A Time to Speak
By: Carl Chinn
Some months back I wrote about good times to be quiet – there are a lot of them. But there are also times to speak. It takes wisdom to know the difference – courage and resolve to speak when it’s time.
The clergy / penitent privilege is one of the great things about our wonderful nation. We have the ability to confide in our pastor or priest without fear of our confessions becoming gossip. This is a right (some states call it priest / penitent privilege, clergy privilege, confessional privilege or ecclesiastical privilege) protected by each state by state statutes (§).
There are conditions to that clergy / penitent privilege in many of those individual states however which mandate disclosure of certain confessions to law enforcement or social services. These mandated requirements are typically focused on protecting the welfare of children who may be in danger of neglect or abuse.
With all laws there is a certain amount of ignorance in the application. Many who are in pastoral positions dismiss the importance of this reporting structure, and the application is a grey area at times. For example, what if the person is talking about an act that occurred some years back, and no child is currently in danger? Some state statutes are better at the interpretation of that than others, and many don’t address it at all.
A lot of attention has been on the Etan Patz story recently. As many of you know, 6-year-old Etan left his lower Manhattan home on 5/25/1979 bound for his bus-stop to go to school. It was the very first time he had made the 2 block journey alone. Nobody has seen him since. Now the investigation is centered on a man who (among other things) told his church bible study group in the early 1980’s that he had killed little Etan.
In this case, part of the gray area is that the killer didn’t confess is to a pastor. He confessed it to a bible-study group. Even though there were about 50 people in the group, there is no record of any of them coming forward. At least one now says she did report it, and she very well may have. If so however, the report was not followed up on (at best). While there are moral obligations to report some things, legal obligations to do so are often difficult to prove.
Think About it:
- The Child Welfare Information Gateway is a good resource for understanding where your state comes in on the issue. Go to their State Statutes search to find your individual § reference. For a document produced by them summarizing this issue as it relates to the protection of children, go to Clergy as Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect: Summary of State Laws
- Beyond (but based on) the law, the insurance coverage for many churches has a clause requiring reporting of certain crimes. Each church security leader should have a full copy of the church insurance policy and become familiar with all aspects of it – especially the mandatory reporting sections.
- There is a case right now in Antioch California where 6 sisters are suing their former church and specific pastors for failing to protect them. One of the girls had gone to their pastor to report abuse in the home in 1995. While the pastor knew he must report it to authorities, he tipped of the parents first so they would have a “heads up”. The girls were allegedly subjected to awful treatment and pre-conditioning of what they could say before authorities visited their home. Read more at the East Bay News.
- Grooming of relationships is in the DNA of an abuser. He, she or they will be persuasive with relationships. They could be a “pillar in the community”. Those close to them will “feel bad” for them, and not want to see them get in trouble. Please understand that is part of their con-game. Deal with abuse directly and decisively.
- As security operators have these discussions with your church leadership. Sit down with the pastoral staff and the counselors and make sure they are all aware of both moral and legal obligations. When the specific situation is unclear, make sure there is diligence and counsel applied in walking through it.
- As with all church security issues, have an attorney close by. Do not try to read the state statutes without legal help – it is too important of an issue.