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Church in Crisis

Maryland Senate considers bills to aid child sex abuse victims

Annapolis, Md.

Catholic officials were put on the defensive Feb. 25 as a Maryland State Senate committee considered two pieces of legislation, one that takes aim at the church’s assets and another that targets the confidentiality of the confessional.

The first measure would allow victims of child abuse to sue for damages until they reach age 33; currently, alleged victims of child abuse, including sex abuse, in Maryland cannot seek damages after their 21st birthday. If the bill passes, the Baltimore and Washington archdioceses could face litigation from abuse victims who currently cannot sue because of the state’s statute of limitations.

A second bill would put priests and other clergy on par with social workers, teachers and psychotherapists by requiring immediate reporting of abuse suspicions to secular authorities, including allegations made during the sacrament of reconciliation. The bill would permit continued confidentiality for perpetrators of child abuse who confess their deeds during the sacrament, but would require reporting if an abuse victim or third party revealed the crimes.

Maryland law currently includes a reporting exemption for clergy who are “bound to maintain the confidentiality of that communication under canon law, church doctrine, or practice.” Twenty states currently recognize clergy-penitent confidentiality, four explicitly do not, while the remainder have ambiguous statutes.

Both bills are opposed by the archdioceses of Baltimore and Washington, with the legislation pertaining to the confidentiality privilege drawing the most attention. In his weekly newspaper column, Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said if the legislation passes he “will instruct all the priests in the archdiocese of Washington who serve in Maryland to ignore it and to indicate they are acting on direct orders from me as their archbishop and religious superior. On this issue, I will gladly plead civil disobedience and willingly -- if not gladly -- go to jail.”

Proponents of mandatory reporting for clergy argued the legislation would protect children in the same way that reporting requirements for other professions do. Baltimore-based Advocates for Children and Youth, for example, called the bill a “modest and reasonable step aimed at bringing this group of professionals into alignment with others who are likely to learn of this behavior from family members and victims.”

Mark Serrano, spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, urged support for the measure and told the committee that he was a victim of child sexual abuse by a priest in the confessional.

Judith Miller, a member of a local chapter of Voice of the Faithful, called for compromise: “Reasonable and well-intentioned people ought to be able to agree on changes to the bill that would preserve the protection we are seeking for our children while respecting the confidentiality of the confessional.”

Speaking for the Baltimore archdiocese, Fr. J. Daniel Mindling argued that the sacrament of reconciliation is an “an essential component of the way Catholics worship God” and is an “intensely personal and private moment which is in the best interest of the state to protect.” Further, said Mindling, breaching the confidentiality of the confessional would be counterproductive because it would discourage abuse victims from seeking the advice and counseling a priest can provide during the sacrament.

Meanwhile, proponents of extending the statute of limitations argued that the changes were necessary because victims of child abuse need more time to come to grips with the damage that has been done to them before they have the courage and sophistication to sue. At the current cutoff date of 21, abuse victims “don’t have assets, they don’t have a lawyer, they don’t have their lives together if they have gone through these kinds of traumatizing experiences, and they often haven’t even had therapy,” said the bill’s sponsor, Baltimore State Sen. Delores Kelley. Supporting the bill were a wide spectrum of children’s advocacy groups, a local chapter of Voice of the Faithful, and several victims of abuse.

Maryland Catholic Conference Director Richard Dowling, however, said the bill is mistakenly aimed at the Catholic church. “Indeed,” said Dowling, those who support the bill “have seen fit to frontload their witness list with people who have stories of abuse by Catholic clergy.”

There were 1,312 credible claims of child sex abuse in Maryland in a recent 12-month period, said Dowling. “If in any of those cases child abuse involved Catholic clergy, those cases were rare and extremely so,” though given the publicity over recent scandals, “one might easily think that a great many of those 1,312 cases involved Catholic clergy,” said Dowling.

Further, said Dowling, the Catholic dioceses of Maryland have instituted model programs over the past two decades to reach out to victims and their families and “purge their clergy ranks … of men who would abuse a child.”

Also opposing the bill were the state teachers’ association and a representative of Maryland Defense Counsel, an organization of 650 attorneys representing defendants in civil litigation.

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 2003