Key point 4-08. Every state has a child abuse reporting law that requires persons designated as mandatory reporters to report known or reasonably suspected incidents of child abuse. Ministers are mandatory reporters in many states. Some states exempt ministers from reporting child abuse if they learned of the abuse in the course of a conversation protected by the clergy-penitent privilege. Ministers may face criminal and civil liability for failing to report child abuse.
It is common for ministers to learn that a minor is being abused. This can occur in a number of ways, including a confession by the perpetrator, or a disclosure by a friend or relative of the victim or perpetrator. Often, ministers want to resolve such matters internally through counseling with the victim or the alleged offender, without contacting civil authorities. Such a response can have serious legal consequences, including the following:
ministers who are mandatory reporters under state law face possible criminal prosecution for failing to comply with their state's child abuse reporting law;
some state legislatures have enacted laws permitting child abuse victims to sue ministers for failing to report child abuse; and
some courts have permitted child abuse victims to sue ministers for failing to report child abuse.
As a result, it is imperative for ministers to be able to answer the following questions: (1) What is the definition of reportable "child abuse" under my state child abuse reporting law? (2) Am I a mandatory reporter of child abuse? (3) What if I learn of child abuse in the course of a conversation that is protected by the clergy-penitent privilege? Am I still required to report? (4) How do I report child abuse? Each of these questions is answered in the table that accompanies this article, based on the current child abuse reporting laws in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
What is child abuse?
All 50 states have enacted child abuse reporting statutes in an effort to protect abused children and prevent future abuse. Child abuse is defined by most statutes to include physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and sexual molestation. A child is ordinarily defined as any person under the age of 18 years. Some states specifically limit the definition of "child abuse" to abuse that is inflicted by a parent, caretaker, or custodian. Such a statute, if interpreted narrowly, might not require ministers and lay church workers who are mandatory reporters of child abuse under state law to report incidents of abuse inflicted by custodians, associate ministers, adolescents, or volunteer youth workers.