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 Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, WisconsinFebruary 28, 2003 Issue 

Make clergy mandatory reporters

Legislature should approve change in the law during this session


By John Huebscher

Wisconsin law, like that in most states, requires members of certain professions to report instances where they believe a child has been abused or neglected or when a child might be at risk of such injuries.

The justification for making certain professionals "mandatory reporters" is they see children regularly and their expertise helps them identify indicators of abuse and neglect.

Their reports are made to county law enforcement officials and/or county agencies charged with protecting children. These agencies investigate the report and determine if additional action is necessary.

As noted in a previous column (2/21), legislators are considering a proposal to add members of the clergy to this category of mandatory reporters. Such a proposal was considered nine years ago but did not become law. It should become law now.

Some have expressed concern that expecting clergy to report child abuse and neglect will threaten the free exercise of religion guaranteed by our Constitution.

While we should always take such concerns seriously, asking clergy to be mandatory reporters does the exercise of religion no harm.

In fact, diocesan policies in Wisconsin already require priests and other church employees to report abuse and neglect, even if not legally required to do so.

Moreover, laws in most other states already treat clergy as mandatory reporters. There is no evidence or indication that this requirement has interfered with the pastoral relationship between priests and lay people in those states.

As it did nine years ago, the draft legislation does not apply to information learned in the sacrament of confession or similar communications in other faith traditions where the clergy member has a duty to maintain confidentiality.

Further, since bishops do not hear confessions from priests in their diocese, anything a bishop hears about a priest-abuser will come to him outside the sacramental seal and would be reportable.

Still others are concerned that this provision will make priests and other clergy "informants" who will be compelled to pass on misleading or incomplete information that will result in the destruction of families or the loss of a person's reputation.

Certainly no one wants to see innocent persons harmed by false accusations. But just as mandatory reporters, by their experience, are able to discern when a child appears to suffer from abuse or neglect or is in danger of abuse or neglect, so do the investigators, whether in law enforcement or child protective services agencies, have experience to look beyond appearances and suspicions. They take this duty seriously.

Those who investigate reports take care to sift and winnow the cases where the child is in danger from those where he or she is not. As a result, unsubstantiated reports do not result in a formal accusation with the accompanying publicity.

No system is perfect. But perhaps all of us, especially children, are better served by a system in which reports of child abuse are investigated by those trained for the task.

Just as the opinion of an outside auditor adds credibility to parish and diocesan finance reports, so do the findings of trained investigators add credibility to diocesan policies intended to protect children.

For Wisconsin's Catholics, adding clergy to the list of mandatory reporters provides an opportunity to restore trust and live up to the vision of the Charter on the Protection of Children.

For Wisconsin's citizens, it provides an opportunity to strengthen our state's commitment to help vulnerable children. Such an opportunity should not be squandered.


(Huebscher is executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the civil arm of the state's five diocesan bishops. Its website is www.wisconsincatholic.org.)


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