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The obligation to report abuse

December 8, 2004
The Commercial Appeal - Memphis, TN

Officials of the Memphis Catholic Diocese say there are certain crimes that are "not reportable" -- the sexual abuse of a minor by a priest who doesn't have legal custody of the victim, for example.

The approach is no doubt informed by legal advice, but it offers little comfort to those who expect the diocese to be actively involved in the battle against sexual abuse.

In fact, the diocese may have not only a public duty to report allegations of sexual abuse but a legal responsibility as well.

Referring to previous sexual abuse allegations that have come to the attention of diocese officials, diocesan spokesman Father John Geaney told The Commercial Appeal: "Some of the things that happened are not reportable."

In the case of Father Juan Carlos Duran, accused four years ago by a parish couple of sexually abusing their son, "the relationship he had with Father Duran was noncustodial. That's not a reportable crime."

An interpretation of the law that would make it inappropriate for church officials or anyone else to report knowledge of a crime seems contorted at best.

The church's interpretation of "custodial" is too narrow in the view of Asst. Dist. Atty. Kevin Rardin, chief prosecutor of child sexual abuse cases in Shelby County and head of the Child Protection Investigation Team.

The approach certainly seems to thwart the intent of Tennessee's sexual abuse reporting law, an important tool in the battle against this underreported crime.

In fact, the legislature framed its reporting requirements in language inclusive enough to cover virtually every situation.

The question emerges from one of two cases that local diocese officials have had to confront: a report two years ago by a man who said he had been sexually abused by Father Paul W. St. Charles as a teenager in the late 1970s and allegations against Duran by another teenager's parents two years earlier.

Both cases involved alleged victims between 13 and 17 years of age. Neither case was reported to the police, although church officials took action internally.

Geaney said diocese officials don't believe they're obligated to report cases such as the St. Charles allegation if the alleged victim is an adult when he or she comes forward. In the Duran case, not being the child's custodian made the case "not reportable."

In many cases, sexual abuse allegations will come to the attention of authorities with or without the church's effort to make that happen.

Still, the opportunity to report allegations should be seized by any individual or institution concerned about a crime with the serious social and personal ramifications of sexual abuse.

In a letter to Dist. Atty. Gen. Bill Gibbons, Rev. J. Terry Steib, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Memphis, said the church will abide by "all mandated reporting requirements."

That approach might satisfy the church's legal obligations, but it doesn't go far enough.

Steib promised in a Viewpoint guest column on these pages last March that the church will "do everything in our power to make our world in West Tennessee a safe haven for all our children."

Reporting every case of child sexual abuse to law enforcement authorities should be part of that commitment.


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests