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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.)