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Spotlight Report

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DAs push bill on child abuse

Passage expected of law requiring clergy disclosure

By John Ellement, Globe Staff, 4/6/2002

DANVERS -- Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly and several district attorneys yesterday urged quick passage of legislation mandating that members of the clergy report suspected child abuse to civil authorities. A key state senator later said the bill could soon become law.

A major hurdle to the bill's passage was eliminated this week when Essex District Attorney Kevin Burke dropped an amendment requiring social workers to testify about what criminal defendants tell them about specific acts of child abuse. Currently, social workers are exempted by state law from disclosing what they hear from clients.

When questioned yesterday about his previous support of the amendment, Burke said he was surprised to learn the social worker proposal was still an issue between Senate and House committees negotiating the measure's final language. "I thought we had an agreement," he said.

Senator Cheryl Jacques, the bill's chief Senate sponsor, in a telephone interview welcomed word of Burke's decision. "I'm actually thrilled to hear that," she said. Jacques blocked Senate action on the clergy reporting bill until the Burke amendment, which was in an earlier House version, was eliminated.

Jacques said legislative negotiators are close to settling other disagreements. Compromise language protecting the sanctity of the Catholic confession and similar sacred conversations is being reviewed.

Another stumbling block -- whether the measure should be retroactive -- also appears to be close to a resolution, Jacques said. That plan requires any priest, rabbi, or minister who has knowledge of an adult who was abused as a child to report that information to police. Clergy who know of a child who has been abused must notify the Department of Social Services, Jacques said.

Representative Antonio Cabral, the chief House sponsor, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Reilly said that, once enacted, the law will close a "tremendous gap," which allowed the Archdiocese of Boston to keep silent after it was notified of pedophile priests in its parishes. Since the 1980s, social workers, police, and teachers have been required to report instances of child abuse, but those laws exempted the clergy.

"Children come first. That's our focus, that's our goal, that's our objective," Reilly said. "We can't waste a day. We have to make sure we are doing everything possible to make sure children are protected."

This story ran on page E4 of the Boston Globe on 4/6/2002.
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