Ministers and other church leaders can learn that a minor is being abused in a number of ways, including an allegation brought forward by a victim, a confession by the perpetrator, or a disclosure by a friend or relative of the victim or perpetrator.
Dennis Watkins, the Legal Counsel for the Church of God denomination based in Cleveland, Tennessee, gets about three calls per month regarding allegations. Pastors, youth pastors, and children's ministry directors describe how they became aware of an abuse and ask for help on what to do next. In all but one instance over the years, his recommendation has been the same: report it to the state.
That's because every state has a child abuse reporting law, and often, ministers and other church leaders are legally considered "mandatory reporters" by their state. Failing to report can trigger serious consequences.
"It's just such a precarious environment anymore to decide not to report that I've taken the position we need to find a way to report [all suspected abuse]," said Watkins, whose denomination consists of 6,000 churches and 1 million congregational members in the United States and Canada.
Often, church leaders desire to resolve such matters internally through counseling with the victim or the alleged offender—without contacting civil authorities. And often it's because the parties involved all may be a part of the same congregation. "Pastors can find themselves in highly pressurized situations," Watkins said.
But such a response can have serious ramifications, including the following legally based ones:
- ministers and other church leaders 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 mandatory reporters who failed to report child abuse.
"In years past, I might have said that keeping a situation internal might make sense because there may be ecclesiastical avenues to resolve things," Watkins said. "But unfortunately, the legal landscape over time has changed and that no longer is a tenable position."
As a result, it is imperative for church leaders to know their state's child abuse reporting laws, how they apply to churches, clergy, and other church leaders, and why every church should review their state's law (as well as the practices and policies their church has in place) to ensure actual or reasonably suspected cases of abuse involving minors are immediately addressed.
Below are 22 facts that ministers and other church leaders should know about child abuse reporting.
1. Every state has a child abuse reporting law
Many leaders are surprised to learn their state has a child abuse reporting law, but the fact is, the vast majority of these laws have been around for decades. A national movement to address child abuse started in the early 1960s, which prompted every state to adopt a mandatory child abuse reporting law soon after.
These laws are subject to changes every year when state legislatures are in session. Minor amendments are regularly made, often to update terminology or address a specific area of the law, but occasionally, amendments can create far-reaching effects. For instance, between 2019 and 2021 alone, three states added “clergy” to their lists of professions mandated to report known or suspected abuse, while two states extensively stiffened their criminal penalties for individuals who fail to fulfill their reporting duties.
Given these continually evolving legal changes, ministers and other church leaders are highly encouraged to regularly consult with qualified local attorneys regarding the current version of their state's statute.
2. Each state's law defines abuse, and those definitions can be broad
The definition of child abuse varies widely from state to state. 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. Other states define abuse without regard to the status of the perpetrator.
Church leaders often associate the triggers for reporting to incidents occurring on church property or during church-sanctioned activities, or an allegation involving a minister, staff member, or volunteer. But clergy and other leaders also must be mindful of other potential triggers to report. For instance, they may become aware of actual or reasonably suspected abuse occurring outside the church through conversations with minors or other adults. They may become aware through observations. Leaders must remain mindful of their potential responsibilities to report whenever any of these types of situations arise.
3. Each state's law includes a section defining a "mandatory" reporter
A mandatory reporter is an individual who is under a legal duty to report abuse to designated civil authorities. States differ on the definition of a mandatory reporter. Some states, including Arizona, Delaware, and Florida, define mandatory reporters to include any person having a reasonable belief that child abuse has occurred. Obviously, clergy, church staff members, and adult volunteers will be mandatory reporters under these statutes.
The remaining states define mandatory reporters by referring to a list of occupations. In some instances, clergy are specifically identified in these lists. In recent years, more states—such as Hawaii, Illinois, and Virginia—have explicitly added the profession to their lists. In other instances, clergy who work in church-run schools, daycares, and camps will fall under another listed classification, such as "principal," "teacher," or "counselor."
Other relevant professions frequently listed in state statutes include the aforementioned principals, teachers, or counselors of schools; administrative staff of schools; childcare providers; administrators and employees of licensed childcare facilities; daycare center workers; and mental health professionals.
In many states, mandatory reporters are required to report child abuse only if they learn of it in the course of performing their professional duties.
4. What about children's ministry directors and church volunteers?
Ministers and other church leaders wonder whether children's ministry director positions and adult volunteers serving in children's and youth ministries are still mandatory reporters. States differ with respect to how volunteers are—or aren't—compelled to report, so it's critical to review each state's statute closely.
Watkins from the Church of God denomination said he has addressed this ambiguity by urging his churches to simply "find a way to report a case and find a way to document it. It's not worth the risk, in my mind, to leave your people out there in a precarious position of not reporting."
And in those select states that define mandatory reporter as "any person," Watkins said the ambiguity has lessened. "That makes things a lot easier," he said.
5. What about permissive reporters?
Church leaders who are not mandatory reporters under their state's law generally are considered permissive reporters, meaning that they are encouraged to report cases of abuse to designated civil authorities but are not legally required to do so.
6. Clergy shouldn't assume the clergy-penitent privilege exempts them from making a report
Ministers who are mandatory reporters of child abuse under state law are under a profound ethical dilemma when they receive information about child abuse in the course of a confidential counseling session that is subject to the clergy-penitent privilege. They must choose between either fulfilling their legal obligation to report or honoring their ecclesiastical duty to maintain the confidentiality of privileged communications.
A number of states have attempted to resolve this dilemma by specifically exempting ministers from the duty to report child abuse if the abuse is disclosed to them in the course of a communication protected by the clergy-penitent privilege. Other states, while not specifically excluding ministers from the duty to report, provide that information protected by the clergy-penitent privilege is not admissible in any legal proceeding regarding the alleged abuse. Some statutes do not list the clergy-penitent privilege among those privileges that are abolished in the context of child abuse proceedings. The intent of such statutes may be to excuse ministers from testifying in such cases regarding information they learned in the course of a privileged communication.
Even if the clergy-penitent privilege applies in the context of child abuse reporting, it is by no means clear that the privilege will be a defense to a failure to report, since
(1) the information causing a minister to suspect that abuse has occurred may not have been privileged (that is, it was not obtained in confidence, or it was not obtained during spiritual counseling); and (2) a privilege ordinarily applies only to courtroom testimony or depositions, and not to a statutory requirement to report to a state agency.
7. When an actual or suspected case of abuse becomes known, the clock starts ticking
Most states require the report to be made "immediately." Some states define that term to mean within 24 hours or 48 hours. In one instance—Connecticut—the deadline is 12 hours. All states encourage instantaneous reporting by dialing 911 when a situation is deemed to be an emergency.
It's important for ministers and other church leaders to know how seriously states take these deadlines. In 2015, a high school counselor in Arkansas was sentenced to one year of probation and assessed a $2,500 fine for reporting a sexual relationship between the school's volleyball coach and a player 14 days after first learning about it. That state's law requires reports to be made "immediately."
Given the sense of urgency these laws purport, individuals typically won't have much time to figure out what to do when a suspected case arises. That is why having a specific plan in place ahead of time, such as the one provided in the Reducing the Risk training program, is so crucial. Planning will help ease anxiety and reduce the possibilities for errors that can occur during high-stress situations.
The time limits "scare me the most," Watkins said. "It's an emotional issue when a case potentially arises" and that creates anxiety and pressure for ministers and other church leaders. For those who serve in denominationally affiliated churches, Watkins emphasized the value of contacting the legal counsel serving in those denominations.
Many denominations, including his, have attorneys who serve in regional offices and can help navigate a situation. "Leaders need to know there are resources to help," he stressed. "They are not acting alone."
8. Reporting requires following a specific process
Every state sets requirements regarding how to report an actual or suspected case of child abuse and which agencies or individuals to contact to make it. In all states, a report must be made either orally or in writing, but in some instances, both methods may be required. Be sure to read those details carefully.
Persons who are legally required to report child abuse generally make their report by notifying a designated state agency by telephone and confirming the telephone call with a written report within a prescribed period of time. The reporter generally is required to (1) identify the child, the child's parents or guardians, and the alleged abuser by name, and provide their addresses; (2) give the child's age; and (3) describe the nature of the abuse.
9. A failure to report may have far-reaching consequences
When a mandatory reporter fails to report a known or reasonably suspected case of abuse, the most significant concern is the potential for continued harm to the minor—not to mention other minors the alleged perpetrator may come into contact with.
Other significant consequences exist for mandatory reporters who fail to report. They include criminal misdemeanor or felony charges that can carry punishments ranging from small fines to brief jail sentences—or both.
In some states, such as Delaware, Maryland, and Massachusetts, punishable fines can extend into the tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the nature of the mandatory reporter's inaction. In one instance—Louisiana—a mandatory reporter failing to report can face up to five years in jail. In recent years, states like Tennessee and Montana have amended their laws to stiffen the criminal penalties that violators can face.
A case from 2015 further illustrates the potentially serious criminal consequences a mandatory reporter can face for failing to report abuse. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the felony conviction of a priest who knew about ongoing child sexual abuse committed by another priest, but never reported it and failed to take steps to protect victims and potential victims.
10. Mandatory reporters in some states also face civil liability for failing to report
In eight states (Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Montana, New York, Ohio, and Rhode Island), laws allow victims of child abuse to file lawsuits seeking monetary damages from adults who are mandatory reporters and allegedly failed to report the abuse, contributing to the injuries the victims suffered. In each state, the statute only permits victims of child abuse to sue mandatory reporters who failed to report. No liability is created for persons who are not mandatory reporters as defined by state law.
These lawsuits may be brought in some states many years after the failure to report. It is possible that other state legislatures will enact laws giving victims the legal right to sue mandatory reporters who failed to comply with their reporting obligations. It is also possible that the courts in some states will allow victims to sue mandatory reporters (and perhaps those who are not mandatory reporters) for failing to report child abuse even if no state law grants them the specific right to do so. These potential risks must be considered when evaluating whether or not to report known or suspected incidents of child abuse.
Whether such a civil lawsuit will prevail depends upon the victim's ability to convince a jury, based on the preponderance of the evidence (a legal standard used in most civil cases that means the injury more likely than not occurred because the mandatory reporter knew of the actual or suspected abuse and failed to report it—and that this failure contributed to the victim’s injuries). The outcome of such litigation is far from certain, but the mere fact it can occur presents several potential problems for mandatory reporters, including:
- the high costs of defending against a civil lawsuit;
- a potentially costly award from a jury to the victim;
- the stress and distractions of a legal dispute, including meetings, hearings, depositions, and other time-consuming and resource-depleting tasks; and
- negative media coverage.
11. Civil liability for churches whose mandatory reporters failed to report
A few churches have been sued by child abuse victims as a result of a clergy member's failure to report. This basis of liability has generally been rejected by the courts.
12. Negligence per se
Some courts, including in Pennsylvania, have ruled that the legal doctrine of negligence per se applies to child abuse reporting statutes. This doctrine creates a presumption of negligence for violations of a statutory duty. As a result, mandatory reporters who fail to comply with their state's child abuse reporting statute are presumed to have been negligent without any further proof. And, this is so even if the child abuse reporting statute does not explicitly state that mandatory reporters who fail to report abuse are subject to civil liability.
13. Hotlines and online reporting forms
Nearly every state provides a 24-hour, toll-free hotline for reporting. Some also provide the ability to submit a report through their websites. However, it's not entirely clear whether hotlines or online submissions will meet a state's mandatory reporting requirements.
Some states reference hotlines or online reports in their statutes, but many do not. Church leaders should consult further about this with qualified local legal counsel, as well as appropriate state officials, to determine whether the hotlines and/or online report submissions adequately fulfill mandatory reporting requirements.
To further aid you and your church’s leaders, this resource contains each state’s toll-free phone numbers and/or website links regarding the filing of a report. This information was last updated in June of 2021.
14. Following chains of command
In some states, a mandatory reporter must also notify a representative or leader within their organization regarding the actual or suspected case of abuse. For instance, in New York, mandatory reporters must make a report in the manner outlined by the statute and also must notify the person in charge of their institution, facility, or agency (or an agent designated by the person in charge).
However, in states where this is required, mandatory reporters still must make a formal report—simply notifying the person in charge (or their designated agent) isn't considered a sufficient way of fulfilling mandated reporting requirements.
A few states, including Missouri, allow mandatory reporters to report to a designated person in the church, such as the lead pastor, who then has the sole responsibility to report.
15. Attempting to stop a report from being made
Many states include language prohibiting individuals or institutions from attempting to block or dissuade another individual from making a report. Churches, as employers, as well as clergy and staff in supervisory roles, should be especially aware of this type of language in their state's statute.
16. Retaliation provisions
Many states include language in their laws prohibiting employers from retaliating against employees who make reports. Churches, as employers, as well as clergy and staff in supervisory roles, should be especially aware of any such provisions.
17. Limited legal immunity to individuals who make good-faith reports.
Many church leaders express concerns about whether they might face civil—or even criminal—sanctions if a report they make ultimately cannot be substantiated. Every state grants limited legal immunity to reporters of child abuse. This means that a reporter cannot be sued simply for reporting child abuse. However, several states require that the report be based on a "reasonable cause to believe" that abuse has occurred. Persons who maliciously transmit false reports are subject to civil liability in most states and criminal liability in some.
18. Confidentiality of a mandatory reporter's identity
Many ministers and other church leaders worry about whether their identities will be disclosed after making a report. Most state child abuse reporting laws prohibit the disclosure of a reporter's identity to the alleged perpetrator. Some states permit the disclosure of the reporter's identity to other state agencies, or a prosecuting attorney. In addition, most states do not require reporters to divulge their identity. A few states require mandatory reporters to identify themselves when they report child abuse, but in most of these states, the reporting law prohibits the disclosure of the reporter's identity to the alleged molester.
19. When an adult reveals they were abused as a minor
Many church leaders aren't sure what to do about reporting when a person who already has surpassed the age of majority (the age of 18) reveals they were abused when they were a minor. Some states—including California, Texas, and Washington—directly address this issue through their statutes, but many states do not. In California, for instance, the law says a report must be made by a clergy member "even if the victim of the known or suspected abuse has reached the age of majority by the time the required report is made." CA PENAL § [11165.1-11165.6]. A few states relieve mandatory reporters of the duty to report incidents that occurred more than a specified number of years in the past.
20. Spiritual means, faith healing, and definitions of abuse
Several states 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.
21. Employer responsibilities with respect to training and informing mandatory reporters
At least one state—Oregon—requires mandatory reporters to go through training regarding their responsibilities, while many others encourage it. Many states provide free training through their websites.
Employers also may have responsibilities to mandatory reporters they employ. In New York, for instance, any entity employing mandatory reporters must provide them with written information about reporting requirements set by the state. California's statute states:
Employers are strongly encouraged to provide their employees who are mandated reporters with training in the duties imposed by this article. This training shall include training in child abuse and neglect identification and training in child abuse and neglect reporting. Whether or not employers provide their employees with training in child abuse and neglect identification and reporting, the employers shall provide their employees who are mandated reporters with the statement required pursuant to [mandatory reporter requirements]. CA PENAL § 11165.7(c).
22. Church leaders should research their state’s statute of limitation for abuse claims
Every state has statutes involving deadlines for people to file civil lawsuits. Once such a deadline passes, the person generally is not allowed to bring a legal claim in the civil courts regarding the matter. These statutes of limitation vary by the state and by the type of claim involved. When the claim involves child abuse, leaders must be aware of several key issues that arise. First, as we note in Church Law & Tax’s Legal Library, the “statute of limitations does not begin to ‘run’ in the case of injuries to a minor until the minor’s eighteenth birthday.” Second, several states extend the statute of limitations for cases of child molestation under the “discovery rule,” meaning the statute of limitations does not begin to run until a person discovers the past abuse he or she experienced. And third, some states—through court decisions in their respective jurisdictions—have suspended the statute of limitations in child molestation cases when certain facts are present (a legal concept known as “tolling”).
Furthermore, increasing public outrage regarding cases of abuse that have transpired in recent years and in various settings, including youth sports organizations, schools, and religious institutions, have prompted some states to take additional actions related to the statute of limitations for abuse claims. Some, like California, New York, and New Jersey, have adopted temporary lookback windows allowing victims to bring otherwise time-limited claims forward, while one state—Vermont—permanently removed statute-of-limitation restrictions.
Statutes of limitation for abuse claims remain a rapidly evolving area of law. It’s critical for church leaders to research their state’s law and to seek legal counsel regarding any questions or confusion that arise, especially if the church becomes aware of actual or suspected abuse that occurred in the distant past. Furthermore, leaders must recognize the possibility that an abuse claim involving their church from many years ago still can arise. That’s why it’s so critical for churches to permanently retain their insurance coverage policies, as well as applications and background checks for all individuals who serve in their children’s and youth ministries.
States provide a lot of information through their websites regarding abuse, abuse prevention, abuse reporting requirements, and ways to get more information and questions answered.
As Dennis Watkins pointed out, the legal counsel for denominations often can also provide information, resources, and guidance.
Richard R. Hammar, J.D., LL.M., CPA, is senior editor of ChurchLawAndTax.com. Matthew J. C. Branaugh, J.D., is an attorney and content editor of ChurchLawAndTax.com.