In the wake of reports about Catholic clergy sexual abuse and the Jerry Sandusky child molestation case, the Pennsylvania Legislature in 2013-14 overhauled the Child Protective Services Law. It was considered to be a significant upgrade over the previous law.
At the Parish Resource Center on Monday evening, attorney Ann Martin addressed questions about how changes to that law affect churches.
The law lists 16 categories of adults who have a legal responsibility to report suspected abuse, two of which, she said, directly affect churches.
Under state law, members of the clergy, spiritual leaders and paid staff are recognized as mandated reporters under one category.
But what does that mean for churches that rely on volunteers?
Martin said the law states that individuals — paid or unpaid — who are responsible for a child’s welfare or have direct contact with children also are mandated reporters. All must obtain child abuse and criminal record clearances. In some cases, FBI criminal history background clearances also are required.
The website keepkidssafe.pa.gov offers resources for mandated reporters, including training.
But questions from participants suggested there is still some confusion about who is a mandated reporter and when that person must report suspected abuse.
Martin said Sunday school teachers are mandated reporters. If they suspect a child has been abused, they are required to report it directly to the state. Under the former law, she said, teachers could report it to their supervisor and expect it to be handled by that person. That is no longer the case.
A volunteer Sunday school supervisor then asked why she is required be a mandated reporter. Martin explained that the supervisor not only is in direct contact with children but also is the person who assigns teachers “so it’s important … to understand definitions of child abuse that are in the law and what you are supposed to do if you suspect something.”
Another participant questioned if her duty as a mandated reporter extends beyond the church.
For example, she asked if a child in her neighborhood were to tell her he/she was being abused, is she required to report it?
Martin said although legal opinion is split on the issue of where to draw the line, she advises people to report it.
“I think to be safe, I would say ‘I’m a mandated reporter and I’m hearing … a direct credible report from an identifiable child,’ ” she said. “I would report it.”
The law outlines four circumstances when a mandated reporter must report suspected abuse. That includes when an adult comes in contact with a suspected abuse victim as part of one’s employment, activity or service; whenever supervising or training children; when a person makes a specific disclosure regarding an identifiable child; and when an individual 14 years or older makes a specific disclosure about abuse.
Failing to report suspected abuse can lead to fines and jail.
The law also offers legal protection for mandated reporters. Those who report suspected abuse are protected from civil and criminal liability if the report is done in good faith. Their identities also are protected. Churches or other agencies may not divulge the identity of the mandated reporter to anyone except authorities who are investigating the alleged abuse.
In addition to the legal statute, Martin pointed to Common Law provisions that hold institutions and individuals responsible if they are negligent when it comes to “selecting, supervising and controlling employees/volunteers.”
While the Child Protective Services Law is considered an important upgrade of the previous law, it also has had unintended consequences. Some smaller churches have seen a decline in the number of volunteers — due in part to the responsibilities mandated reporters face. Others reported their frustration as they have attempted to register on the state’s online portal.
Martin said experts expected the new law to lead to a significant increase in the number of cases of suspected abuse. But the number of reported cases of abuse has remained extraordinarily low compared to the national average.
“Why are we such an outlier?” she asked. “I don’t have an answer to that.”