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When Does the Clergy-Penitent Privilege Exempt Reporting Child Abuse?

Montana Supreme Court interprets the state's mandatory child abuse reporting law did not apply and rules in favor of church.

When Does the Clergy-Penitent Privilege Exempt Reporting Child Abuse?

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, but some states exempt them from the reporting obligation if they learned of the abuse in the course of a conversation protected by the clergy-penitent privilege. This generally refers to communications, in confidence, with a minister in the course of spiritual counsel.

This article explores a decision by the Montana Supreme Court regarding how it interprets the state’s mandatory child abuse reporting law with respect to the clergy-penitent privilege. The court reversed a lower trial court’s $35 million judgment against a church, whose elders decided not to report allegations of sexual abuse by a step-father in the congregation. The court indicated the ...

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