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The Kansas bill would give clergy the mandate to report child sexual abuse

A Kansas senator has renewed his push to add clergy to the list of authorized child abuse and neglect reporters, but the lack of protection for religious denominations sets the stage for opposition.

Senator Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City introduced SB 87, which requires ordained ministers to report suspected physical, sexual or emotional abuse and child neglect.

“Our children are 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, and the children of Kansas have suffered because of their silence.”

The clergy would join the existing roster of commissioned reporters that includes medical and mental health providers, teachers and school administrators, child care providers and first responders. Failure to report, interfering with a report, or knowingly making a false report are all misdemeanors.

The confession would not be protected

Dutch law will not exempt privileged penitential communications. Without penitential privilege, clergy who learn of suspected abuse through confession would have to choose between violating their religious beliefs or breaking the law. Penitential communications are already privileged in judicial proceedings.

The lack of such protection could be an obstacle to the advancement of legislation that would otherwise have greater support.

Chuck Weber, executive director of the Kanas Catholic Conference, said the group’s position hasn’t changed since 2019, when the Netherlands first introduced similar legislation. The Catholic Conference — as well as the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas — maintains that ordained clergy are commissioned reporters, provided the seal of the confession is protected.

The Catholic Church has maintained that a priest is obligated not to reveal the contents of a confession, even if it means going to prison. Breaking the seal of the confession could lead to excommunication.

In 2019, the chancellor of the archdiocese, the Rev. John Riley, testified that the church is “committed to doing everything reasonably possible to prevent abuse, report suspected abuse, and provide ongoing awareness training and background checks.” as well as working with law enforcement agencies.

Weber also indicated working within the Catholic Church to create a safer environment for children, including required training for clergy and others on identifying, reporting and preventing child sexual abuse.

Holland said that for states that include clergy in their mandatory reporting laws, some do and others do not protect penitential privilege. He fears the privilege would be “a back door to not reporting” which in turn discourages law enforcement from investigating.

“If we have a religious organization where this is a pervasive problem, my concern is that the exemption basically becomes standard operating procedure where if something happens, you run and go confess it, and now when the investigators come it’s like, ‘I don’t know, we are not obligated to share this information,'” he said.

He said exempting confessions would be both a compromise and “the easy way out”.

“There are a lot of stakeholders involved here,” Holland said. “It’s really going to come down to the legislator’s willingness to try and address this, and then what’s the consensus? At the end of the day, if we can get anything done, that’s a start.”

Moreover:The church abuse investigation suspects 188 Kansas priests of committing crimes, but no charges have been filed

Kansas Senate bill follows KBI report

Holland’s renewed push comes weeks after the release of a Kansas Bureau of Investigation report on child sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Catholic Church. Archbishop Joseph Naumann of the Kansas City Archdiocese in Kansas has called for the investigation, and former Attorney General Derek Schmidt released the KBI report on his last working day in office.

The KBI investigation identified 188 priests suspected of committing crimes in each of Kansas’ four Catholic dioceses. The agency opened 125 criminal cases and filed 30 indictment affidavits with local prosecutors.

No one has been prosecuted, largely because of the statute of limitations. A handful of bipartisan lawmakers joined survivors earlier this month in pushing to change the law to allow prosecutions and civil lawsuits for past abuses, which SB 95 would do.

Moreover:“Listen to us,” child sexual abuse survivors plead. Will Kansas lawmakers make legal reforms?

“The way we solve this problem is more than this problem of making journalists mandatory for clergy and priests,” Holland said. “You have issues with the statute of limitations, which others have also tried to address. So there are a number of pieces to the puzzle.”

At a press conference outside the Johnson County Courthouse, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests called on Attorney General Kris Kobach to publicly name the accused priests and release a more detailed report. The group also promised to file a request for open records.

Typically, prosecutors do not publicly release information about people not charged with a crime. Acting KBI director Tony Mattivi said that’s why there are internal talks at the KBI and the attorney general’s office about “whether it’s something we’re allowed to do, and if we’re allowed to do it, we want it.”

The archdiocese previously released its own list of substantiated allegations of clergy sexual abuse of a minor.

“Make no mistake,” Holland said of the KBI report, “this is pervasive and I’m convinced it keeps happening. And it’s not just with a particular Christian faith. But it’s out there and we need to do something as a legislator to protect children in the Kansas”.

Past attempts have failed

The Netherlands has been trying for years to require religious ministers to report suspected abuses.

He started in 2019 with SB 37, which had no protections for penitential privilege.

“But working bipartisanly with the Republican leadership, the Republican Senate leadership has basically said that for us to do anything here, you need to put that privilege exception into the bill,” Holland said. “And so I accepted.”

The Netherlands then introduced a new “weaker version” of the bill, SB 218, which provided protections for penitential privilege. It approved the Senate Committee on Federal and State Affairs and unanimously approved the entire Senate. But then he sat on the House Federal and State Affairs Committee until hearings scheduled in March 2020 were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill then died in committee.

In 2021 Holland tried again with SB 75. That bill also protected penitential privilege. The bill was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it sat without a hearing for two years before dying at the end of the 2022 session.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands tried last year to force debate on a constitutional amendment to address the issue. The motion to withdraw Resolution SCR 1624 from committee failed along party lines.

“I wanted people to get recorded, because I was tired of joking around and letting them know I’m not going to walk away with this issue,” he said.

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