LANSING (AP) – Michigan health care workers, social workers and educators must tell police if they suspect a child has been sexually abused. But clergy don’t face the same requirement.

Paul Wong
Cardinal Roger Mahony celebrates the annual Chrism Mass in Long Beach, Calif. yesterday. Mahony defended his handling of alleged child abuse by priests Monday. (AP PHOTO)

That fact troubles some Michigan residents, especially in light of revelations nationally that some Catholic leaders allowed priests who sexually abused children to move from parish to parish rather than reporting them to police.

But others caution the government shouldn’t be involved in handling such concerns.

Paul Long, the Michigan Catholic Conference’s vice president for public policy, said yesterday that he hopes the current “media frenzy” doesn’t result in a rush to bad law.

“Our biggest concern is with regard to the issue of confidentiality of the confessional. If the state gets into the business of mandating and regulating that abuse cases be reported, what effect would that have?” he said.

Only 15 states at the end of 2000 required clergy to report child abuse, and some that did exempted reporting if clergy learned of the abuse through confession or in their capacity as spiritual advisers, according to the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information.

Eighteen states required anyone who learned of suspected child abuse to report it to police. Among those, Utah exempts clergy if they become aware of the abuse through confession or in their role as spiritual advisers.

Nina Williams-Mbengue, senior policy specialist with the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, said some states – including Massachusetts – are beginning to look again at clerical reporting requirements in light of reports of sexual abuse by priests.

But she said lawmakers are reluctant to wade into areas such as confession that don’t apply to others already required to report sexual abuse.

“It’s (being) debated in states whether that area is so private … (it should) be outside the scope of mandatory reporting,” she said.

Long is among those who contend that it is.

“Government intervention in this case would tend to tread on First Amendment issues,” he said. “We have a very delicate concern as to how the state comes into play in these regards.”

Long also said many clergy may not interact with children in the way health care workers, social workers and educators do, and may not even know sexual abuse is going on.

The problem of clergy preying on children isn’t limited to the Catholic church.

Earlier this month, a jury found a suspended Salvation Army minister guilty of raping a young girl and molesting at least one other during sleep-overs at his Owosso home.

Randall VanLandingham was commander of the Salvation Army’s Owosso Corps. He faces trial on eight more counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct concerning five other girls.

Tom Shields of Dewitt sits on the vestry of his Episcopalian church and said he and other church officers are required to sign a document agreeing they are obligated to prevent child abuse within the church. They – along with Sunday school teachers – also get four hours of training in how to detect child abuse.

Church leaders are charged with looking into allegations of child abuse. But Shields said if those allegations are borne out, he thinks wrongdoers should be turned in to police.

“If someone is breaking laws, you have to go to the authorities. It doesn’t matter if you’re a clergyman or a garbageman,” Shields said.

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