Bill would require Iowa clergy to report child abuse

By Barb Arland-Fye

Clergy members in Iowa would become mandatory reporters of child abuse under a bill expected to be considered this week in the Iowa House of Representatives.

However, information obtained in the confessional would not be subject to the reporting requirements, according to House File 179.

Specifically, the bill refers to “penitential communication,” defined as “a communication intended to be in confidence to a clergy member who is authorized to hear and has a duty to keep secret such communication in accordance with the discipline, tenets, customs, or practices of the clergy member’s religious group or sect.”

That exception “shall not be construed to modify or limit a clergy member’s duty to report the belief that a child has been abused when the clergy member is acting in some other capacity that would otherwise make the clergy member a mandatory reporter of abuse,” the bill reads.

The Iowa Catholic Conference supports House File 179,” said Executive Director Tom Chapman. “As drafted it satisfies our concerns about penitential communications. The bill protects confidential communications beyond just what a priest would have, but for other denominations’ clergy as well.”

Chapman said he expects the bill’s passage this week in the House and then for it to go to the Senate. “We will be watching for any negative amendments, such as taking out the language protecting penitential communications,” he said.

“It’s a logical step for clergy to be mandatory reporters,” said Alicia Owens, victim assistance coordinator for the Diocese of Davenport. Protection of children and vulnerable adults is essential, she added.

Clergy in the Diocese of Davenport are required, under diocesan policies, to report any allegations of a cleric’s sexual abuse of a minor to the diocese’s victim assistance coordinator or the vicar general, unless it is prohibited under church law, said Deacon David Montgomery, a spokesman for the diocese. The diocese also reports all allegations of abuse by living clergy to the Scott County Attorney, he noted.

The proposed law would not limit reporting to sexual abuse, but would require the reporting of any form of abuse or neglect against a child.

“There may be times priests may observe things in the course of their work in the parish or school that would constitute evidence of neglect or abuse and it would be helpful for them to report it,” Chapman said. “Currently they are able to report on a voluntary basis.”

He noted that 21 states have clergy as mandatory reporters; 18 states require everyone to report.

Iowa legislators had looked at similar legislation several years ago, but did not approve it.

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