Do Catholic priests have a legal obligation to report child abuse in the U.S. or Europe?

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March 30 2010 6:03 PM

How To Prosecute Your Local Priest

What are the laws on mandatory reporting of child abuse around the world?

Pope Benedict. Click image to expand.
Pope Benedict XVI 

Pope Benedict XVI continues to face criticism over a 2001 letter he sent advising bishops to forward cases of sexual abuse to the Vatican, rather than suggesting they call the police. Meanwhile, allegations of Catholic priests molesting children have surfaced by the hundreds in Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland, Italy, and the United States. Do the legal systems in those countries allow people to keep mum if they know about a crime?

Sometimes. Generally speaking, the rules are more strict in the United States than in Europe. All states plus the District of Columbia have statutes identifying "mandated reporters" with a "duty to report" suspected child abuse; usually these are professionals who come in frequent contact with kids, including social workers, teachers, physicians, mental health professionals, and law enforcement officers. More than 20 states specifically mention that members of the clergy count as "mandated reporters." Reporting laws often recognize clergy-penitent confidentiality, yet this privilege is interpreted narrowly in a child-abuse context—so if a priest learns of abuse outside the context of confession or counseling, he can be held liable for keeping that information to himself. Canada (which had its own pedophile priest scandal in the 1980s) has laws very comparable to ours. And according to the U.S. Embassy in Italy, Italian law requires any citizen who suspects child abuse to notify law enforcement. But Germany, the Netherlands, and Ireland do not mandate reporting.

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Prosecution for failure to report, as a stand-alone crime, is rare in North America. Many states classify failure to report as a misdemeanor, punishable with a fine or by a maximum of one year's imprisonment. In Canada, failure to report can also result in a short sentence or a fine.

Even in those countries that don't require reporting, a supervisor may get into trouble if child abuse happens under his watch. That is, if he was aware of the abuse but did nothing to stop it and thus effectively assisted in the commission of a criminal act. (The standard for what constitutes assistance varies by country.) In Canada there is no statute of limitations when it comes to child abuse. The same goes for some U.S. states, but others let the clock run out just a few years after the age of majority. German criminal law mandates a 10-year statute of limitations after majority for sex abuse of a child, or 20 years for sexual coercion or rape.

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Explainer thanks Ivana Bacik of Trinity College Dublin, Marci Hamilton of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, and Jane Spinak of Columbia Law School.

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Juliet Lapidos is a former Slate associate editor.