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

Article excerpt

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. …