Nearly one year after U.S. Catholic bishops adopted a "zero tolerance" policy against priests who sexually abuse children, the legal fallout continues to intensify. The impact goes beyond existing civil and criminal cases against the Roman Catholic Church or its priests. Experts say newly passed or proposed state laws have the potential to transform the way all religious institutions - and other nonprofits - do business internally and are held accountable publicly. Observers also say these developments could also transform the church-state relationship in unprecedented ways. As the bishops prepare to meet June 19-21 in St. Louis, the effect of government scrutiny of the church is increasing.
In California, Gov. Gray Davis signed a law in April that extends the statute of limitations in clergy abuse cases, and several other states are considering similar measures. Meanwhile, some states are weighing legislation that would force clergy to report confessions of child abuse, even if they are told in confidence. Most religious groups say that would be a landmark change that could threaten a relationship they consider sacred. Currently only Texas does not exempt disclosures made in confession. Bills introduced in Maryland, Kentucky, Florida, New Hampshire and Nevada would have removed exemptions or explicitly stated that comments made in private talks with clergy would be subject to mandatory reporting laws. In Maryland and Kentucky the efforts did not succeed; the others remain in play. In addition, efforts to change longstanding charitable immunity laws that capped liability for charities are of great concern to nonprofits of all kinds.
Apart from legislation, experts say the scandal ended the traditional deference accorded to religious institutions by prosecutors and judges. District attorneys are now much more willing to issue subpoenas and convene grand juries to investigate places of worship, and judges are more willing to give them the latitude to do so in both criminal and civil cases. Their newfound assertiveness is due in part to the public's profound disenchantment with religious organizations and their leaders.
The debates over the legal issues promise to go on for months, perhaps years, and the courts will have the final word on the constitutionality of new laws. Already unusual alliances are forming. Catholic leaders and civil libertarians say they fear this is the beginning of a larger movement that could undermine the principle of church and state separation, while victims groups counter that church secrecy allowed abuse to continue for decades and that removing the special protections afforded religious organizations is necessary to protect children.
Questions for reporters
One year after the Catholic bishops' June 14, 2002, vote, what changes have occurred or been proposed in your state? How are religious organizations (of all stripes, not just Catholic), civil rights groups and victims organizations mobilizing for or against such laws? How has it affected their policies? What impact could such laws have on current civil lawsuits and criminal investigations of abuse? How do defense lawyers, plaintiffs' attorneys and local prosecutors say their attitudes and actions toward religious organizations and officials have changed? Do church members and the general public say such laws are needed, or do they say they threaten religious groups' right to operate according to tenets of their faith?
Why it matters
At a time when political leaders are proclaiming their religious beliefs, civil libertarians on both the right and left say they fear that the wall between church and state is in danger of being chipped away. Attempts by some states to eliminate the clergy-penitent privilege could prove to be one of the biggest constitutional challenges to the separation of church and state.
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IN FAVOR OF CONFESSIONAL LAWS
David Clohessy is the national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. Clohessy and the group have advocated for the creation of state laws that remove the confidentiality of the confessional. Contact 314-566-9790, SNAPClohessy@aol.com.
• Sue Archibald is president of The Linkup, an advocacy group for victims of sexual abuse by priests. Archibald supported legislation in Kentucky, which did not succeed, to eliminate the confidentiality of the confessional. Contact 502-290-4055, LinkupOffice@aol.com.
AGAINST CONFESSIONAL LAWS
Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a liberal lobbying group based in Washington, D.C., that monitors recent state legislation aimed at removing the confidentiality seal of the confessional. Contact Rob Boston, assistant director of communications, 202-466-3234, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Michael Schwartz is vice president for government relations for Concerned Women for America, a conservative group based in Washington, D.C. He also is a Catholic activist who has called state efforts to break the sanctity of the confessional an attack on religious liberty. Contact 202-488-7000.
• The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights is a New York City-based watchdog group that has spoken out against state attempts to pass laws removing the confidentiality of the confessional. Contact Louis Giovino, director of communications, 212-371-3191.
• The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has fought state efforts to pass laws that require priests to report information heard in the confessional. Contact Sister Mary Ann Walsh, 202-541-3000.
• The Rev. Charles H. Nalls is an Anglican priest and executive director of the nondenominational Canon Law Institute in Washington, D.C. He and his group have expressed concern about efforts to remove the confidentiality seal of the confessional. Contact 202-466-2350, email@example.com.
• Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Texas, has warned that the spate of new laws - from lengthening the statute of limitations to weakening clergy-penitent protections - could fundamentally change how churches operate. Contact 512-232-1341, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• A June 2002 Gallup Poll reported that Americans' confidence in their religious institutions was at an all-time low.
• A May 2003 Boston Globe poll found that well over half of Boston-area Catholics say that prosecutors should try to criminally charge Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned in December, for his role in covering up for abusive priests.
• Read a Jan. 8, 2003, article in the Louisville Courier-Journal on the stalled Kentucky bill aimed at unsealing abusers' confessions.
• Read a Feb. 7, 2003, Associated Press article on the web site Kentucky.com that details a Kentucky legislative panel's review of the proposed confessional bill.
• Read a Feb. 12, 2003, article in the Concord Monitor on a New Hampshire bill that would remove the clergy-penitent privilege.
• Read a Feb. 22, 2003, article in The Washington Post on Washington, D.C., Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick's reaction to the proposed confessional bill in Maryland.
• Read a March 1, 2003, article in The Washington Post on the Maryland Legislature's rejection of a bill that would have required priests to report information given in confession.
• Read a March 7, 2003, article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal on a bill that would breach confessional privacy.
• Read a March 10, 2003, article from the Catholic News Service on the web site for the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C. It looks at recent state efforts to try to break the confessional seal.
• Read a March 4, 2003, Associated Press article on Beliefnet looking at the status of current state efforts to break the confessional seal.
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