Laws requiring most professionals dealing with children to report any suspicion of “child abuse” were put in place decades ago — with no studies beforehand to see if they would work. Now that mandatory reporting finally has been studied, the evidence shows that it has backfired.
Mandatory reporting drives families away from seeking help, and overloads the system with false reports, making it harder to find the relatively few children in real danger. Many one-time proponents have had second thoughts.
But instead of heeding that research, in several states, legislators have proposed expanding mandatory reporting into one of the few fields that has typically been viewed as sacrosanct: the clergy.
There are campaigns to include clergy in states where they are excluded from such mandates entirely, or eliminate an exemption for what is the literal and figurative sacred space of the confessional.
So in Delaware, the sponsor of a bill to eliminate the exemption declares: “I feel like anybody who fights this, it’s a little crazy. We are talking about the protections of children.”
Vermont, Hawaii and Washington are considering similar laws. In Washington state, a news story headlined “How Washington State Law Lets Clergy Hide Child Sexual Abuse” labels the clergy exemption a “loophole” on five separate occasions.
Sometimes even a church known for its commitment to social justice doesn’t get it. In New York, one of the states that exempt clergy from any mandatory reporting obligation, a Unitarian-Universalist minister said: “I’m really appalled that clergy aren’t mandated to report abuse and sexual misconduct already. We already have in my congregation rules to do that, but this should be mandated for all clergy.”
This concept is sure to backfire. It will do nothing to catch predators among the clergy. Meanwhile, it will take away what may be the one place an impoverished parent still can turn for help without fear of an investigation by the family police (a more accurate term than “child protective services”).
The reason expanding mandatory reporting to clergy has support in some quarters is obvious: What comes to mind when you hear the words clergy and child abuse? Priests raping altar boys — and bishops covering up the crimes. But expanding mandatory reporting will do nothing to fix that. Predator priests will be the first to know the law has changed — if they’re confessing now, they’ll stop or go to some other diocese where their voices won’t be recognized on the other side of the confessional. Others in the very rare cases involving people who beat and torture children but still feel a need to confess will do the same.
Sometimes survivors themselves, having been made to feel the abuse was somehow their fault, make their first disclosure in the confessional — precisely because they know they retain the right to choose whether to go to authorities. Consider what a survivor group said in Australia, where pedophilia scandals have led to similar campaigns to end the exemption for the confessional:
“The Seal offers victims a safe, secure and watertight place where they can be listened to without cost, where they can remain anonymous, and can decide what they’re ready, and not ready, to share — and all of this in complete confidence,” spokesman James Parker said.
“The Confessional Seal as it presently stands literally saves lives and offers every abuse victim the chance to begin to heal.”
And now consider some hypotheticals about others who might be affected:
- A mother is terrified. She’s being beaten by her husband. But when she threatened to go to the police he said: “Go ahead, call the cops! They’ll just call CPS and they’ll take away the kids.” She turns to her priest/minister/rabbi/imam and says: “Please help me to escape. Where can I turn to protect myself and my children?”
The clergyman replies: “I’m so sorry. I’m now a mandated reporter and you may have allowed your child to witness domestic violence if he saw or heard you being beaten. So I have to call child protective services.”
- A single father lost his job; now he can’t afford enough food for his children. He asks his minister if he could take a little more than usual from the church food bank. “Yes, I think we can arrange that,” the minister says. “But in this state, lack of adequate food is considered child neglect. Now that I’m a mandated reporter I also have to turn you in so child protective services can investigate you and see if your children should be allowed to live with you.”
- A single mother enters the confessional: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” she says. She explains that she’s guilt-ridden for having left her child home alone when she went to work and her regular childcare arrangement fell through. She didn’t know what else to do. Her boss said he’d fire her if she didn’t show up; then she wouldn’t be able to afford the rent and the family would be evicted.
After the priest prescribes the appropriate acts of contrition, the mother asks a question: Might the priest know someone in the congregation who could volunteer to provide childcare if this ever happened again? “As a matter of fact, I do,” the priest replies. “But it’s too late to do only that. You see, I am now a mandated reporter. What you did can be considered ‘lack of supervision.’ So I have to report you to child protective services.”
“But father,” the mother says. “This is confession — this is supposed to be sacred.”
“Not anymore,” the priest replies. “A local news website did a huge expose calling it a ‘loophole,’ so now I have to report anything that might be deemed abuse or neglect — even when I heard about it in confession.”
As it stands now, at least in some states, clergy are almost the only helpers to whom impoverished families can turn with less fear that they will be turned in to the family police. Once the word gets around that even the confessional isn’t safe, you can bet that parents like those in the hypotheticals above won’t come forward and ask for help.
The illogic of all this is further apparent when one considers what would remain sacred: a confession to any and every other crime. If someone confesses to aggravated assault, or rape, or murder, or if someone confesses that, inspired by Timothy McVeigh, he blew up a day care center, that stays between priest and penitent. But a mother who left her child home alone would have to be turned in.
I doubt that very many terrorists or murderers confess in real life — mostly it just happens on TV crime shows. But that’s the point. It’s all just performance art, but it’s a performance that can have dangerous consequences. Anything that further encourages the child welfare surveillance state mentality risks driving people away from seeking help.
Of course, it’s not a crime for lawmakers — and journalists — to rush into endorsing bad policy that doesn’t have a prayer of stopping actual child abuse because it sounds good in a press release or a news story. But it sure seems like a sin.