Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Cardinal Error or Doing the Right Thing?

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Cardinal Error or Doing the Right Thing?

Article excerpt

It is easy to make promises, say critics of the way the U.S. hierarchy has responded to the clergy sex abuse crisis.

Foremost among the pledges the bishops made in their Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth: The Catholic church will cooperate with civil authorities in reporting cases of suspected child abuse.

Now comes the hard part.

Last week of March 17 and the previous week, state legislators in Maryland considered legislation that would add members of the clergy to the list of "mandatory reporters" of suspected child abuse. Currently, teachers, health care workers, police officers and "human service workers" are mandatory reporters under Maryland law.

The state's Catholic Conference, which represents the Washington and Baltimore archdioceses in Annapolis, is the only vocal opponent of the legislation. Baltimore Cardinal William Keeler chairs the conference's board, whose members also include Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

It's the second time in two years that the conference has spoken out against legislation that would expand abuse reporting requirements. Last year, the conference argued that the legislation did not protect the seal of the confessional.

And they were right: The bill would have permitted continued confidentiality for perpetrators of child abuse who confessed their deeds during the sacrament, but it would have required reporting if an abuse victim or third-party revealed the crimes during the sacrament of reconciliation. McCarrick, writing in the Catholic Standard, said that if the legislation passed he would "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."

Though the legislation contained no criminal penalties, McCarrick said he would "gladly plead civil disobedience and willingly--if not gladly--got to jail."

Amidst that hubbub, the legislation failed.

So the bill's authors went back to the drawing board. This year, the proposed legislation protects from disclosure abuse allegations "communicated to the minister, clergyman, or priest in the course of a confidential penitential communication" where "the minister, clergyman, or priest is specifically bound to maintain the confidentiality of that communication under canon law or church doctrine."

Not good enough, conference executive director Richard Dowling told the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee March 10. The legislation, said Dowling, would "strip away from the clergy/penitent privilege the important context which state lawmakers intended for it when they applied the privilege to the matter of reporting suspected child abuse." Further, said Dowling, the measure "would deny the privilege's protection to . …

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