Research Tools: State-by-State Laws on Clergy MANDATORY Reporting of Child Abuse

The most recent Research Tools post was State-by-State Laws on Sexual Violence Issues, Including Clergy Sexual Misconduct (aka “Fiduciary Duty”). There is some overlap between this post and that one’s sources for links. But that one is on broader concerns of sexual violence while this post focuses in on the issue of clergy as mandatory reporters of known/suspected child sexual abuse.

Child Sexual Abuse is Consistently a Top Legal Problem for U.S. Churches

For each of the last five years (2011-2015), the largest percentage of lawsuits filed against churches had to do with child sexual abuse. Here is an article from Church Law & Tax on that topic – The Top 5 Reasons Religious Organizations Went to Court in 2015 – and their related infographic for 2015. They have been updating this information and infographic annually, so check their search function to find the most recent edition.

Leaders and Training Curricula

At this time, only one U.S. seminary requires a training course on sexual abuse issues in all their degree programs, and that is Dallas Theological Seminary. This was just recently instituted, and it takes effect starting in the Fall term for the 2016-2017 academic year. (See the 3 credit hour course, EML620 Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse: MinistrySafe.)

G.R.A.C.E. – Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment – led by Boz Tchividjian, has long seen the need for training Christian leaders on child sexual abuse issues, including responding to abuse as well as setting up systems to prevent abuse. (See this March 18, 2013, article by Rachel Held Evans, No More Silence: An interview with Boz Tchividjian of G.R.A.C.E.) G.R.A.C.E. has had a team developing a curriculum on child protection for use in colleges, seminaries, and training programs. According to this May 30, 2014, article by Boz Tchividjian – On-the-job training isn’t working – tentative topics in the curriculum include:

  • Characteristics of child sexual abuse and its many permutations
  • The profile and common behavioral characteristics of sexual offenders
  • Common spiritual impacts of child sexual abuse
  • A child’s perception of sexual abuse
  • Biblical and theological foundations for child protection
  • Best practices in child protection policies
  • Mandated reporting laws
  • Best practices in responding to active sexual abuse allegations in a Christian environment
  • Basic understanding of the current techniques clinicians use when working with abuse victims
  • Understanding of the purpose and value of professional mental health care for victims and perpetrators
  • Characteristics of the abusing families
  • Confronting past abuse within a church

Mandatory Reporting and “Penitent Privilege” (Confidentiality) Laws, State-by-State

There are two main sources to access legal information about clergy mandatory reporting laws and related issues: RAINN (which was highlighted in the previous Research Tools post) and Child Welfare Gateway. Both offer similar information, but in different formats. So, check out each of these to see which works better for the type of research you want to do. (Also, both sites periodically update their databases with the most recent legal code information.)

The RAINN State Law Database allows you to search a separate database that compares Mandatory Reporting Requirements: Children. For best results, set the “Show Entries” box at the top to 100. That will let you see a line for each of the 50 states, plus Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Washington, D.C. Click on the “+” sign to expand the entry to see:

  • A bullet list for Who is required to report? This will list the various types of people and their occupations who are required by state law to report known/suspected sexual abuse.
  • A bullet list for What timing and procedural requirements apply to reports? This is important to note, because state legal codes may require that the person who knows/suspects/witnesses abuse is the only one able to file the report and it cannot be passed off to a supervisor or assigned to a subordinate. Also, states may have time limits, such as within 24 hours of finding out about a situation of abuse.
  • The Statutory Citation with the penal code location numbers for the specific state laws. (Copy-and-paste the line with the law code numbers and state into your search engine to locate the full text of the law.)

Child Welfare Gateway gives the option of accessing a page that lists state-by-state laws solely on clergy as mandatory reporters of known/suspected sexual abuse. To get to that page, click:

  • Section #1 – SELECT A STATE – click the All States option.
  • Section #2 – SELECT A TOPIC – click checkbox for Clergy as Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect.
  • Section #3 – BEING YOUR SEARCH – GO!

The results will show each state’s legal statues citation, whether or not there is clergy mandatory reporting law, and details on any clergy/congregant confidentiality. (Copy-and-paste the line with the law code numbers and state into your search engine to locate the full text of the law.)

Also available from Child Welfare Gateway is PDF on Clergy as Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect. It includes a very helpful chart on page 3 that shows mandatory reporting laws for clergy and also for “any person.” This is important, because some states do not have reporting laws regarding clergy in specific, but they cover that by requiring “any person” in general to report known/suspected child abuse, neglect, and sexual abuse.

This same chart also covers what is commonly known as “penitent privilege.” This is where there MAY be specific categories of communications between clergy members and congregants that are covered by confidentiality. Find out the specifics from the laws in particular states, as claiming a “penitent privilege” is not necessarily a defense for failure to report child abuse.

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4 thoughts on “Research Tools: State-by-State Laws on Clergy MANDATORY Reporting of Child Abuse

    • Yes, definitely. Part of what makes this all so complicated is the uneven patchwork of laws, and the misbeliefs on the part of some church/ministry leaders that they should invoke “confidentiality” and just deal with abuse issues “in house,” even when the law requires mandatory reporting. Also, a too loose approach to “repentance” allows self-professed penitents back into roles of access to kids, so, additional children and families are put at risk.

      But things are changing, in both church and society, and child abuse is increasingly spotlighted. The political pressure toward changes to remove statutes of limitations will likely make for better prevention of further abuse in the future. And I believe the training curricula for current- and next-generation leaders will definitely make a positive difference.

      • This were be hard for Catholics where priests are sworn to secrecy about things confessed to them. But there has been a lot of misconduct there, too.

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