By WILSON RING Associated Press
MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — The Vermont Legislature is considering a proposal that would end an exemption to the state’s child abuse and neglect reporting laws for members of the clergy.
On Wednesday, the Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee held the first of what could be several meetings on the subject before it votes on the proposal.
Attorney Benjamin Novogroski, of the office of Legislative Counsel, says Vermont’s mandated reporting law includes doctors, teachers and social workers who are required to report suspected child abuse and neglect. In some circumstances, members of the clergy also are required reporters, but not when the member of the clergy learns of the abuse during a setting such as the confessional.
Novogroski said that in researching the proposal, he found that when other jurisdictions have attempted to enact similar legislation it has been criticized for ostensibly interfering with the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.
“”But, really, how that would play out in Vermont is unclear,” he said.
“I feel like the balancing test here is weighing the importance of reporting child abuse versus the importance of protecting the person’s confidentiality when they want to confess because they feel guilty,” said Democratic Sen. Nader Hashim, a Democrat from Windham County.
Aryka Radke, the commissioner of the Family Services Division of the Vermont Department for Children and Families, said the division supports the proposal.
“Eliminating the clergy exemption could provide an additional path for reporting child abuse, which is definitely consistent with our department’s child welfare mission,” she said.
The measure was proposed by state Sen. Richard Sears, the longtime chair of the Judiciary Committee who has worked for years to fight child abuse.
Sears made the proposal after learning through a news story published last year by The Associated Press that Vermont is one of 33 states that exempt clergy in certain circumstances from laws requiring professionals such as teachers, physicians and psychotherapists to report information about alleged child sex abuse to police or child welfare officials.
Nationwide, the exemption has resulted in an unknown number of predators being allowed to continue abusing children for years despite having confessed the behavior to religious officials. In many cases, the privilege has been invoked to shield religious groups from civil and criminal liability after the abuse became known to civil authorities.
Sears said in December that over the years there have been cases in Vermont in which mandated reporters didn’t report instances of abuse as required but that he was unaware of any cases specifically involving members of the clergy.
During the meeting at the Statehouse in Montpelier, lawmakers heard from a judge, criminal lawyers, and a social worker, but there were no members of religious organizations present either in person or participating remotely.
After the hearing, Hashim said the proposal is not aimed at any specific faith. He said he would like members of religious faiths to testify at future hearings.
“I think hearing from a religious scholar who has an understanding of multiple religions and their laws, I think it’d be helpful,” he said.