Confession Would Stay Secret in Proposal to Report Abuse

By David White
The Birmingham News [Montgomery AL]
April 3, 2003

MONTGOMERY Pastors, priests and other clergy would have to report known or suspected cases of child abuse or neglect, with one big exception, under a proposal approved Wednesday by a legislative panel.

The exception: No member of the clergy would be required to report information gained solely by a confession or in a conversation shared confidentially with a member of the clergy acting in a professional capacity.

For instance, a pastor visiting a church member's home would have to report known or suspected child abuse the pastor observes, lawmakers said, but the pastor would not have to report abuse confessed privately by an abuser.

Lawmakers said the exception would protect the age-old confidentiality of confessions while further protecting children who are neglected or abused physically, mentally or sexually.

"Anything we can do to protect any child is a good thing," said the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Alan Boothe, D-Troy. "Sometimes we take better care of our dogs than we do our children. I think that's a shame."

The judiciary committee of the state House of Representatives approved the bill by voice vote. The 105-member House could debate the plan as soon as next week.

A similar bill sponsored by Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, could be debated by the Senate as soon as today.

Ami Ennis of Montgomery, a field director for the Children's Trust Fund, a state child-abuse prevention board, said she supported the bill.

"Everybody needs to protect the child," she said.

State law already requires teachers, doctors, dentists, nurses, law officers, day care workers and many other professionals to report known or suspected child abuse or neglect to police of the state Department of Human Resources.

Knowingly failing to make a report is punishable by six months in jail or a $500 fine.

Boothe's bill would add members of the clergy to the list of people required to report child abuse or neglect.

The clergy includes any ordained, licensed or commissioned minister, pastor, priest, rabbi or practitioner of any established church or religious organization who, as a vocation, devotes a major part of his or her time to serving the church or religious groups.

Boothe said he did not sponsor the bill specifically because of recent child-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. "I just feel we need to do all we can to protect our children," he said.

Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, added, "I don't think you can look at this as a Catholic issue or a Protestant issue."

Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.