering a bill that goes a long way to raise awareness and open communication in faith-based communities by making it mandatory for all clergy members to report suspected child abuse and neglect the same way teachers, law enforcement officers, physicians and other professionals who work with children already do.

We in the religious and sexual assault prevention communities see this legislation as vital to protect children and a long-overdue step to correct a serious omission in Washington's reporting laws. Most states already have the requirement for clergy. Recognizing the inherent ability to help prevent abuse, the House passed House Bill 1054 with overwhelming support.

Now, it's up to the Senate, where the bill is opposed because some lawmakers are concerned about implementation of the policy and the availability of training and resources for clergy. Opponents are reluctant to increase the number of mandatory reporters, which will put a greater workload on an already overburdened Child Protective Services and other state agencies. And some feel the legislation will place significant legal responsibility on clergy members and religious organizations without providing adequate resources or a support system to help them fulfill the mandate.

These concerns are legitimate but surmountable; like a speed bump in front of an ambulance, it would be disastrous for such a minor obstacle to stop the driver when a passenger's life is at risk. The House was unequivocally correct in supporting this legislation, and senators must recognize that while our state reporting system may be less than perfect, it's no reason to leave children in danger.

Fortunately, religious organizations no longer need to handle these issues alone. There are accessible, professional resources available to train clergy in the reporting process and help faith-based communities develop formal prevention and reporting policies.

More than 10 years ago, the First Christian Church of Kent turned to KCSARC to help create a plan to proactively address issues of sexual, emotional and physical abuse. Working together, we defined clear procedures to screen personnel and train church leaders and staff to properly identify abuse and report to law enforcement. We not only helped raise awareness of abuse and sexual assault prevention methods among church staff and volunteers but gave young church members important safety information through prevention curriculum incorporated into youth education programs in the local congregation and summer church camps.

KCSARC is one of many accredited community sexual assault prevention programs in the state equipped to train mandatory reporters, including clergy and church members. If the unthinkable does happen, KCSARC counselors also are available to help all victims and their families recover from the trauma of sexual assault and can work in conjunction with clergy providing spiritual support.

In a legislative session of tough decisions, this bill should be a no-brainer. With the absence of clergy from state reporting laws, we're missing out on the opportunity to increase awareness and prevent abuse for thousands of kids in some of the largest and most pervasive communities. Lawmakers have the ability -- and the duty -- to close this gap and expand the net of protection for children.

Rev. Marvin Eckfeldt, now retired, was a pastor at the First Christian Church of Kent for 33 years. He is vice-president of the KCSARC Board of Trustees. Mary Ellen Stone is executive director of KCSARC;

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