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Missing the Point...Entirely

Jul 31, 2014 — Categories: , ,

A 14 year old child goes to her priest and tells him that an adult parishioner has been initiating sexual contact with her. She asks the priest what she should do. “The child testified during deposition that [the priest’s] advice to her was to handle the issue herself because ‘too many people would be hurt.’ Court documents also say she testified, ‘He just said, this is your problem. Sweep it under the floor.’"

A 14 year old child goes to her priest and tells him that an adult parishioner has been initiating sexual contact with her. She asks the priest what she should do. “The child testified during deposition that [the priest’s] advice to her was to handle the issue herself because ‘too many people would be hurt.’ Court documents also say she testified, ‘He just said, this is your problem. Sweep it under the floor.’"

The priest did not report this disclosure of sexual abuse nor did he offer her any help or referral.

The girl’s parents are now suing the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge and the priest for negligence and failure to report the abuse as required by Louisiana law. They also claim liability on the part of the Diocese for failure to adequately train the priest about mandatory reporting.

The family won in District court. The church appealed and won in the Court of Appeals with a ruling that the young woman should not have been allowed to testify about her confession to the priest. On to the Louisiana Supreme Court and the family won again. The church plans to seek review by the US Supreme Court.

The argument focuses on a not uncommon point of confusion about the nature of confession in Catholic and Protestant settings. The church argues that the child came to the priest in the sacrament of reconciliation and “confessed that she engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with a grown man” in the church. Therefore her “confession” is covered by the seal of confession and the priest can never speak about it. This sacramental seal is legally protected; therefore he believed he could not report the sexual abuse to authorities.

This is not rocket science. A teenager approaches her priest in the setting she understands to provide a safe, confidential space and discloses sexual abuse by an adult parishioner. She is asking for help. She is not “confessing” any wrong doing. It is the responsibility of the pastor to explain this to her, to step outside of the sacrament of reconciliation, to offer her support and to explain that he needs to contact law enforcement and her parents.

In addition, the victim/survivor can choose to tell anyone she (or he) wants to, and she is certainly entitled to tell the court from which she is seeking justice. Confidential privilege only applies to the one to whom the confidence is entrusted. It does not and should not operate to silence the victim.

Now, if the perpetrator had come to the priest and confessed that he was sexually abusing this child, the priest would have had a more difficult pastoral task. This confession would have been privileged communication and the priest could not report based only on this encounter. Still, the central question remains how to care for the child victim. The priest has the pastoral authority to insist that the perpetrator turn himself in to law enforcement and be willing to accompany him in doing so. The priest can also reach out to the girl and her family to offer support.

The point is that, as pastors, we must be willing and able to see and hear a disclosure of abuse from a child in any setting and we must be prepared to respond. The sacrament of confession should never be used to “pass by on the other side” and avoid addressing child sexual abuse.

For further discussion of confidentiality and mandatory reporting see "Confidentiality and Mandatory Reporting: A Clergy Dilemma?"

Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune
www.FaithTrustInstitute.org

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'confession'

Posted by Beverley Burlock (Rev) at Aug 01, 2014 08:37 PM
If these quoted words were used in the
church's and priest's defence
“confessed that she engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with a grown man”
it is evidence of an APPALLING lack of awareness,
ESPECIALLY after all the church/clergy scandals.
SHE was not the perpetrator.
She was not confessing but asking for help.
Will we NEVER learn?!

Fox Guarding the Henhouse

Posted by Kari O'Driscoll at Aug 01, 2014 08:37 PM
This is my biggest issue with organizations self-policing in matters as serious as sexual abuse. Any adult in any position of power or influence, regardless of who they work for, ought to recognize the paramount issue here and help the person who came to them seek legal recourse. You are absolutely right that this was not a "confession," but even if it were, there is some obligation on the part of the trusted adult to alert authorities. If it were a trusted teacher or school administrator and abuse was alleged, they would have to report it by law, but inherent to so many of these organizations is a conflict of interest that keeps those in power from protecting victims. It is precisely why I disagree with colleges and universities being allowed to investigate and decide consequences for students accused of raping other students.

Reporting an offender's confession.

Posted by Boz Tchividjian at Aug 01, 2014 08:37 PM
Thank you for making me aware if this case. As A lawyer, I find the courts decision to be ridiculous and am not surprised that the church lost the appellate level. I want to make you aware of a blog I just posted that addresses the mistaken beliefs clergy members have about reporting the confessions of sexual offenders. I hope you find it helpful.

http://boz.religionnews.com/[…]/

Thanks for all that you do to bring light to the dark places of the faith community.

Great work

Posted by Brandon A. A. J. Davis at Aug 04, 2014 06:53 PM
I enjoyed reading this, I am reminded daily that the information shared in pastoral counseling sessions are private and in most cases must never be shared, as a pastor you are under a stronger tie to search your heart and mind to ensure the safety of the people we serve as spiritual leader. Thank you for shining the light on the truth of our work no matter how dark the deep may truly be, the light must always be seen in search of truth.