According to local polls, nearly half of Boston Catholics want Cardinal Bernard Law to resign in the wake of a child sex-abuse scandal involving pedophile priests. Cardinal Law admits assigning a priest to a new parish despite knowing that the priest had molested children. (Click here to read the Boston Globe’s investigative reports on the scandal.) One family has targeted Law in a civil suit that accuses him of negligence and of intentional and reckless infliction of emotional distress. But why isn’t Cardinal Law facing criminal charges?
Because what he did isn’t illegal in Massachusetts. Only 18 states require all persons to report knowledge or suspicion of child abuse. Massachusetts isn’t one of them. The other 32 states (including Massachusetts) and the District of Columbia require only persons designated as mandatory reporters to report child abuse.
Mandatory reporters are generally designated by profession: health-care workers, education and child-care workers, social workers, law enforcement officers, etc. Ten states specifically list “clergy” among their mandatory reporters. But Massachusetts isn’t one of those states, either. (Seven of the 10 states requiring clergy to report child abuse also recognize the clergy-penitent privilege, which exempts clergy who become aware of abuse through their capacity as a spiritual adviser, such as through confessions in the Catholic tradition.)
There is a movement afoot in the Massachusetts legislature, however, to add clergy to the state’s list of mandatory reporters. The Massachusetts Senate has already passed a bill that would add both clergy and lay leaders of any church to the list. The law would recognize the clergy-penitent privilege, and it would be retroactive, requiring knowledge of past abuse to be reported within 30 days after the bill becomes law. The bill is expected to pass the Massachusetts House soon, and the governor is expected to sign it.
But even if Massachusetts adds clergy to its list of mandatory reporters, Cardinal Law won’t be going to jail. Under Massachusetts’ mandatory-reporter statute, each instance of failing to report child abuse carries a maximum penalty of a civil fine of $1,000. (Failure to report is a misdemeanor in 34 states. In some of those states, it can lead to imprisonment of up to six months.)
Click here for the law in your state.
Explainer thanks Angus McQuilken, chief of staff for MassachusettsState Sen. Cheryl A. Jacques; Nina Mbengue of the National Conference of State Legislatures; and the National Clearinghouse of Child Abuse and Neglect Information.