Since 2002, numerous bills have been introduced in the New York State Legislature to add clergy to the list of mandated reporters for child sexual abuse.

The bills — which have respected the sanctity of the confessional — long have been supported by the New York State Catholic Conference (NYSCC), which represents the state’s bishops in matters of public policy, and by Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of the Diocese of Albany, who has been a national leader in responding to the clergy abuse crisis.

But 20 years since the first bills were introduced — which were spurred on by the sexual abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston that was exposed by the Boston Globe — clergy still are not included in the expansive state list of mandated reporters that includes doctors, social workers, police officers, social service workers and most school officials. A mandated reporter is required by law to report suspected cases of child abuse or mistreatment to the proper authorities. 

“Every year, each house would pass their own bill, but they never reconciled them,” said Dennis Poust, executive director of the NYSCC. “And then ultimately, it fell off the table for a while. It came back in the last couple of years with this current bill. We would be willing to support and happy to support (the bill) if the sponsors told us it would be helpful for passage. The way the bill is currently drafted, we would support it if asked. Historically, sponsors have asked us not to weigh in when there have been competing bills but we’ve always publicly supported the concept.”

For the 2022 legislative session, Senate Bill S1399 would add any “clergy member or other minister of any religion” to the list of mandated reporters while preserving the sanctity of the confessional. The bill states that clergy would not be “required” to report suspected cases of abuse “if the confession or confidence was made to him or her in his or her professional character as a spiritual advisor.” In all other cases, the bill would not exempt clergy from being mandated reporters. There is also a companion bill in the Assembly (A888). Both bills currently are sitting in the Children and Family Committees of the respective houses. There was similar language in bills in the 2019-20 legislative session when a bill in the Assembly (A6662B) was passed by that house but its Senate companion (S5711B) died in the Judiciary Committee.

“Making clergy mandated reporters is a good policy. It’s a good idea and not just Catholic clergy, it would apply to all clergy,” Poust said. “Honestly, it seems to me that we should all be mandated reporters. There is certainly a moral obligation and maybe there ought to be a legal obligation … that anyone, regardless of their profession, if they suspect a child is being abused, should report that to the proper authorities. Absolutely clergy should be mandated reporters.”

The concept of clergy as mandated reporters was brought back into the spotlight after deposition testimony by Bishop Emeritus Howard J. Hubbard of the Diocese of Albany was made public March 25 and first reported by the Times Union of Albany. During his deposition, Bishop Hubbard was questioned by an attorney representing people who had filed claims of abuse against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany under the Child Victims Act (CVA). Asked why he did not report a suspected case of child sexual abuse to law enforcement when he was bishop after a priest allegedly admitted to him that he had abused a child, Bishop Hubbard replied, “Because I was not a mandated reporter. I don’t think the law then or even now requires me to do it. Would I do it now? Yes. But did I do it then? No.”

Poust acknowledged the bishop’s comment is “a difficult thing to read and process,” adding “it’s heartbreaking” but important to understand what happened for healing to begin.

“The acknowledged failures of many Church leaders in the past even now, at least a generation later, continues to impact the Church. It continues to scandalize the faithful, it continues to cause people to lose their faith,” he added.

The NYSCC’s position continues to hold to these core requirements in adding clergy as mandated reporters, according to its website: 

• The reporting requirements must protect the sanctity of the confessional. Catholic teaching holds that the confidentiality afforded to Catholics in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is inviolable. A priest who violates the seal of the confessional is automatically excommunicated under Canon Law. 

• Any reporting requirements, including retroactive reporting of old cases, must be equally applied to all mandated reporters and not, as some past bills would have done, to clergy alone. 

• There should be no “opt out” provision for abortion clinic employees and other health care providers who in the course of their duties come into contact with minors who they know or suspect have been sexually abused by adults.

A bill in California in 2019 that would have required priests to break the seal of confession if they heard anything related to child sexual abuse was shelved after a statewide uproar from Catholics as well as First Amendment and enforceability concerns. But Poust said, generally, the confessional is not how priests or bishops have heard about cases of sexual abuse or mistreatment in the past. Typically, a parent or a child will come forward with an allegation directly.
 
“The scandal was learning that people had been abused, having it reported by various means — whether by parents or witnesses, other priests or parish staff — and then not removing that person or informing parishioners,” Poust said. “In some sense, that scandal is worse than the original crime because you are putting more people at risk beyond the one child who was grievously harmed and now you are putting more children at risk of being harmed. That’s what has made this scandal so devastating to the Church.”

And how does Poust respond to survivors of sexual abuse who say adding clergy as mandated reporters will not change anything.

“Hopefully, it won’t change anything because as of the last 20 years, at least, clergy have been reporting these things,” he said. “For the last 20 years, since the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, Church law in the United States has required bishops to report these crimes to the authorities.

“Beyond that, in this state, every diocese has a memorandum of understanding with their local district attorney outlining the process for when they receive a complaint, no matter how far back it goes, of sexual abuse. The short answer is hopefully it won’t change a thing, because I know the Church is already complying with the principle of mandated reporting.” 

This compliance is championed and mandated by Bishop Scharfenberger and the other bishops in the state.

“I know just how seriously the bishops of this state take this issue and how committed they are to maintaining a safe environment for children in their dioceses,” Poust said. “I would not be here if I did not have complete faith that they are doing everything they can to protect children and I do believe that — here in New York and across the country — the Catholic Church is now one of the safest places for children.”