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When Religious Doctrine Undercuts Mandated Reporting On Abuse


The New York Times got it right. In an editorial published on Thursday May 19, the Times castigated the Vatican for issuing “flimsy guidelines” for combating the sexual abuse of children by the clerical hierarchy.

According to the Times, the Vatican “issued nonbinding guidance,” giving authority to local bishops which in effect bypasses the need to report the criminal offense of sexual abuse, or for that matter any abuse performed by an official of the Church, to the proper legal authorities.

In essence the report places Church doctrine ahead of the law and allows the local diocese the religious right to shield abusive priests from prosecution. At about the same time the guidelines were released, a study, funded primarily by Church sources, was released. The study allegedly reviews the causes for the sexual abuse scandal in the Church and, in an interesting twist of propaganda, blames the social climate of the 1950s, 60s and 70s for priestly indiscretion.

Taken together, this bizarre approach to coming to grips with the depth of the problem and working to set up parameters to prevent further transgressions is not just counter-intuitive, it’s absolutely backward.

The law is quite clear. Individuals who are mandated reporters must report any suspected abuse to the proper authorities. In most states mandated reporters are teachers, doctors, lawyers and child care workers. In many locales clerics are also mandated reporters. Apparently the Church feels that reports are not mandated by Church doctrine and that the best needs of society are secondary to religious doctrine. This could be humorous if it wasn’t so sad. Unfortunately, the Church is not alone in this folly.

Last month Agudath Israel of America held a conference for professionals at which the topic of how and when to report suspected abusers was discussed. The presentation of the topic included a good deal of source review and explanation. The presenter was knowledgeable about the issue. But, shockingly, the position advocated by the Agudah sounds astoundingly similar to that promulgated by the Vatican.

The conclusion stated in the Agudah position is that you must first ask a senior rabbi with experience or “even better, you should ask a full beis din” before you can call the proper authorities to report suspected abuse.

As a mental health professional I am a mandated reporter. What this means is that if I am made aware of a situation that raises a reasonable a measure of suspicion that abuse of any type is taking place, I am obligated by law and my professional license to report the situation to the proper authorities.

Nowhere in my professional training are rabbis considered proper legal authorities in this matter. In fact, if I report only to a rabbi, I put not just my professional license in jeopardy but also the welfare of the individual who is being abused.

Rabbis are not generally trained in forensics or police work and simply have no authority to intercede in any legal capacity to aid the abused person or apprehend the abuser. In addition, I may be breaking certain HIPAA laws related to confidentiality if I discuss a situation related to someone I am treating with someone who has no legal standing.

It is important to understand that most professionals do not have to report often, and certainly they do not do so lightly when they feel the need to report. Further, the reporting system, at least in New York and several other states, allows for a discussion with the agency to which the professional reports in order to better determine if a particular case merits investigation.

A professional can discuss in total confidence what he or she sees as suspected abuse – without providing any identifying information – if there is any uncertainty about the situation being a reportable offense. The specialist helps the mandated reporter determine what is reportable. The system is not generally set up as an immediately reflexive and overwhelmingly reactive response – unless there is clear and obvious abuse.

By issuing the doctrine of rabbis as the first report, Agudath Israel has put my license, my parnassah, my professional integrity and the law of the land in jeopardy. And while that alone is sufficient cause to ignore the position, there is one even more imperative justification for not following the mandate. So many poskim, from Rav Elyashiv to Rav Hershel Schachter, have declared that individuals who abuse children are in the category of a rodef  (a pursuer) and should be reported to the police.

I will go by my legal mandate and the psak of my rav. When I suspect abuse, as a mandated reporter I will follow the law. So will most of my colleagues.

Dr. Michael Salamon, a fellow of the American Psychological Association, is the founder and director of ADC Psychological Services in Hewlett, New York and a board member of Ptach. He is the author of numerous articles and several psychological tests and books including “The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures” (Urim Publications) and “Every Pot Has a Cover” (University Press of America). His new book on abuse will be available shortly.

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