Saturday, November 12, 2011

Penn State Sex Scandal Sparks Child-sex Reporting Debate

Click (HERE) to sign petition to make it a Pennsylvania state law for witnesses of sex crimes against children to notify police immediately

In light of the recent Penn State scandal, featuring child-sex-predator, Jerry Sandusky; a new dialogue and debate has be introduced to the public about obvious changes that need to take place in our criminal justice system, particularly in regard to reporting child sex crimes. Many are now speaking out, calling for Pennsylvania to toughen their law on reporting these crimes. In more than 40 U.S. states, the law requires these reports be made to police or child-protection authorities swiftly and directly, with no option for delegating the task to others and then not following through. Many are asking to make it a Pennsylvania state law for witnesses of sex crimes against children to notify police themselves rather than pass their information on to superiors at work; this includes school and hospital employees.

Yet, the real dilemma of child-sex crime reporting over the years lies within the laws of the Catholic Church, and many states have recently revised their mandatory reporting laws to include clergy as mandatory reporters. There are currently 26 states that include members of the clergy, among other professionals, who are specifically mandated by law to report known or suspected instances of child abuse or neglect; eighteen of those states, however, only appear to include clergy in their “all inclusive” language, but may be interpreted otherwise (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2010). Not only is it troubling that all states do not make it a requirement for anyone to report such heinous acts, clergy included, but the states that do “mandate” such reporting need to be more clear in their words.

As a doctrine of most faiths, clergy must maintain the confidentiality of pastoral communications. Yet, the ethical goal of protecting our children appears to clash with the pastoral ethic of confidentiality. Nonetheless, in the case of mandatory reporting of child abuse, this should not be seen as a challenge to the principle of pastoral confidentiality. Likewise, secrecy may also support, maintain, or even perpetuate the secret of child abuse. As Sissela Bok, prominent professor and Senior Visiting Fellow at Harvard School of Public Health, pointed out on the matter, “The premises supporting confidentiality are strong, but they cannot support practices of secrecy—whether by individuals clients, institutions, or professionals—that undermine and contradict the very respect for persons and for human bonds that confidentiality was meant to protect” (Bok, 1983).

All 50 states have passed some form of mandatory child abuse and neglect reporting, under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA – Jan. 1996 version), 42 U.S.C. 5101, and the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act of 2003 (P.L.108-36). The controversial exclusion comes by many states leaving out clergy members from mandatory reporting. This fight goes all the way back to our founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson was the first to raise the concept of separation between church and state in his letter to Danbury Baptists Association in 1802 (Jefferson’s Wall of Separation Letter, 1802). The phrase was adopted and quoted by the United States Supreme Court in 1878, and later in a series of cases starting in 1947 (Hall, 2000). This fight still goes on today and is the reason why some states do not have mandatory reporting for clergy.

The media is an essential component to growing public knowledge of child abuse and neglect; through ongoing news and feature reporting of specific cases, the media can instantly bring cases to public attention in mass—making a story water-cooler-talk almost instantaneously or through a constant barrage of stories and keeping child abuse and neglect on the political agenda. The death of eight-year-old, Sarah Payne, from the United Kingdom in 200, prompted the News of the World to start a campaign called “Named and Shamed” (Goddard & Saunders, 2001). The campaign vowed to name all 110,000 sex offenders in Britain in order for people to keep track of sex offenders living close by. In the case of Megan’s law, Megan Kanka’s parents received 430,000 signatures to change the existing Wetterling Act of 1994 (Fenton, 2000).

The great majority of those signatures came from those who had heard about the story through constant media attention. In this way, the media can affect change in these states by calling people to write letters to their congressman or go online and sign a specific document prepared beforehand that calls for change of law. Another great way for the media to intercede is for them to do several investigative—Geraldo-type—pieces in which they name several congressman and parishes who are against this mandate and expose them, even rushing them as they go to their offices and asking them pointed-questions. This would put public pressure on these individuals to come up with a solution.

Even though California has mandatory reporting, they still have a huge problem when it comes to clergy child abuse. In California more than 850 civil cases are pending against Roman Catholic dioceses filed by plaintiffs who allege they were abused by priests and other church officials; with some cases dating back more than 70 years (AP, 2004). The first child abuse reporting law in the state of California was enacted in 1963, and only required physicians to report physical abuse (California Department of Social Services, 2003). Over the years there have been several amendments, which expanded the definition of child abuse and the persons required to report it (California Department of Social Services, 2003). Today, Clergy members are among the professionals required to report child abuse. According to current California law—Article 2.5., of California’s Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act (2009) 11165.7(a)(32)—“clergy member” means “a priest, minister, rabbi, religious practitioner, or similar functionary of a church, temple, or recognized denomination or organization” (Article 2.5., 2009).

However, under section 11166(d)(1) the law exempts clergy members from reporting known or suspected child abuse when the knowledge is acquired during “penitential communication,” which is defined as “a communication, intended to be in confidence, including, but not limited to, a sacramental confession, made to a clergy member who, in the course of the discipline or practice of his or her church, denomination, or organization is authorized or accustomed to hear those communications, and under the discipline, tenet, customs, or practices of his or her church, denomination, or organization, has duty to keep those communications secret” (Article 2.5., 2009). The main organization in California helping in the fight against child abuse is the Child Abuse Prevention Center, which provides training and resources, and an administrative facility that is home to numerous non-profit agencies all working collaboratively to prevent child abuse.

Back in 2004, the Diocese of Orange in Southern California was ordered to pay 87 victims—who were molested by 43 Catholic priests, nuns, teachers, even a choir director—$100 million, the largest payout so far in the Catholic Church's abuse scandal (Griffin, 2004). I agree with the decision to give the victims money, but I think that the Diocese of Orange in Southern California should have been ordered to close-down immediately. This church clearly has a culture of this type of abuse, and was not just seen in isolated cases. As Ray Boucher, lead attorney for the victims, stated, “No amount of money will replace their lost childhood and teenage years” (Griffin, 2004). The media was involved in the case, such as CNN and others, but they applied no pressure—i.e. they didn’t call on the public to protest the decision to keep the church open. The media simply stuck to straight reporting of the statistics, identifying other diocese who shared this problem.

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