In response to ongoing clergy abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, D.C. and Virginia may propose legislation requiring clergy to report child abuse or neglect.

In D.C., Attorney General Karl Racine may not exempt confidential conversations, including those that occur during the rite of confession.

Produced by Julie Depenbrock


  • Tom Reese Author of "Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church" and senior analyst for Religion News Service; @ThomasReeseSJ
  • Michelle Boorstein Religion Reporter, The Washington Post; @mboorstein


  • 12:00:12

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIYou are tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast, a new book is re-branding the Anacostia River "The River of Redemption." We'll hear from the author on her creative approach to preserving the forgotten river. We'll also hear some songs about the Anacostia River.

  • 12:00:30

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first in response to ongoing clergy abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, D.C. and Virginia are considering legislation requiring clergy to report child abuse or neglect. In D.C. that could apply to confidential conversations including those that occur in the Catholic confessional. Joining me in studio is Michelle Boorstein. She is a Religion Reporter with the Washington Post. Michelle, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:54


  • 12:00:55

    NNAMDIAlso back with us is Tom Reese. He's a Jesuit priest, senior analyst for Religion News Service and author of "Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.” Tom Reese, good to see you again.

  • 12:01:06

    MR. TOM REESEGood to be with you, Kojo.

  • 12:01:08

    NNAMDIMichelle, I'll start with you. In the story for the Washington Post you wrote that law makers in Virginia and D.C. could soon add clergy to the list of people mandated by law to report child abuse or neglect. This is of course in response to recent sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. Can you tell us a little more about the proposed laws both in D.C. and in Virginia?

  • 12:01:29

    BOORSTEINYes. So the situations are a little bit different. In D.C., they are having a kind of a broad conversation about how to really -- you know, in the words of the attorney general kind of beef up any loopholes around this whole topic. So they're looking at everything from adding clergy as mandatory reporters including possibly conversations in the confessional as well as penalties for people who don't report, funding for training mandatory reporters of different types. Like all kinds of things are on the table. And in Virginia what they're looking at is simply adding clergy to the existing list of mandatory reporters, which are people who work regularly with children, social workers, teachers, etcetera.

  • 12:02:14

    NNAMDII was about to ask who are currently considered mandatory reporters? And are clergy currently excluded from being mandatory reporters?

  • 12:02:22

    BOORSTEINYou mean in those two states?

  • 12:02:23


  • 12:02:23

    BOORSTEINOr more broadly?

  • 12:02:24

    NNAMDIVirginia and D.C.

  • 12:02:25

    BOORSTEINWell, they don't -- well, actually, you have in places where -- the laws vary around the country. But in a lot of places they explicitly exclude clergy. It will say something -- some wording around doctrine or, you know, of confidential conversations that are required by doctrine that type of thing. In D.C. and Virginia -- in Virginia there's an exemption for clergy. I think in D.C. it's simply not mentioned if I remember correctly.

  • 12:02:55

    NNAMDIOkay. What are the arguments for and against making clergy mandatory reporters that is required by law to report abuse?

  • 12:03:03

    BOORSTEINWell, in general right now there aren't strong opponents even among Catholic clergy and others point blank to not making clergy mandatory reporters. It's the details basically especially this issue of the confessional. So because these days, you know, the Catholic Church is on its heels. So they're not making public arguments about this in general, but they're obviously very concerned about the confessional in particular, which is a sacrament. And even though there are related versions in other faiths this is a very primary thing, obviously in the Catholic Church.

  • 12:03:37

    BOORSTEINSome of the other concerns that I heard from groups that were kind of making their own case or making the case that they thought the Catholic Church would make if they could talk more, you know, openly about it, is what are the benefits to people being able to talk about things that may or may not have happened exactly as they remember, things that happened in the past, things that they're worried about, things that are gray areas. That type of thing.

  • 12:04:04

    BOORSTEINYou don't see people making open arguments for abusers being able to straight up hide in the confessional. It's more the details. And in Virginia, I haven't heard any -- because Virginia is including the confessional as exempt right now there isn't a lot of open opposition. D.C. the conversation seems to be more -- a little bit more open ended. What they're going to require. They even talked about requiring clergy to report to their own board. That's sort of seen as a way of bringing more people into the responsibility.

  • 12:04:38


  • 12:04:39

    BOORSTEINSo it's all in the details.

  • 12:04:40

    NNAMDITom Reese, what do you thing about requiring clergy to report abuse or neglect as mandatory reporters?

  • 12:04:46

    REESEI think it's very important. And I think they should. I think it's important to remember that in the District of Columbia, in a sense, everyone is a mandatory reporter. Anyone over 18, who knows of the abuse of a child, is required to report it. That's everybody, who lives in the District of Columbia. The question of, you know, priests being mandatory reporters, I think, as Michelle said, the issue is in the details. There's different ways -- I mean, clearly anyone who knows -- who hears about a child who is being abused that should be reported.

  • 12:05:33

    REESEIt gets a little more complicated, though, when you have an adult, who comes in and tells you that they were abused as a child. Are you required to report that? You're dealing with an adult and if the adult wants confidentiality, if the adult says, No, I don't want it reported. Are we going to be required to report it anyway?

  • 12:06:04

    NNAMDISo let's be clear here. It's already required in the District of Columbia, certainly, probably in Virginia too, to report abuse of a child if you know of abuse of a child. What we're talking about now is what can occur during the course of a Catholic confessional by practicing Catholics. Can you talk about exactly what that is and exactly what it means?

  • 12:06:29

    REESEYes. Yes. What I wanted -- what's important to distinguish, at least for Catholic priests is what is told to you in the confessional and what might be told to you in a counseling situation.

  • 12:06:44


  • 12:06:45

    REESEWhat's told to you in confession has to be for Catholic priests totally confidential. This has been a tradition and law for hundreds of years in the church and in civil society in Europe, this kind of confidentiality. It's comparable to the kind of confidentiality between a client and his attorney. You know, are we going to say that attorneys, lawyers, are mandatory reporters of sexual abuse if their client tells them that they abused someone. Would the lawyer have an obligation to report that? That's --

  • 12:07:29

    NNAMDISo what should happen if someone comes to priest and confesses to sexually abusing a child during the confessional?

  • 12:07:37

    REESEWell, I think what the priest has to do is talk to that person, impress on them the seriousness of this not only as a sin, but as a crime, and to encourage them to turn themselves over to the police or at least, you know, at a minimum get to some help in dealing with this.

  • 12:08:00

    NNAMDIBut, Michelle, that is not apparently what the law in the District would require the priest to do in a confessional. The law would require the priest to report it.

  • 12:08:09

    BOORSTEINWell, right now, the law in D.C. as far as my reporting shows is still being discussed.

  • 12:08:14

    NNAMDIRight. This proposal I should say.

  • 12:08:16

    BOORSTEINIt's a proposal and it's also -- it's more of a PowerPoint than an explicit proposal. The city wouldn't even show the faith groups a worded proposal. Just to clarify one thing.

  • 12:08:27


  • 12:08:27

    BOORSTEINIn 18 states -- most people don't know this. I didn't know this till I did this story, everyone that's over 18 are mandatory reporters, but that's usually something along the lines of if you know of a youth being abused presently. Something like that. What this talks about is something that you believe might be true. But you don't know. You might have heard it second hand. You don't know the victim. You never heard it from the victim. It happened in the past. You're penalized for it. There's penalties in jail, financial penalties. Like it's more that it's -- there's more details than just everyone's required. What people are required to report -- just everyone is required is something that's an ongoing situation with a minor, neglect and abuse.

  • 12:09:08

    BOORSTEINSo this is basically adding a lot of details to it. So what they're talking about in D.C. that's in the mix of proposals is the possibility -- this is again, I'm using the PowerPoint that the city offered to some faith groups late last year. And it included -- let's see if I could find it. But it included -- I'm reading from a PowerPoint that the city provided saying, "Clergy must report suspected abuse even if the basis of their knowledge is a confidential conversation."

  • 12:09:41

    NNAMDIOkay. And is there a distinction to be made there for, Tom Reese, between a confession and a confidential conversation?

  • 12:09:49


  • 12:09:50


  • 12:09:51

    REESEIn fact, we are being advised in counseling situations to warn people up front that most of what they tell us during a counseling situation would be confidential. But if there -- if they might hurt themselves or others or if they tell us about the abuse of a minor then that confidentiality would have to be broken. And that's -- in other words here a priest would be treated just like a psychologist or a psychiatrist in a counseling situation.

  • 12:10:33


  • 12:10:33

    REESEHowever, that's to be distinguished between the confessional situation. In the confessional situation, the Church's law and the law for hundreds of years has been absolute confidentiality and priests will go to jail. Priests have died protecting that confidentiality.

  • 12:10:56

    NNAMDIWhat has been the result, Michelle Boorstein, in other states in which the confessional is supposed to be included in mandatory reporting? How has the church responded? How have individual priests responded?

  • 12:11:08

    BOORSTEINWell, what's interesting is this seems kind of like a cut and dry situation, but it's actually super complicated. And what I hear from attorneys, who work on these cases with survivors is that in places where -- there's probably about less than 10 states where clergy explicitly don't have an exemption. Twenty-eight states they are exempt. Let me make sure I have that correctly. Anyway I'll come back to that.

  • 12:11:37


  • 12:11:37

    BOORSTEINBut the way that I understood that this comes up is in civil cases where people are seeking discovery. And survivors or their advocates are saying, we want to know everything that was said about this including in the confessional. And that that's commonly where it comes up. And not just with Catholics. What they said is it also comes up -- well, every faith group has this issue. There's no faith group that's rushing to, you know, make public every conversation they have.

  • 12:12:03

    BOORSTEINBut from what I understood it comes up most with the Church of Latter Day Saints, the Catholic Church, Jehovah's Witnesses. It's not that it doesn't come up with Muslims and Jews as well. There's just this more explicit language around, you know, protecting church autonomy -- what they call church autonomy or preventing scandal.

  • 12:12:25

    NNAMDIYeah, you wrote that this hits at the hot button intersection of religious liberty and child protection and that's the way this debate is playing out.

  • 12:12:33

    BOORSTEINWell, you've had the -- I mean, you have to think of the context today, which is, you know, in our, you know, last quarter century, you know, you've had such a dramatic change where the society doesn't offer the privilege and frankly the respect to faith organizations that they once had. So you have, you know, basically something that was just a given that it was a benefit for the church to protect itself. That it knew best, etcetera.

  • 12:12:58

    BOORSTEINToday that's coming into all kinds of challenge. So you see -- there isn't a -- what I understand is the penalties for this type of thing is still so small that it's not like every state is rushing to do this. Right now the focus is on expanding the statutes of limitations. And that's when these types of cases come up. But right now you're still talking about relatively low fines.

  • 12:13:22


  • 12:13:23

    BOORSTEINA few days in jail. So you don't see it as this central issue. Once the statute of limitations open up, this might come up more frequently.

  • 12:13:30

    NNAMDIThere are several people who want to comment. Here is Mike in Manchester, Maryland. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:13:36

    MIKEOkay. Thank you, Kojo. I appreciate the opportunity. Sorry, you caught me with my mouth full. Easy question for your panelists there. I've been a Catholic for 58 years, a practicing Catholic. I'm appalled by what's going in church, the foot dragging, the lack of initiative to really take action against these child rapists and these pedophile priests. The question I have is they move priests across state lines all the time. These are criminals, over 300 in Pennsylvania alone.

  • 12:14:09

    MIKEIn fact, the Archbishop in Washington D.C. came from Pennsylvania. Why aren't we using RICO to prosecute these child rapists and to protect our children? If a terrorist sat in a confessional and confessed to a priest that he was planning on murdering thousands of people shouldn't that be justification to --

  • 12:14:30

    NNAMDIWell, I don't know if there are any legal experts at this table so that the notion of invoking RICO Law in order to deal with this is one that we cannot answer here. But obviously you think that it has -- as a lot of other people do, that this is quite a serious issue. So let's talk with another Catholic self-identifying, Greta in Alexandria, Virginia. Greta, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:14:54

    GRETAOkay. I have been Catholic for generations. And in many instances and I would imagine this is one of them, forgiveness in the confessional is conditional on a person going through the legal channels. So, like, if I were a person confessing the priest would say, "I could forgive you for X, Y, and Z. But on A, you have to report it." The priest cannot force me to report it, but you have to report it and go through the legal channels. And let's say I'm jail, then the priest will forgive me assuring me that I will not be denied heaven because I committed rape or whatever.

  • 12:15:45

    NNAMDITom Reese, are you familiar with this?

  • 12:15:47

    REESEI think I would have to disagree with that. I mean, what's required in confession is first of all, confessing one's sin, being sincerely sorry for that offense, and promising not to do this sin again. What we call firm purpose of amendment and also making restitution for the harm you have done to the extent that you can. There is no requirement in confession that if someone comes in and says, "I stole, you know, something from CVS." There's no requirement that they turn themselves in to the police and be prosecuted for that crime. They would be required, you know, make a payment to CVS for the material that they stole.

  • 12:16:44

    NNAMDIOkay. Here now is Amanda in Dumfries, Virginia. Amanda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:16:50

    AMANDAHi. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. So I'm not Catholic. I have previously pastored a church. And I can tell you these days for churches to get insurance, most insurance companies want churches to have in place some kind of faith church policies. And we did that at my previous church. I was a mandated reporter not living in Virginia, living in another state.

  • 12:17:16

    AMANDAAnd I believe it's really important. I think even from a theological perspective centering children's safety, absolutely, needs to be the commitment not only of mainland churches, but also of the Catholic tradition, the Muslim tradition, the Jewish tradition. I think we all need to come together and say that the safety and the health and well-being of children should absolutely be the center and we move out from there.

  • 12:17:40

    AMANDAAnd it's very simple, as one of your panelists said, you know, for us we don't do confession, but we do pastoral care and pastoral counseling. And someone might come in for a pastoral care session and I'm obligated at the front end of that to let them know that just as your panelist said, they might share with me any number of things and those things will be absolutely confidential, except if it endangers their life or the life or health and well-being of a child in the case of child abuse.

  • 12:18:13

    NNAMDIOkay. Okay. We're running out of time. So I'm afraid I'm going to have to cut you off at that point. I need a couple more questions answered by our guests here. And what happens if these proposals become law and confession is not exempt, Tom? What would be the likely effect of that?

  • 12:18:30

    REESEI think the effect would be probably limited. But it might end up being that some priests will go to jail because they can't reveal what they heard in confession. You know, they can't even say, I heard nothing about sex abuse. You know, they simply cannot say anything. But, you know, all of this also presupposes that the priest knows, who it is that's making this confession.

  • 12:19:06

    REESEI mean, I would say 99 percent of the time when people go to confession to me, I don't know who they are. You know, and now you might have a situation where the person does, but -- so I don't -- and if it becomes law, obviously, any criminal knows that this law is in effect. And that's going to make them very reluctant to come to confession. So I think the effect is going to be pretty minimal.

  • 12:19:39

    NNAMDIMichelle, what's next here? When are lawmakers going to finalize these proposed pieces of legislation?

  • 12:19:45

    BOORSTEINWell, the one in Virginia is already -- there's already a proposal. And when they come back into session this month from what I understand, they're going to propose it right away. In D.C. it seems like it's a little less clear. It was a couple months ago when I first heard about this. And the attorney general said, "We're putting it forward now. We want to get it done by the end of 2018." And then it slowed down. So it could be that they're still hammering out the details. It could be so -- I mean, they said it would be -- they told the D.C. faith groups it would be early 2019.

  • 12:20:17

    NNAMDIOkay. I'm afraid that's all the time we have in this segment. Michelle Boorstein is a Religion Reporter with the Washington Post. Michelle, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:20:23

    BOORSTEINThank you.

  • 12:20:23

    NNAMDITom Reese is Jesuit priest, senior analyst for Religion News Service and author of "Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.” Tom, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:20:32

    REESEThanks, Kojo.

  • 12:20:32

    NNAMDIAnd to take a short break. When we come back, a new book is re-branding the Anacostia, the "River of Redemption.” You'll hear from that book's author and we also have some songs about the Anacostia River. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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