Cardinal McCarrick Decries Maryland
Child Abuse Bill
Cardinal Questions Effect on Confessional
By Jo Becker and Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 22, 2003
Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick is taking aim at the Maryland General
Assembly, charging that a legislative proposal that would require
priests to report suspected child abuse would violate the sanctity
of the confessional.
"If this bill were to pass, I shall instruct
all priests in the Archdiocese of Washington who serve in Maryland
to ignore it," McCarrick wrote in a column in the latest issue
of the Catholic Standard. " . . . On this issue, I will gladly
plead civil disobedience and willingly -- if not gladly -- go to
In the wake of the Catholic Church's child sexual
abuse scandal, state legislatures across the country are considering
proposals aimed at preventing abuse by priests and at increasing
the time victims have to sue the church.
Connecticut, Pennsylvania and California have extended
their statutes of limitation, and Massachusetts passed a law last
year requiring clergy to report any child abuse except information
obtained in a confessional. Similar bills have been introduced in
other states, including Virginia, and lawmakers in Kentucky and
New Hampshire want to eliminate the priest-penitent privilege altogether.
But so far, just two of the 33 states that require
clergy to report child sexual abuse specifically include information
obtained in the confessional. Current Maryland law, for instance,
contains a broad exemption for the clergy to protect such information.
That could soon change. A bill pushed by Sen. Delores
G. Kelley (D-Baltimore) would require a priest to report any information
about child abuse obtained in the confessional unless it was a direct
admission from the perpetrator.
Information offered by victims during confession would
have to be reported, as would information from third parties, such
as the wife of a suspected abuser. The bill contains no penalties
for failure to comply.
Some legal experts questioned the bill's constitutionality,
but victim advocates say the current clergy exemption is too broad.
"It should be the highest moral responsibility
to protect children in their own congregation," said Ellen
Mugmon, legislative chairwoman of the Maryland State Council on
Child Abuse and Neglect. "The scandals have made it abundantly
clear that reporting by religious organizations, and not just the
Catholic Church, hasn't occurred -- and to disastrous effect."
The Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal came to
light early last year in Boston when the media disclosed that church
officials there had covered up child abuse by several priests, reassigned
them to parishes even after their misconduct had been established,
and negotiated secret settlements with victims. The scandal spread
across the country as victims came forward: Nationwide, about 325
priests have been removed from ministry for child abuse in the past
McCarrick has been more outspoken and apologetic about
the pedophilia scandal than many Catholic bishops. He has often
publicly expressed his concern for the victims and stressed the
need for church reforms to ensure that child abuse by priests is
stamped out and punished.
His spokeswoman noted yesterday that the Archdiocese
of Washington -- which includes the District, Montgomery and Prince
George's counties and Southern Maryland -- has instructed its priests
to inform both civil authorities and the archdiocese about allegations
of child abuse, including by priests, since the early 1990s.
Kelley said McCarrick's opposition to her bill "hurts
his position -- they're trying to show that they are clearing things
up and putting in checks and balances."
Virginia resident Mark Serrano, a board member of
the national advocacy group Survivors Network of those Abused by
Priests, agreed. "I think in our society there should be no
special place where sex offenders can hide from the law," said
Serrano, who supports Kelley's bill.
But McCarrick said the bill would go too far, forcing
priests to violate church law by breaking the sacramental seal of
the confessional. "History is filled with stories of priests
who suffered even death rather than break that solemn seal,"
he said, urging his 550,000 followers to contact legislators. "If
there is a gauntlet involved in this process, then I throw it down
Steve Kearney, spokesman for Cardinal William H. Keeler
of the Baltimore Archdiocese, said breaking the confidentiality
of the confessional is "one of the more serious things a priest
can do" and results in "immediate and automatic excommunication."
"We are working with legislators through the
Maryland Catholic Conference to find a resolution," Kearney
Several secular legal experts questioned whether the
bill could pass constitutional muster. Elliot Mincberg, legal director
at People for the American Way Foundation, a nonprofit group that
supports church-state separation, said the state is on tricky legal
ground and would have to show that the law is narrowly drawn to
serve a compelling state interest. "This could be seen as directly
conflicting with the rights of Catholics to practice religion in
accord with their church's doctrine," he said.
Richard Dowling, a lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic
Conference, is pushing lawmakers to kill the bill, along with legislation
pushed by Kelley and others that would extend the time a victim
of child sexual abuse can file a civil suit.
The concern over the state's statute of limitations,
which requires victims to file suit by age 21, stems in part from
the dismissal of lawsuits filed by victims raped in the 1970s by
Baltimore Catholic schoolteacher John Merzbacher.
Dowling said that the reporting bill might be well-intentioned
but that it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the sacrament
"Say the wife of an abuser confesses to not having
turned in her husband who she suspects is abusing their child. She
is seeking solace and forgiveness," Dowling said. "If
we had a law that forced the priest to disclose that to authorities,
wouldn't we possibly be putting her and the child at risk? And what
if the penitent is behind the screen? The law envisions that the
priest would have to ask the penitent for his or her name, address
and phone number."
McCarrick's aggressive lobbying campaign in a state
with a large Catholic population is already eroding support among
some lawmakers. Del. Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery) co-sponsored the
legislation "because I wanted to protect children from abuse."
Now, she is rethinking that decision. "I don't want to support
anything that breaks the confidential communication of the confessional,"
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