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.
* A federal court in Washington ruled that a mandatory child abuse reporter's failure to report the abuse of a minor by a church worker could result not only in criminal liability for the reporter, but also civil liability for the reporter and his employing church. A minor (the "plaintiff") who was sexually molested by a church worker sued the church, claiming that it was liable for the worker's acts on the basis of its failure to comply with the state child abuse reporting statute. The church insisted that the state child abuse reporting law imposes criminal liability on mandatory reporters who fail to report abuse, but does not explicitly impose civil liability, and therefore the plaintiff could not sue the church for monetary damages in a civil lawsuit. The court conceded that courts in other states have generally refused to allow victims of child abuse to sue mandatory reporters who fail to report, but it noted that all of those rulings were in other states.
The plaintiff acknowledged that the reporting statute did not explicitly authorize civil lawsuits for failure to report, but argued that such a right could be "implied" from the statute. It pointed to a Washington Supreme Court case that articulated three factors for the courts to consider in deciding if a statute creates a civil remedy: "First, whether the plaintiff is within the class for whose benefit the statute was enacted; second, whether legislative intent, explicitly or implicitly, supports creating or denying a remedy; and third, whether implying a remedy is consistent with the underlying purpose of the legislation." The court concluded that these factors supported a finding in this case that the state child abuse reporting law created a civil remedy in favor of abused minors and against mandatory reporters who fail to report abuse: