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Kansas Democrats introduce Senate bill requiring clergy to report suspected abuse

TOPEKA — Sen. Tom Holland is trying for the fourth time to get the Kansas legislature to pass a measure requiring ministers and clergy who lead religious organizations to be required to report suspected child abuse or neglect.

Holland, a Baldwin City Democrat, gained ground on a bill in 2019, but progress has been halted during the COVID-19 pandemic. A comparable bill introduced in 2021 and a proposed state constitutional amendment in 2022 have not reached the governor’s desk. The latest incarnation is Senate Bill 87, which would place ordained ministers and clergy with health care workers, teachers, child care providers, firefighters, law enforcement officers, and others required by state law to report abuse of the authorities.

“I am very optimistic that this time the legislator will take the opportunity to look into this issue,” Holland said in an interview on Thursday. “This is a bill that needs to be heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee.”

Previous efforts to expand the circle of reporters assigned to church officials have been met with questions about the violation of the sanctity of confessionals or other “privileged conversations.” The new Dutch bill does not provide an exemption for church leaders who find evidence of abuse through private discussions.

Other skeptics of the legislation have raised the possibility that the judicial system considers the law a violation of the separation of church and state.

Derek Schmidt, the former Kansas attorney general, before leaving office in January, released a summary of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation’s four-year investigation into Catholic clergy abuse. The KBI investigation led to the identification of 188 church members suspected of committing crimes ranging from indecent liberties with a child to aggravated sexual assault and rape. KBI officials forwarded documents to local prosecutors in 30 cases, but statute of limitations and other impediments prevented them from pressing charges against anyone.

The KBI investigation has been a sensitive issue as Kansas Catholic dioceses and organizations like Kansans for Life have taken the lead in seeking statewide voter approval of a constitutional amendment overturning a Kansas Supreme Court decision which established that women had the right to bodily autonomy and to abortion. In August, the Value Them Both amendment was rejected by more than 170,000 votes.

Holland said the “sobering” summary of the KBI investigation, the conclusion of the constitutional amendment vote on abortion rights and the election of Kris Kobach as the new attorney general provided a window of opportunity to reconsider abortion requirements. reporting from church leaders.

“Our children are being taught to trust certain authority figures in their communities, because adults are supposed to speak up for children when they’ve been harmed,” Holland said. “Too many of our religious leaders, those who are critical to the development of our sense of self and our spirituality, have violated that trust.”

He was drawn to the issue in 2019 after members drew his attention to leaders of a Lawrence church who discouraged reporting child sexual abuse. At the urging of Senate Republicans, Holland amended his bill to exempt information disclosed to clergy during private religious confessionals.

In 2022, he attempted to force the Senate to act on a constitutional change dubbed the “Stop Protecting Pedophile Priests Amendment.” He needed 24 votes from senators to withdraw the amendment from a committee, but his request was rejected 10-24.

“The Kansas Legislature has a duty to protect Kansas children, but has failed to take action in past years to address this horror,” Holland said.

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