Clergy, Laity and Child Abuse

A Policy Statement Adopted by the Executive Board, North Carolina Council of Churches, December 2, 1998

Over the past two years, increased attention has been focused on the issue of child abuse, both because of a few highly publicized cases in which children died and because of a bill debated in the General Assembly which would have made it a misdemeanor not to report suspected child abuse. While that bill did not pass, it raised the question of what duty church employees and laity have regarding child abuse. And it raised the issue of whether clergypersons must report information gathered in confessions or other confidential settings.

There is already a law in North Carolina requiring the reporting of suspected child abuse. It does not include a penalty for failure to report, nor does it recognize any exemption for clergy who discover this information in a confessional or confidential setting. The present North Carolina statute (OS § 7 A-543) reads as follows:

Any person or institution who has cause to suspect that any juvenile is abused, neglected, or dependent, as defined by GS § 7 A-517, or has died as the result of maltreatment, shall report the case of that juvenile to the Director of the Department of Social Services in the county where the juvenile resides or is found. The report may be made orally, by telephone, or in writing. The report shall include the information as is known to the person making it including the name and address of the juvenile; the name and address of the juvenile’s parent, guardian, or caretaker; age of the juvenile; the names and ages of other juveniles in the home ;the present whereabouts of the juvenile if/not the home address; the nature and extent of any injury or condition resulting from abuse, neglect, or dependency; and any other information which the person making the report believes might be helpful in establishing the need for protective services or court intervention. If the report is made orally or by telephone, the person making the report shall give the person’s name, address, and telephone number. Refusal of the person making the report to give a name shall not preclude the Department’s investigation of the alleged abuse, neglect, dependency, or death as a result of maltreatment.

(A separate paragraph requires a Department of Social Services to report suspected child sexual abuse at a day care establishment to the State Bureau of Investigation).

Efforts made in 1997-98 to modify this statute were not successful. The North Carolina Council of Churches has the following continuing concerns:

I. Because clergy or other church employees or volunteers often observe signs of abuse in children or have these signs reported to them, it is most important that clergy, church employees and church members become knowledgeable about the signs of abuse and take immediate action to end the abuse. (See Appendix for basic information about signs of child abuse.)

2. Although all persons, including all church clergy, employees, or members, are required to report evidence of child abuse immediately to the local Department of Social Services, there is no penalty for not doing so (although a North Carolina Supreme Court decision states that the violation of any law without a stated penalty is considered to be a misdemeanor.) Even though reporting abuse is essentially voluntary, the responsibility to do so is no less important.

3. In certain narrowly defined cases, this provides a dilemma for the clergyperson. If an abuser confesses his/her crime to a priest, pastor, or rabbi in the context of the confessional or of a private, confidential counseling session, the privilege of the confessional applies, and many clergy would not feel that they could or should break this privilege to report the abuser. The importance of this privilege is obvious: any abuser, feeling guilt, sorrow and regret about his or her practice, and desiring to change, needs to be able to confess the guilt and seek help toward change. If the abuser does not seek help in the first place, his or her condition would be exacerbated and the abuse would continue or increase. In addition, compelling a clergyperson to break vows of confidentiality made to God and to Church, upon threat of criminal penalty, would constitute a significant infringement on religious liberty. Hence, the North Carolina Council of Churches will continue to work to have this narrowly defined exemption for clergy privilege included in the state’s statute on child abuse. Many other states have already done so.

4. However, in exercising this privilege, the clergyperson has grave responsibilities in requiring of the abuser that the abuse stop at once, that all parties to the abuse seek immediate counseling help, and that, in some appropriate cases, restitution be made by the abuser to the abusee or the abusee’ s family.

5. Furthermore, if the clergyperson learns or observes that the child abuse is continuing, many will feel that they are no longer bound by the sacramental seal and that they must report the abuse to the proper authorities. Also, many clergypersons who feel that the abusee is in serious physical danger or hear threats which appear life-threatening to the abusee will feel that this must be reported at once to the Department of Social Services. In addition, if a clergyperson sees evidence of abuse, this is not a privileged communication and must be reported. In all cases, the clergyperson, as well as all church- employed personnel, must take all possible steps to prevent any further abuse from being carried out.

6. It should be the general practice of all church-employed personnel to educate themselves and the congregation about the various types of abuse, the legal requirements for reporting and possible steps that might be taken to prevent abuse of all kinds. Church denominational offices, social service agencies, and the North Carolina Council of Churches have resources which can be helpful.

7. While the North Carolina reporting statute does not consider other forms of abuse, such as spouse or elder abuse, it is often true that child abuse is not an isolated incident in a family or by an individual. An abusive family system is more likely to be discovered in following up cases of child abuse.  Therefore, it is incumbent upon all church-employed personnel, clergy or laity, to be aware of the larger pattern of abuse that might be present and take steps to prevent it.

8. Beyond all legal requirements of reporting abusive relationships, there is the pastoral responsibility of counseling and healing which must be initiated and continue with the abuser, the abusee, and the families of both. The Christian responsibility of clergy and laity goes far beyond the legal steps of  reporting and is best exercised by a continuing relationship of trust and spiritual guidance provided by clergy and specially trained laity.

Click here to access the NC Department of Social Services’ page on child abuse.

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