Why child abuse goes unreported

Even when required, churches often handle cases internally rather than notify authorities.

Although every state has laws requiring child sexual abuse to be reported, few cases involving members of the clergy are ever turned over to police by church officials – and fewer still result in anyone going to jail.

Partly this is because most of the laws are aimed at compelling professional groups such as teachers, doctors, and social workers to turn over information on molestation. They do not require church officials specifically to report such suspicions.

Yet even in the states that do, religious authorities rarely end up passing on suspicions to law enforcement. The reasons vary, from a desire by churches to handle such cases internally, to ignorance about mandatory-reporting laws, to a culture of forgiveness.

While some dioceses have been more forthcoming in the wake of the nationwide scandal over priest misconduct, experts say the long tradition of reluctance to report errant behavior raises questions about whether mandatory-reporting laws – considered a key way to prevent abuse – will ever have much impact. "Even if such a law were enacted, I don't know if anyone would react," says Brett Drake, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis. "You have this longstanding tradition of confidentiality with clients ... that is centuries old."

Currently, Massachusetts and 17 other states have mandatory-reporting laws that do not specifically require clergy to report sexual abuse of children. Another 19 mandate that church officials, as well as everyone else, pass on information, with the exception of incidents that come up in "clergy-penitent" conversations, such as confession.

In six more states "all persons" must report, but the clergy's status is unclear. Seven states always require churches to relay information, even what's heard in the confessional booth (or between Christian Science practitioner and patient).

In general, experts say the mandatory reporting laws work fairly well when it comes to most professionals, such as doctors and social-service workers. In 1999, 2.9 million referrals for child abuse were filed nationwide, according to the US Department of Health & Human Services. Of those, 826,000 cases involved "substantiated" victims of maltreatment. Sexual abuse made up 11 percent of that group – or some 93,000 victims.

Why the hesitancy

Churches, however, have been much more hesitant in coming forward. Tennessee, for example, is one of the states that requires all people to report incidents of child abuse. Despite the provisions, Torry Johnson, the district attorney of Davidson County, which includes Nashville, says he can't remember getting a single case in which church officials reported the abuse.

While that could be because few clergy members have heard about such incidents, or committed any acts, Mr. Johnson sees other complications. "There's just an enormous amount of nonreporting among the public generally," he says. "A lot of the nonreporting is inadvertent or due to a lack of knowledge. Sometimes they don't remember they're supposed to report."

Clearly, one problem, critics say, is the lack of "teeth" in many laws. North Carolina, like many of the states with tough reporting statutes, classifies failure to report child abuse as a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of one year in jail. That doesn't give prosecutors much incentive to take on a church.

"The law we have is a feel-good piece of legislation," says Lillian Salcines, a district attorney for Brunswick County, N.C. "It says 'you should do the right thing and report.' But the reality of the law is that it carries minimal consequences, is rarely used, and judges are hesitant to convict." She says only two cases of nonreporting of abuse have been prosecuted since the law was adopted.

Experts see other problems with the laws as well. They "tend to be somewhat vague," says Douglas Besharov, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington who helped write some of the statutes. "Then, you get vague training on top of that. In many states, people are told to report if they have a 'gut feeling' a child is being abused. The problem is that many have a gut feeling with nothing behind it."

This has resulted, he and others say, in massive overreporting by some groups and virtually none by others, including churches. Then, too, religious leaders often don't have a well-established relationship with some of the outside authorities they would normally work with.

"The big problem is the rift between the faith-based community and the child-protective-services community," says Victor Vieth, director of a child-abuse center for the National District Attorneys Association. "A lot of social workers see the clergy either as child abusers or as those who protect child abusers.... They're tired of seeing clergy showing up as character witnesses for the accused."

One of the biggest reasons for the dearth of reporting by churches may be the desire to deal with such problems "in-house." The belief that people can confess and redeem their sins underlies part of this impulse. But critics believe the reliance on a higher law can be taken too far.

"The Catholic Church refuses to go outside their own authority, and therefore often refuses to abide by laws, because they feel above them, or that they feel they can get away with it," says Jeff Anderson a St. Paul, Minn., lawyer who has handled more than 600 civil sexual-abuse cases, most against the Catholic Church.

Yet some church officials say they're going out of their way to comply with mandatory-reporting laws. The Rev. E.T. Malone of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, for instance, says all its clergy are now "obligated to undergo training in child-abuse prevention." "My feeling as a priest is that we don't want to do anything to jeopardize the faith people have in the clergy – and the best way to do that is to be above board," says Mr. Malone, the diocese's canon of records.

Similarly, Don Hepburn, a spokesman for the Baptist Convention in Florida, another state with strict reporting requirements, says the church has responded to the law with training for its 200 employees and those who operate childrens' camps throughout the state.

"We have had several instances where children who have come to our summer camps reported things that sounded like child or sexual abuse – and we followed our own policy" by contacting Florida authorities, he says. In each case, he notes, the alleged abuse didn't involve church officials but outside adults.

Other churches have been more forthcoming in the wake of the scandals. With civil suits looming, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia recently handed over the names of six priests suspected of abuse. In Boston, embattled Cardinal Bernard Law reversed policy in January and mandated all clergy and volunteers to report incidents.

Laws get tougher

The question is whether the reporting will continue to expand from here. Some states, including Massachusetts and New York, are considering toughening their laws. Yet many church officials, Catholic and otherwise, oppose the mandates when they become "too intrusive" – particularly the requirement that clergy pass on the cases of child abuse they hear in confession and other conversations with worshipers.

And even those who do agree with most reporting requirements find the act of telling on a fellow clergyman difficult. Consider J. Brian Kearns. He says reporting his church's youth minister for possession of child pornography and possible child abuse was one of the toughest calls he has ever had to make.

New crews quickly descended on the Lighthouse Christian Church in Powell, Tenn. Several church members privately told the Rev. Kerns he should have handled it "internally." But throughout, he says he felt he'd done the right thing, legally and morally. "We would have loved to have handled it internally," he says. "But the law was clear, and it did play a role in our decision."

He also says he'd do the same thing again. "Invariably this sort of thing will come out, and if you haven't been honest, then you lose all the trust of your people."

• Staff writer Seth Stern contributed to this report.

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