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New state law requires clergy to report child abuse

From September 2002:

Priests and deacons in the Archdiocese of St. Louis are being reminded that a new law considers them as mandatory reporters of child abuse or neglect in all but a few limited situations.

The requirements of the new legislation will be included in the archdiocesan sexual abuse and child abuse policies, currently under revision.

Msgr. Richard F. Stika, vicar general and chancellor of the archdiocese, encouraged priests to contact the archdiocesan legal counsel, Bernard C. Huger, with any questions about the new statute.

Huger wrote that the new law expands the classification of mandated reporter to include all priests and ordained deacons. The law requires them to make a report to the Division of Family Services "if they have reasonable cause to suspect that a child has been or may be subjected to abuse or neglect or observe a child being subjected to conditions or circumstance which would reasonably result in abuse or neglect," Huger wrote in a letter accompanying a note to priests from Msgr. Stika.

Huger stated that many priests and some deacons already are classified as mandated reporters through their positions. Under existing law, teachers, principals and other school officials (including pastors of parishes with schools or school of religion), health-care professionals and social workers are classified as mandated reporters.

A priest or deacon or other nonCatholic "minister" shall not be required to report a privileged communication made to him or her in a professional capacity, Huger wrote. This would include spiritual counseling and spiritual direction as well as confession. Child-abuse laws do not supersede the priest-penitent or attorney-client privileges.

Rev. Mr. Phil Hengen, assistant to the vicar of priests and a longtime member of the archdiocese's committee investigating reports of clergy abuse, said he is familiar with the law because it applies to his professional life as a licensed clinical social worker.

Deacon Hengen noted that in his career he has had only one incidence where he called the Division of Family Services. But, while it is not a common occurrence, "it is something we need to be aware of," he said.

Anyone "who is prudent, has common sense and loves children" would make the call when warranted, he said.

Calls can be made anonymously.

Deacon Hengen added that the Division of Family Services is competent and reasonable in its investigations.

There are instances of false reports, but those can be quickly cleared up, he noted. "The Division of Family Services doesn't even open a case when there's no grounds. ... The law works as it should in my experience."

The law provides protection for the person making a report, he said, and takes a cautious approach. "I'm a father and a grandfather, so I understand wanting to do all we can to protect children," Deacon Hengen said.

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