Mandatory Reporters and the Clergy-Penitent Privilege

Are confessions of abuse protected?

Church Law and Tax 1997-03-01

Child Abuse

Key point. Ministers who enage in pastoral counseling are not necessarily subject to a state law that makes “counselors” mandatory reporters.

Key point. Ministers who are not mandatory reporters of child abuse, and who do not report known or suspected abuse, are not necessarily liable for a minor’s continued abuse.

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a priest was not legally responsible for damages suffered by a victim of child abuse as a result of his decision not to report the abuse to civil authorities. A child (the victim) and her parents met with their parish priest on a number of occasions for family counseling. The priest was not a licensed counselor. The victim did not tell the priest that her father had sexually abused her but did tell him that he had “hurt” her. The physical and sexual abuse of the victim stopped when her father left home when she was in eighth grade. The victim attempted suicide a month later. The victim later sued her former priest and church. She claimed that the priest failed to report her abuse to the civil authorities, and that as a result the abuse continued and her injuries were aggravated. She conceded that the priest was not aware that abuse had occurred, but she insisted that he should have been aware of the abuse based on her statement to him that her father had “hurt her”. The victim also sued her former church, claiming that it was responsible for the priest’s failure to report the abuse. She also alleged that the church negligently failed to provide training in child abuse detection for its pastor and the teachers at the church—operated school the victim attended. A trial court dismissed the claim against the priest on the ground that he was not a mandatory child abuse reporter under state law and as a result had no duty to report the abuse even if he suspected it. The court also dismissed the claim against the church. The victim appealed. The state supreme court agreed with the trial court’s decision. With regard to the victim’s claims against the priest, the court observed:

The [priest] met with the family on several occasions for purposes of assisting them in their familial relationship. It appears, however, that his role in these discussions was that of a clergyman counseling the family to work out their differences in accordance with the teachings of the church. We agree with the conclusions of the district court that this involvement in … familial conflicts did not render him a mandatory reporter of suspected child abuse under [state law]. To the extent that [the] statute makes a “counselor” a mandatory reporter of child abuse, this is limited to a reasonable belief actually formed by the counselor “in the scope of professional practice.” [The priest’s] professional practice, as it related to the [victim’s] family, was that of clergyman ….

The legislature did not include members of the clergy among those that are required to report child abuse under [the statute]. Because it is common knowledge that clergymen engage in activities within a religious context that might unearth abusive situations, that omission must be deemed to have been a conscious choice to exclude this profession from the reporting requirements of the statute. The district court was correct in concluding that [the priest] had no statutory duty to report child abuse visited upon [the victim].

The court also rejected the victim’s allegation that the church was negligent in failing to properly train the pastor or its teachers in the detection and reporting of child abuse. It observed:

When [the priest and teachers] were selected by [the church] they were each college trained and professionally licensed in their respective fields. There is nothing in the record … that would permit a finding that [the church] antecedently had reason to believe that these individuals were not properly trained in the requirements of their professional undertakings or, in particular, that there was any risk associated with the manner in which they would perceive situations involving child abuse. There is thus no liability on [the church’s] part for a failure to train these persons or to adopt special procedures dealing with the unperceived risk.

This case is significant for the following reasons: First, it demonstrates the members of the clergy are not necessarily mandatory child abuse reporters under a state law that makes “counselors” mandatory reporters. This is an important interpretation that will be useful to ministers in other states. Of course, other states may interpret the term “counselor” differently, and may include ministers. The Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling will be helpful in contending for a more narrow definition. In the final analysis, as has often been stated in this newsletter, ministers should be aggressive in reporting known or reasonably suspected incidents of child abuse whether or not they are mandatory reporters under state law. This is especially true in the case of young children who are powerless to defend themselves or seek help. Second, the court concluded that ministers who are not mandatory reporters of child abuse under state law cannot be sued for failing to report. And third, the court refused to find a church liable on the basis of its allegedly negligent failure to train its professional staff (a minister and teachers) in the detection of child abuse. Wilson v. Darr, 553 N.W.2d 579 (Iowa 1996). [Failure to Report Child Abuse]

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