More states moving to tighten sex-abuse laws for clergy

Bills call for clergy to report alleged abuse or extend time period for victims to file suits.

The sexual-abuse scandal spreading through the Roman Catholic Church this spring is prompting moves in legislatures nationwide to tighten laws designed to ensure that cases of abuse are reported to authorities and prosecuted.

Lawmakers in at least seven states have introduced bills this year to extend the period when civil and criminal charges can be filed against abusers, or to require clergy to report allegations they hear about.

The moves come as the Catholic Church faces a continuing tide of lawsuits – some 300 since January – and new allegations sexual abuse of boys and young men by priests.

At a meeting in Dallas this week, Catholic bishops are expected to revise their internal policies regarding abuse allegations. But for now, the lawsuits and media coverage have put pressure on legislatures to act.

Revised laws could provide new protection for sex-abuse victims while creating new liabilities for churches and clergy.

Currently, all 50 states have mandatory-reporting laws regarding sexual abuse of children. But many do not apply to the clergy. Others, in a middle ground, provide that clergy need not report information that comes to light in situations such as the Catholic sacrament of confession.

This year, the tenor of the laws has begun to shift.

In Massachusetts, the epicenter of the scandal, acting Gov. Jane Swift signed a bill last month adding clergy to the list of mandatory reporters, which already included teachers, doctors, and child-care workers. Legislators in Illinois, Missouri, and Colorado have all recently approved bills requiring clergy to report abuse. State governors are expected to sign the measures.

Other states are extending their statutes of limitation that govern whether years-old cases can be brought up in court. Connecticut has extended its statute of limitations. Similar legislation is making its way through California's legislature, but has failed in Minnesota.

As state lawmakers consider such moves, they are being lobbied by a range of groups. These include Catholics and other religious denominations, including The First Church of Christ, Scientist, which publishes this newspaper, and child advocates. But lawmakers say the strongest lobbying often comes, not surprisingly, from embattled Catholic churches in each state.

Connecticut State Rep. Michael Lawlor (D), who sponsored one such bill, says the Catholic Church was the main opponent to expanding the statute of limitations.

The lobbying efforts, large or small, come within a new political climate.

In Wisconsin, state Sen. Alberta Darling says she plans to present mandatory-reporting legislation for priests next year, and expects much easier going than when she backed a similar measure in 1995.

The legislative climate can put the Catholic Church and other denominations in a difficult position as they acknowledge public pressure for new standards and at the same time stand up for time-honored traditions such as the confidentiality of confessions.

"We would support any legislation that would protect children," says Marie Hilliard, executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference. "Whether this will do that remains to be seen." She says the church did not actively lobby against any provisions of the legislation, but enlisted a law firm it regularly hires to monitor legislation.

In Missouri and Illinois, Catholic bishops proved willing to accept legislation making clergy mandatory reporters, as long as the laws protected confessions. Both states passed bills carving out such exceptions, advocated by an array denominations, to protect clergy who learn about abuse while serving as spiritual advisers. The provision was criticized by victims' advocates. "This exception could gut the rule," says Lyn Schollett of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Abuse.

In Colorado, a coalition of Protestant churches enlisted Martin Nussbaum, a lawyer specializing in church-state law, to oppose the initial draft of a proposed mandatory-reporting law. A revised version of the bill overwhelmingly passed both houses and now awaits the governor's signature.

In Minnesota , associations representing public schools and municipalities joined churches to oppose legislation extending the statute of limitations.

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