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Maryland hospital for priests not required to report all suspected abuse

In Making Decision, Maryland Attorney General's Office Contradicts Statement by Staff Lawyer

By Avram Goldstein - Washington Post
Sunday, June 30, 2002

The Maryland attorney general's office has contradicted one of its staff lawyers and allowed St. Luke Institute, the Silver Spring psychiatric hospital that treats Catholic priests who have sexually abused minors, to continue its policy of not reporting suspected abuse to authorities if it occurred outside Maryland.

In a letter last week, Deputy Attorney General Carmen M. Shepard declared that Maryland health care practitioners are not obligated to tell law enforcement agencies about suspected abuse outside the state unless the alleged victim currently lives in Maryland. For suspected abuse that occurred in Maryland, the law requires reporting of every incident to authorities.

The issue is significant for St. Luke Institute because most of the priests it treats are from other states.

St. Luke's policy has always been not to notify police when its patients tell therapists about abuse that occurred outside Maryland. The institute's officials maintained that they were not legally required to make such reports, and they argued that doing so would violate doctor-patient confidentiality.

On June 12, an assistant attorney general said the hospital's policy violated Maryland's reporting law. But in view of Shepard's letter, the hospital policy will stand, said the Rev. Stephen J. Rossetti, St. Luke's chief executive.

Legal and child abuse experts expressed surprise and concern about the Maryland attorney general's interpretation and said no other state considers the victim's location in applying reporting obligations.

"We are unaware of any other state that places such geographic restrictions on the requirement that a health care practitioner report any suspected child abuse," said Susan Kreston, deputy director of the Alexandria-based National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse. "I'm disturbed, to say the least. . . . From a public policy standpoint, it makes no sense."

Victim advocates said the policy may help the Catholic Church maintain the secrecy that has characterized its handling of abusive priests, despite rules adopted by the nation's Catholic bishops in Dallas this month.

Those rules call on dioceses to report an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor to civil authorities but do not require them to make a report if the alleged victim is no longer a minor. The bishops also voted to dismiss from public ministry, but not the priesthood, any priest found to have committed sexual misconduct with a minor.

Victim advocates said that it remains to be seen whether the dioceses will follow their own guidelines and that a strict reporting requirement at St. Luke -- which has treated hundreds of priests for sexual and other disorders since it was founded in 1981 -- would be an important safeguard against continued coverup.

The limit on reporting at St. Luke "has not served the protection of children and has not served the church itself, because it has allowed them to continue to keep the secret," said Ellen Mugmon, legislative chairwoman of the Maryland State Council on Child Abuse and Neglect. "It has created more victims and opened the church to scandal and suits. The offender is placed in situations that allow him to re-offend."

Rossetti, however, said reducing doctor-patient confidentiality might deter some priests from seeking care at St. Luke, which would be a loss for society.

"I think we're part of the solution, not part of the problem," Rossetti said. "We have protected hundreds of children from being molested.

"In the future, this won't be a problem, because the archdioceses will report them all and dismiss them all," added Rossetti, referring to abusive priests.

St. Luke has been under scrutiny since May 16, when a Catholic priest in its care committed suicide. State health officials performed their first in-depth inspection of the facility after the suicide, and on June 11, they cited St. Luke for failing to demonstrate that it had ever reported abuse learned about in treatment sessions.

Inspectors found no records showing that St. Luke had given police the names of priests, and they said St. Luke furnished no evidence that it had ever notified any agency by phone about abuse.

St. Luke officials said they complied with in-state reporting requirements but thought it unnecessary to keep written records.

Wendy Kronmiller, an assistant attorney general who advises the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, had said in a June 12 interview that Maryland law requires health care providers to report suspected child sexual abuse, regardless of its location. And she said that her office had been advising Maryland government agencies, including the department that manages social services agencies, for several years to enforce that rule.

But Shepard said last week that the attorney general's office has consistently held the view that the law does not require the reporting of out-of-state abuse.

In fact, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. wrote a letter to Maryland's child abuse council in 1991 recommending that the General Assembly close the loophole. Several attempts to follow that advice failed, with the bills never clearing the House Judiciary Committee.

Staff writers Alan Cooperman and David S. Fallis contributed to this report.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company


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