Abstract: Addressing Loopholes in Child Protection Reporting: Examining Exemptions for Clergy in Priest-Penitent Relationships (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

All in-person and virtual presentations are in Mountain Standard Time Zone (MST).

SSWR 2023 Poster Gallery: as a registered in-person and virtual attendee, you have access to the virtual Poster Gallery which includes only the posters that elected to present virtually. The rest of the posters are presented in-person in the Poster/Exhibit Hall located in Phoenix A/B, 3rd floor. The access to the Poster Gallery will be available via the virtual conference platform the week of January 9. You will receive an email with instructions how to access the virtual conference platform.

692P Addressing Loopholes in Child Protection Reporting: Examining Exemptions for Clergy in Priest-Penitent Relationships

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Phoenix C, 3rd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Jeffrey Trant, MSW, Ph.D. Candidate, State University of New York at Albany, Albany, NY
Background and Purpose: Sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergy is a global crisis that has impacted countless children, families, and communities over the last 70 years (Terry et al. 2011). Priest-penitent privilege (“privilege”) is a controversial exception to mandated reporting requirements in cases of child maltreatment, especially instances of child sexual abuse. The privilege is a central tenet of the Catholic faith, which states a person confesses their sins directly to God through the priest and subsequently receives forgiveness. Canon law stipulates that a priest who breaks the seal of confession will be excommunicated. There is a growing movement around the world to abolish the privilege for cases of child abuse.

There is a critical need to understand how the privilege differs across child protection policies in the Church and civil statutes. Greater insight into how this policy dimension is defined and codified in statute can potentially inform church and state policies that lead to improved mandated reporting laws. This study is the first of its kind that examined how the privilege differs (1) in various Catholic archdioceses child protection policies and (2) across Catholic archdioceses and civil statutes.

Methods: Comparative content analysis was employed to conduct a policy analysis using publicly available Catholic child protection policies and state civil statutes. The sample in this analysis included archdioceses’ child protection policies (“policies”) and civil statutes along with their differential child protection statutes (“statutes”) from different regions across the United States, which were matched for comparison according to jurisdictional alignment (N=5). A priori policy dimensions were: Child maltreatment including, physical abuse, neglect, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse; historical sexual abuse of a minor; mandated reporters, clergy and laity; reporting process/ requirements: criminal, civil, and church authorities; and priest-penitent privilege. Policies and statutes were analyzed independently to identify similarities and differences based on a priori policy dimensions. Next, a working typology of policies was developed. Finally, comparative content analysis was conducted with matched policies and statutes.

Results: Three archdioceses were categorized as conclusive-aligned, one archdiocese was categorized as conclusive-misaligned, and one archdiocese was categorized as ambiguous-misaligned for the privilege dimension. No archdioceses were classified as ambiguous-aligned. The study found the archdioceses of Boston, Chicago, and New Orleans ratified the privilege as an exception, only for priests, for mandated reporting requirements. At the same time, the civil mandated reporting statutes for Massachusetts, Illinois, and Louisiana also permit exemptions from reporting for the privilege. The Archdiocese of New York’s policy upheld the privilege while the State of New York statute is silent on the issue. Conversely, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles policy is silent on the privilege while the State of California statute upholds the exemption.

Conclusions and Implications: The privilege is a controversial exemption to mandated reporting requirements for clergy that differs from all other professional requirements pertaining to confidentiality. A national, overarching framework could establish clear guidelines for addressing the privilege pertaining to incidents of child maltreatment. Such a framework would require the privilege’s constitutionality being tested vis-à-vis protections for religious freedom.