New law may improve reporting mandate for child abuse

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(Host) Governor Douglas signed legislation this week requiring members of the clergy to report allegations of child sexual abuse. VPR’s Steve Zind has this look at what effect the new law might have on reporting abuse cases:

(Zind) The new law revises the existing mandatory reporting statute, adding church officials to the list of those required to report suspected child abuse. But Chittenden County Senator Jim Leddy says another part of the law is even more important.

It requires the state to come up with a program to train mandatory reporters about how to spot and report sexual abuse allegations. Leddy says until now, the law has been applied inconsistently because there’s been no statewide approach to training.

(Leddy) “It’s not just a simple matter of here’s the law, make a phone call. The people who are required to report really need to understand the law and need to understand how it works. This is the type of law that if people don’t know how it works, then there’s going to be a lot of cases that aren’t going to get reported.”

(Zind) Leddy says the new law is an effective tool in combating child sexual abuse.

Paul Baier says that may be true when it comes to teachers and health care workers, but mandatory reporting does little good when applied to clergy. Baier is with Survivors First, a Boston based organization that works on behalf of sexual abuse victims. Baier says there’s no evidence making clergy mandatory reporters has produced results.

(Baier) “Kentucky and other states are good examples where clergy have been mandated for years to report and the church has not chosen to report in those years. We’re less than optimistic that mandatory reporting will be a deterrent in terms of keeping kids safe in a Catholic institution.”

(Zind) Baier believes that the most effective tool in compelling church officials to report abuse allegations is to extend or eliminate the statute of limitations on sexual abuse crimes, giving authorities greater ability to prosecute.

Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell says changes made to Vermont’s statutes in the 1970s have put the state in the forefront in protecting victims of child sexual abuse. And he says there’s no reason to believe the Vermont Diocese won’t abide by the new law.

For the past year, the Burlington Diocese has voluntarily agreed to report suspected child sexual abuse incidents. Sorrell says while they haven’t reported anything, there’s no indication the church hasn’t been forthcoming.

(Sorrel) “Assuming that they have continued to adhere to their commitment to turn information over to us promptly, I’m just assuming that they have not received any new allegations of misconduct by priests or other religious personnel from the diocese.”

(Zind) Sorrell’s office has investigated a number of allegations against current and former Vermont priests, but no criminal charges have been filed.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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