Wallace introduces law that makes clergy mandatory reporters of sex abuse

Assemblymember Monica Wallace with attorney Barry Covert (L) and UB law professor Christine Bartholomew introduce Ms. Wallace's CARE Act in Buffalo on March 15, 2019. (Jim Herr/Cheektowaga Chronicle)
Assemblymember Monica Wallace with attorney Barry Covert (L) and UB law professor Christine Bartholomew introduce Ms. Wallace's CARE Act in Buffalo on March 15, 2019. (Jim Herr/Cheektowaga Chronicle)

BUFFALO – Assemblymember Monica Wallace stood in the shadow of Old County Hall Friday morning to announce that she has introduced the Child Abuse Reporting Expansion Act; a law which would add clergy members to the list of mandatory reporters of child abuse and maltreatment.

Introduced Thursday, her bill was referred to the Assembly’s Committee on Children and Families.

“I have an expertise in litigation and expertise in the law and so I recognized the loopholes that still exists even after we passed the Child’s Victim Act,” Ms. Wallace told the Cheektowaga Chronicle.  “The Child’s Victim Act was retrospective, trying to remedy the past injustices, but I recognize that the reason those injustices were allowed to percolate for so long was because we didn’t have clergy as mandatory reporters.”

She says under current state law, clergy members are not included in the otherwise extensive list of professionals required to report suspected cases of child abuse.  The clergy members are also prohibited from disclosing any communications made to them relating to child sexual abuse or maltreatment when such communications are made confidentially in the scope of their professional character as a spiritual advisor.

Buffalo attorney Barry Covert represents many victims of the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo.

“[The CARE Act] now is going to prevent the church from claiming that there is confusion because they didn’t realize that they were supposed to report this abuse because they were not listed in the statute of legislation,” said Mr. Covert.  “Despite the fact they didn’t take the higher moral ground, then they hid behind the fact they weren’t listed, is now going to be eviscerated by this legislation.”

Christine Bartholomew is an associate professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law who has compiled extensive research on the use of clergy privilege.  She says the law will encompass every denomination – not just single out Roman Catholics.

“In some cases, clergy have wanted to report abuse but couldn’t without running afoul of privilege. Other times, clergy had to circumnavigate the privilege, and in doing so, weakened it,” she said.  “In my research, Muslim Imams have been good about turning out and saying this is a member of my congregation whos doing wrong and turning them over.  Similarly, with Protestant and Jewish denominations we see more of a willingness to disclose this information.  Unfortunately, historically the Catholic Church hasn’t shared in that trend and as a result, we begin to wonder, has that contributed to what we are currently seeing in terms of the child abuse crisis.”

The CARE Act also seeks to increase the penalties to mandatory reporters for failure to report second and subsequent offenses and adds penalties for mandatory reporters of child abuse who act as part of a plan or scheme to conceal the abuse or maltreatment. Under current statute, the first offense for such failure to report is punishable as a class A misdemeanor.  Ms. Wallace’s legislation would add that second and subsequent offenses would be punishable as a class E felony.

Ms. Wallace does not have a sponsor for her legislation in the Senate but said Friday that she will be reaching out to her colleagues in the upper chamber soon.  The bill needs support in the Senate and the governor’s signature before becoming law.

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