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Spotlight Report

Clergy-abuse notification bill likely to pass Senate

By Yvonne Abraham, Globe Staff, 4/11/2002

The Senate today will take up an amended version of a bill requiring clergy to report allegations of sexual abuse, as advocates hope the growing crisis in the Catholic Church will make the bill a more urgent priority.

Differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill have slowed passage, and Senate sponsors hope the recent revelations about the archdiocese's coverup of the Rev. Paul R. Shanley's history of sex abuse will spur the House into action.

''It has just been weeks of talking to House members, and at some point it's time to move,'' said Senator Susan C. Tucker, an Andover Democrat. ''So after we pass the bill, it will be in their court. We can't wait anymore.''

But the legislation seems set to become the center of a game of political football in the State House, with each chamber blaming the other for advocating an insufficiently strict law, and for delaying a final compromise.

Yesterday afternoon, Representative Antonio F. D. Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat and cochair with Tucker of the Joint Committee on Human Services and Elderly Affairs, conceded that the Senate bill contained some compromises, but said the other chamber had not cooperated fully enough, and that its unilateral action on the bill will now delay its final passage.

''Our bill is stricter and stronger in protecting kids, because that's the ultimate goal here,'' Cabral said. ''Up until this week we thought we made good progress, and I think the [new Senate] language reflects that to a certain degree. But this is not the best way to reach a quick resolution.''

Cabral said the House would now have to make amendments to the Senate bill, a process that would take much longer than if the two chambers had agreed on the language of the bill before it went to a vote.

Massachusetts is one of 20 states that exempt clergy from laws requiring those who work with children to report allegations of child abuse. Some legislators have been trying to remove the exemption since the mid-1980s, a removal the Catholic Church has opposed.

After revelations in January that Catholic leaders reassigned priests with known histories of sexual abuse, legislators redoubled their efforts to pass the law making reports by clergy of abuse mandatory.

The disagreements over the wording of the House and Senate bills involve which communications to clergy should be excluded from the reporting requirement. Each chamber says the other allows too many exceptions.

Originally, the Senate bill allowed only Catholic confession and similar spiritual counseling in other faiths to be excluded. The House bill allows exemptions if a religious organization's rules prohibit disclosure. The new Senate proposal shifts its language slightly, providing exemptions for confession and any ''similarly confidential spiritual communication.''

State Senator Cheryl Jacques, a Needham Democrat who cosponsored the bill, said she was sure all legislators were ''heading in the same direction'' on the law. But she urged the House to move quickly.

''The Senate doesn't believe we have the luxury of taking our time on this,'' she said.

This story ran on page A27 of the Boston Globe on 4/11/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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