By Gary Mitchell
Nearly a year after U.S. Catholic bishops adopted a “zero tolerance” policy against priests who sexually abuse children, the aftermath of those scandals still have impact within and outside the church, officials say.
That impact goes beyond the civil and criminal cases against the Roman Catholic Church or its priests.
Experts say newly passed or proposed state laws have the potential to transform the way all religious institutions do business internally and are held accountable publicly.
“There have been banking scandals, business scandals, corporate business collapses,” said the Rev. Tobin Hitt, pastor of St. Helen Catholic Church in Portales. “The Church hasn’t been through it until just recently, and this is it. There’s greater scrutiny in our world. Many of our major institutions have gone through it. It’s uncomfortable for everyone associated with the Church, but God will use it to purify the Church and will raise up better shepherds for the Church. Other denominations have gone through scandals as well, but that’s not to minimize what we’ve gone through. Each organization has been challenged by what’s going on.”
Observers also say these developments could transform the church-state relationship in unprecedented ways.
As the bishops prepare to meet June 19-21 in St. Louis, the effect of government scrutiny of the church is increasing.
For example, in California, Gov. Gray Davis signed a law in April that extends the statute of limitations in clergy abuse cases, and several other states are considering similar measures.
Meanwhile, some states are weighing legislation that would force clergy to report confessions of child abuse, even if they are told in confidence. Most religious groups say that would be a landmark change that could threaten a relationship they consider sacred.
“Anything told in a confessional wouldn’t be revealed,” said the Rev. Wilfred Savard, a retired Catholic priest now living in Clovis. “We can’t tell anything told in confessional.”
Hitt, however, said if a priest becomes aware of a child abuse situation apart from the confessional, “I would be obligated to report it to the authorities.”
“The Church is not obligated to be an arm of the state — we’re not an investigatory body,” said the Portales priest, who has a law degree and practiced civil law prior to becoming a priest.
The Rev. Dick Ross, a Baptist minister for more than 30 years, said the law makes a distinction between Catholic confessions and ministerial counseling.
“Where a priest is concerned, it’s a different ballgame,” he said. “Anything told in a confessional is protected, but with Protestants, it’s a gray area because we haven’t taken those vows. You can say anything in a confessional, and the priest’s lips are sealed. For me as a minister, I would find it hard to withhold that information if someone has done something really bad. Morally, I’ve got to do something. If people start to tell me something like that, I tell them, ‘Don’t tell me anything that I may have to tell in court.’ ”
Bills introduced in Maryland, Kentucky, Florida, New Hampshire and Nevada would have removed exemptions or explicitly stated that comments made in private talks with clergy would be subject to mandatory reporting laws. In Maryland and Kentucky, the efforts did not succeed; the others remain in limbo.