Bill: Clergy Must Report Abuse
Proposed Law Allows Exceptions for Confessionals, Counseling; Moves on to Senate

By Bill Barrow
The Mobile Register [Montgomery AL]
April 9, 2003

MONTGOMERY -- The Alabama House of Representatives approved a bill Tuesday that would add clergy to a list of professionals who must tell authorities about known or suspected child abuse, unless they learn about it during confession or counseling.

Failure to comply would constitute a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $500.

With the 92-2 vote, the proposal now moves to the Senate, where a companion bill already has passed a committee. The same version must clear both houses of the Legislature and receive the governor's signature to become law.

The proposal comes in the wake of a recent series of sexual abuse scandals involving Catholic priests around the country.

Since Rep. Alan Boothe, D-Troy, introduced the bill, sex abuse allegations have surfaced against the Rev. J. Alexander Sherlock and other priests in the Mobile Archdiocese of the Catholic Church. Mobile District Attorney John Tyson Jr. is investigating those cases.

Under the proposed law, Mobile Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb would have had to report at least some of the charges against Sherlock.

The bill faced only slight resistance in the House, mostly from members with technical questions.

Its fate in the upper chamber could be determined more by a power struggle over Senate operating rules than on the bill's merits. Only one bill has cleared both chambers since the session opened March 4.

Aides to Gov. Bob Riley said he would sign Boothe's bill.

Lipscomb has said he supports the bill, which also carries the endorsement of Attorney General Bill Pryor -- one of Sherlock's former parishioners -- and also the state's leading children's advocates.

In presenting the bill to his colleagues Tuesday, Boothe did not mention the Mobile-area cases, instead casting the bill as a "child protection" measure.

He did say that public attention on the Sherlock scandal raised legislators' awareness and aided the bill's swift passage.

Rep. Jim Barton, a Mobile Republican and one of Sherlock's former parishioners, credited his vote for the bill to the recent disclosures of archdiocesan officials.

"If we weren't going through this dark time, I'm not sure I could support your bill; but we should take advantage of this opportunity today," Barton said.

A McGill-Toolen Catholic High School graduate, Barton is one of five Catholics in the House, according to legislative records.

Boothe introduced the bill at the request of Kelly Hawkins, a Miss Alabama contestant who has incorporated the issue into her platform. Hawkins' father, Jack, is chancellor of the Troy State University System. Boothe is a Troy State employee.

Teachers, day care workers, doctors, nurses and police officers are required under existing law to report known or suspected abuse to the Department of Human Resources or law enforcement.

Boothe told colleagues that he did not know why clergy are exempted from the current law, though many lawmakers credited the omission to a respect for separation of church and state.

By exempting "confidential communication," Boothe said, that separation remains intact. "This is not regulating someone's faith," he said during debate.

Still, Rep. Jeff McLaughlin, D-Guntersville and a Catholic, told Boothe on the floor that the bill, though "well-intentioned," could have "unintended consequences" for members of the clergy.

"I am concerned that we will step into an area that is sacrosanct," McLaughlin said, minutes before voting against the bill. "We will now be telling the clergy 'you must report something' rather than leave to their consciences how they should handle their jobs."

Rep. Greg Albritton, R-Excel, cast the other vote against the bill, citing a concern that it would unnecessarily affect part-time or volunteer church employees.

Albritton offered an unsuccessful amendment that would have applied the disclosure requirement only to "full-time, paid" clergy.

"If we're going to include criminal penalties here," he said, "it should be the responsibility of senior ministers."

"Clergy," as defined by current state law, includes "any duly ordained, licensed, or commissioned minister, pastor, priest, rabbi, or practitioner of any bona fide established church or religious organization."

According to published reports, at least 29 states do not exempt ministers or priests from reporting requirements. At least 10 other states have considered such bills in the last year, although some failed over religious freedom concerns.

Some states have tried to force priests to report things they hear in confession.

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