Maryland Senate Consider Bills to Aid Child Sex Abuse Victims. (Church in Crisis)

By Feuerherd, Joe | National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 2003 | Go to article overview

Maryland Senate Consider Bills to Aid Child Sex Abuse Victims. (Church in Crisis)


Feuerherd, Joe, National Catholic Reporter


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 anal 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. …

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