BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — In light of horrific sex abuse scandals in the Diocese of Buffalo and across the country, a Cheektowaga lawmaker has proposed a new law that would require Catholic priests and other clergy members to report child abuse in New York State.
Despite some resistance by the Diocese of Buffalo, it appears to have widespread support from lawmakers in Western New York.
Under the bill introduced by State Assemblywoman Monica P. Wallace (D-Cheektowaga), all clergy -- regardless of religion -- would be added to the dozens of professions that are already required by law to report child abuse when they become aware of it in the course of doing their jobs.
"That legislation is what I see as the next essential step in ensuring that we never have the kinds of sex abuse scandals that we’re seeing now, in the future," Wallace said at a news conference in downtown Buffalo.
As the laws are written now, Catholic priests and other clergy in New York State are under no legal obligation to report to authorities that a child has been abused.
"Currently, there are 45 other professionals listed" as mandated reporters, Wallace said. "Clergy are not among them."
In fact, New York's current laws include a "clergy privilege" carve-out that exempts them from reporting anything they hear in the course of a confession. The proposed bill would keep that privilege intact for all cases except child abuse, meaning priests and others who are told a child has been abused -- even in confession -- would be required to notify authorities.
Buffalo Bishop Richard J. Malone said in a statement that he will "fully endorse" mandated reporting, but refuses to support the part of the proposed legislation regarding clergy privilege and confession.
"I will never endorse any bill that allows for violation of the confidentiality and inviolability (the “seal”) of confession," Malone said. "The faithful have the right to expect total confidentiality when they confess their sins and seek God’s forgiveness. History gives evidence that priests have accepted death rather than violate the seal of confession.”
Rep. Brian Higgins (D-Buffalo) said, "There can always be exceptions, but the bottom line here is if priests or Catholic teachers were mandatory reporters, I think we would have convictions -- both criminal and civil -- and a lot of pain could have been avoided."
Higgins told 7 Eyewitness News that former Bishop Henry J. Mansell opposed similar legislation that Higgins introduced when he was an Assemblyman in the early 2000s.
"If there’s nothing to hide, why would you oppose that bill?" Higgins said. "The Catholic Diocese has demonstrated that it shuns the abused an it protects the abuser. That’s a problem."
But he said when it comes to the church's political influence, times have changed.
"I suspect that given what’s occurred in the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo and throughout the nation and the world, that that bill will pass with overwhelming support of both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and Assembly," Higgins said.
State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, D-Buffalo, appears ready to help Wallace make that happen. He successfully championed the recently enacted Child Victims Act, which expanded the statutes of limitation for sex crimes against children.
"This is the next step," Kennedy said. "Any time we can get an increase in reporting measures to get individuals -- those abusers -- accountable, it’s extremely important that we’re looking at that."
The proposed legislation would also make it a felony for mandatory reporters to fail to report second and third offenses of child abuse. It would also increase penalties for mandatory reporters "who act as part of a plan or scheme to conceal the abuse or maltreatment," Wallace's staff said.
Wallace's staff said 34 states already include clergy as mandated reporters.
"It’s time that New York joined them," she said.
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