Texas attorney general ruling may hinder clergy's counseling efforts

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A Texas attorney general's opinion may cause serious problems for ministers who hear confessions or counsel people, church officials say. Attorney General Jim Mattox released an opinion Monday saying a priest or minister is legally bound to report cases of child abuse, even if he learned of it from a parishioner who admitted it in confidence.

He also said state law doesn't exempt the clergy from being required to testify in court about child abuse.

An attorney general's opinion customarily carries the weight of law and remains in effect unless overturned in court or by the state Legislature.

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Several religious leaders said the opinion conflicts with church law and practices.

The Rev. David G. McKechnie, pastor of Houston's Grace Presbyterian Church, said that he is concerned that the ruling will inhibit people from confiding in counselors and even from seeking help. Tammy Edgerly-Dowd, a canon lawyer with the Diocese of Austin, said a Roman Catholic priest cannot violate the promise not to repeat what is confessed, under penalty of excommunication.

``Nobody can defend child abuse. But if we make it difficult for a person to go to his clergyman with a problem, and if we make the clergyman a criminal if he doesn't go to the police, then we're taking a bad situation and making it worse,'' said Brother Richard Daly, a lobbyist for the Texas Catholic Conference.

Attorney General Mattox said he personally agrees that ``you should have the right to talk to your spiritual adviser without the spiritual adviser being forced to divulge that conversation.'' However, ``as attorney general, I frequently have to issue opinions that I don't personally agree with. The law is set by the Legislature, and the Legislature has spoken on this matter.''

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