Ministers are mandatory child abuse reporters in many states, either because the child abuse reporting law defines mandatory reporters to include "ministers," or because the law makes "any person" a mandatory reporter of child abuse. In other states, ministers may be mandatory reporters if they perform the duties of one of the specified categories of mandatory reporter. For example, a minister may be a mandatory reporter because he or she is a teacher or administrator at a church-operated school, or serves as a counselor.
No state clergy-penitent privilege statute or rule specifies that the privileged nature of a communication exempts a minister from complying with child abuse reporting requirements. However, several child abuse reporting laws 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 should also note that states can differ on definitions of an "abused" child. For example, several state child abuse reporting laws provide that no child who is being treated solely by spiritual means through prayer in accordance with the tenets and practices of a recognized church shall, for that reason alone, be considered to be an "abused" child. It's important to be informed about child abuse reporting laws in your state and to know your own legal obligations for reporting.
Adapted from "12 Lessons from Penn State's Abuse Scandal," Church Law & Tax Report, May/June 2012.
Richard Hammar's most recent list of child abuse reporting laws for churches is the 2015 Child Abuse Reporting Laws for Churches.
For information on how churches can help prevent abuse, check out Reducing the Risk.
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