Two bills were announced in Wisconsin this week intended to protect victims of child sexual abuse. The Church in the state registered its strong objection to one bill’s intention to force violation of the seal of confession.
The Child Victims Act would remove the statute of limitations for victims of child sexual abuse, while the Clergy Mandatory Reporter Act would force priests to report child abuse learned of during confession.
Kim Vercauteren, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, said that there is room to improve victims’ pursuit of justice, but decried the attack on the confessional.
“I think more needs to be done to highlight what can be done for victim survivors and what are some of the other resources out there,” she told CNA. “Part of this is to provide more education and information to survivors to what they can and can’t do, like what is the expectation to further the case along.”
The bills were circulated via email August 7 inviting legislators to add themselves as a sponsor. The sponsor deadline is August 21; the measures will not be introduced to the legislature until after this date.
The bills have been sponsored by Senator Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) and Representatives Chris Taylor (D-Madison) and Melissa Sargent (D-Madison).
“Child victims in our own state suffered greatly as paedophile priests were not reported to authorities and simply moved to other parishes where they continued to abuse children,” reads an August 7 statement from Chris Taylor’s office.
“The Milwaukee Archdiocese’s own files reveal how the systemic sexual abuse of children was covered up, ignored, and seldom reported to authorities until the early 2000s,” the statement reads.
The Clergy Mandatory Reporter Act would replace a 2004 law of the same name.
Clerics are already mandatory reporters of abuse under Wisconsin law, but are exempted from reporting instances learned of during sacramental confession.
The new mandatory reporter act would require that priests violate the seal of the confessional.
The statement from Chris Taylor’s office characterises the exemption for the seal of the confessional as “a loophole allowing child sexual abuse by clergy to remain secret and unreported”.
The Child Victims Act would abolish the civil statute of limitations for child sex abuse cases.
Wisconsin currently bars victims of child sex abuse from bringing legal action after age 35.
The bill would also grant those previously unable to pursue legal action because of the statute of limitations a three year window after its passage to do so.
“Every 9 minutes, Child Protective Services agencies substantiate or find strong evidence indicating a child has been the victim of sexual abuse,” Chris Taylor, sometime public policy director for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, said on August 7.
She claimed that “in Wisconsin, clergy are not mandatory reporters of most child abuse, unlike large categories of physicians and health care providers, school teachers and staff, counsellors and social workers, to name a few. And members of the clergy do not have to report the sexual abuse of children, even by other clergy members, if they received evidence of this abuse through private, confidential communications.”
Priests who violate the seal of confession by sharing anything learned within the sacramental context to anyone, at any time, for any reason is subject to automatic excommunication and further punishments, including loss of the clerical state.
Vercauteren said priests already have an obligation to report child abuse committed by other clerics. The 2004 Clergy Mandatory Reporter Act already requires that they report any knowledge of sexual abuse gleaned in any circumstance but confession.
“With the clergymen reporting, there is actually an additional requirement instituted at the time [of the previous bill],” she said.
“If they have a reasonable case based on information received or observations made to presume that child abuse is occurring or will occur that they have to report that as well as relates to another member of the clergy,” she said.
Vercauteren emphasised the importance of the confidentiality of confession. She said the anonymous structure allows the penitent to be truly transparent, while a lack of secrecy might otherwise prevent this vulnerability.
“If you look at our teaching, [confession] is ultimately between the person and God, and the priest acts as an intermediary in that relationship,” she said. “The need for secrecy and to be able to candid in that circumstance is kind of the whole premise behind confession that this is the opportunity to completely unburden your soul.”
She said the confessional has not been used as a tool to conceal sexual abuse in the past, nor has the bill cited such a case. She said the bill ignores difficult practical obstacles, like the anonymous structure of the confessional, where many Catholics confess from behind screens.
When asked about how Catholics can best respond, she said parishioners should encounter victims with compassion and learn more about the safety measures already in place.
“Catholics should always respond with care and consideration for the victims. I can’t stress that enough because these individuals have suffered irreparable damage in their lives and we have to meet them where they are at in this process.”
“There are ways in which we can provide greater reporting of child abuse in Wisconsin and elsewhere, expanding that to other forms of abuse or setting up a third party reporting mechanisms.”
She stressed the importance of investigational reviews from third parties. She said numerous dioceses have begun to involve themselves with outside independent groups to review records and confirm the diocese is aligned with reporting policies.
“We are serious about doing something about child abuse and trying to help them surviving what has been a horrendous act in their lives,” she said.
A similar bill was introduced in California this year, but it was withdrawn before it was to be debated in committee.
California’s Public Safety Committee had released a report on the bill raising a number of First Amendment concerns.
The dropping of the bill was “good for the Catholic people of California and for believers of all faiths, not only in this state but across the country,” Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles said.
“It was a threat to the sacrament of confession that would have denied the right to confidential confessions to priests and tens of thousands of Catholics who work with priests in parishes and other Church agencies and ministries,” he said.