Why isn't Boston's Cardinal Law in jail?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 20 2002 6:13 PM

Why Isn't Boston's Cardinal Law in Jail?

According to local polls, nearly half of Boston Catholics want Cardinal Bernard Law to resign in the wake of a child sex-abuse scandal involving pedophile priests. Cardinal Law admits assigning a priest to a new parish despite knowing that the priest had molested children. (Click here to read the Boston Globe's investigative reports on the scandal.) One family has targeted Law in a civil suit that accuses him of negligence and of intentional and reckless infliction of emotional distress. But why isn't Cardinal Law facing criminal charges?

Advertisement

Because what he did isn't illegal in Massachusetts. Only 18 states require all persons to report knowledge or suspicion of child abuse. Massachusetts isn't one of them. The other 32 states (including Massachusetts) and the District of Columbia require only persons designated as mandatory reporters to report child abuse.

Mandatory reporters are generally designated by profession: health-care workers, education and child-care workers, social workers, law enforcement officers, etc. Ten states specifically list "clergy" among their mandatory reporters. But Massachusetts isn't one of those states, either. (Seven of the 10 states requiring clergy to report child abuse also recognize the clergy-penitent privilege, which exempts clergy who become aware of abuse through their capacity as a spiritual adviser, such as through confessions in the Catholic tradition.)

There is a movement afoot in the Massachusetts legislature, however, to add clergy to the state's list of mandatory reporters. The Massachusetts Senate has already passed a bill that would add both clergy and lay leaders of any church to the list. The law would recognize the clergy-penitent privilege, and it would be retroactive, requiring knowledge of past abuse to be reported within 30 days after the bill becomes law. The bill is expected to pass the Massachusetts House soon, and the governor is expected to sign it.

But even if Massachusetts adds clergy to its list of mandatory reporters, Cardinal Law won't be going to jail. Under Massachusetts' mandatory-reporter statute, each instance of failing to report child abuse carries a maximum penalty of a civil fine of $1,000. (Failure to report is a misdemeanor in 34 states. In some of those states, it can lead to imprisonment of up to six months.)

Click here for the law in your state.

Explainer thanks Angus McQuilken, chief of staff for MassachusettsState Sen. Cheryl A. Jacques; Nina Mbengue of the National Conference of State Legislatures; and the National Clearinghouse of Child Abuse and Neglect Information.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Global Marches Demand Action on Climate Change

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
  Arts
Television
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.