Forcing disclosure of abuse debated

Proposal would require priests to divulge what they hear in confessions

Extension for civil suits sought

February 26, 2003|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

A bill that would require Catholic priests to report when they hear of child abuse in the confessional - a law that one cardinal said he would rather go to jail than obey- came before a Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing yesterday.

Teachers, day care workers and psychotherapists, among others, are required to notify authorities if they believe a child is being abused. Priests who learn of abuse while inside a confessional have long been exempted from that provision in Maryland law.

Senate Bill 412, sponsored by Baltimore County Sen. Delores G. Kelley, would erase that protection of confidentiality - except in cases where the abuser made the confession.

"This law infringes on our freedom to worship God as we choose," said the Rev. J. Daniel Mindling of Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg. "Nothing that's confessed is revealed. If this law goes through, [a victim] can't come to me because it's the same as going to a policeman."

Mindling said when he hears stories of abuse, he prays with the victim and discusses options, which often include suggesting that the abused person go to the authorities.

While lawmakers reported receiving phone calls and e-mails vehemently objecting to the proposal, many speakers yesterday argued that clergy should not be allowed to keep such important information secret. Some argued the provision coddles the Roman Catholic Church, and that 13 other states require priests to divulge anything harmful they have learned.

At the same time, other religious groups said they wanted the same special provision extended to them.

"As long as abuse is kept secret," said Jim McComb of the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth, "it's a problem."

Though the stated intent of the bill is to protect children from abuse, Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the committee's chairman, wondered whether the bill could have the reverse effect.

"The policy question we have to decide is whether encouraging people to go to their priests or ministers or rabbis to talk about things that trouble them, at least with respect to child abuse, is worth preserving," he said to Kelley. "What your bill would do is cut off communication."

Answered Kelley: "There are other major faith communities who felt maybe I was coddling one church with [this] law."

Last week, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of the Washington Archdiocese urged priests to ignore the law if it is passed. "On this issue, I will gladly plead civil disobedience and willingly - if not gladly- go to jail," he wrote in the Catholic Standard.

Earlier in the day, senators heard testimony from more than a half-dozen child sexual abuse survivors who weighed in on a second Kelley bill relating to abuse - one that would extend the statute of limitations on civil suits until the victims reach the age of 33.

Supporters of the extension argued that victims are just not adult enough at the age of 21 to come to grips with all they have been through, to have the presence of mind or the money to hire a lawyer to sue their abusers.

"They need time to really become mature," Kelley said. "They need time to get over the guilt and shame and embarrassment. They need time to get fiscal resources to seek legal action."

She said she thought the abused needed at least a decade leeway. She said she would not push for the bill to be retroactive.

Kurt Gladsky told the committee he was molested while a student at Calvert Hall College High School in Towson. In the years after his graduation in 1971, he abused alcohol, suffered from depression, felt ashamed and guilty. "The consequences of this crime continue in my life to this day," he said, despite years of therapy.

"For me, it is too late," he said. "For many others, it is not."

Robert Russell, who said he was also abused at Calvert Hall, shouted at the committee when it appeared he had missed his chance to testify. "I've waited 30 years for this opportunity," he said. He later stormed out of the room.

There is no statute of limitations in Maryland in criminal felony cases. For civil cases, the limit is three years.

Speaking against the bill were representatives of the archdioceses of Baltimore and Washington as well as the Maryland State Teachers Association. They said they worry about fading memories and evidence that disappears over time, making it much more difficult to defend against allegations.

Richard Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, told lawmakers he felt the witness list at the hearing was "front-loaded" with those who have been abused by the clergy and brought out statistics saying that just a fraction of those accused of sexual abuse each year make allegations against priests.

David W. Kinkopf, an attorney who represents the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said the statute of limitations needs to stay where it is and the church should not have to defend against allegations from so very long ago.

"The archdiocese would rather spend its resources on its programs and fulfilling its mission," he said.

In Annapolis

Today's highlights

10 a.m.Senate meets, Senate chamber.

10 a.m.House of Delegates meets, House chamber.

1 p.m.Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, hearing on bill to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, 2 East Miller Senate Office Building.

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