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State law impedes abuse victims' healing


I RECENTLY received a frantic call from a parishioner, a woman in her 40s, who had been going for pastoral counseling at a local Catholic center for spiritual direction, where she had told the deacon counseling her, as she had previously told me, that she had been sexually abused as a child by a family member.

Now she was told that the center was going to report this to the state authorities, despite her adamant objections, because Maryland law requires counselors and clergy to report all sexual abuse, even if the victim revealing the abuse is now an adult and even if the perpetrator is deceased.

Naturally, she was traumatized and felt that she was now going to be violated a second time by the people and the church to whom she turned for help in dealing with the legacy of abuse.

Several weeks before this event, the Archdiocese of Baltimore held a special mandatory conference at which the clergy were told of their obligation to make such reports to state authorities, even though, as some objected, it would be a fundamental violation of their obligation of confidentiality to those people seeking their spiritual guidance and counseling.

The intent of the law to have current abuse of children reported so that these children can receive protection and help is laudable. Yet to require clergy or other counselors to report revelations of past abuse on the part of their adult parishioners and clients is absurd, cruel and destructive to the people who are seeking help in dealing with the legacy of abuse.

In 27 years as a priest, I have never had anyone confide information on current sexual abuse of a minor. But I have had a surprisingly large number of people confide that they had been abused as children, usually by a family member or close family friend. In cases in which it was appropriate, I encouraged them to confront or even report the abuse if they were ready to do so.

But to force the reporting of all such cases regardless of the wishes of the adult victim is to do irreparable harm to people struggling to overcome the effects of abuse and to deny to them as adults their right to decide what is necessary for their healing.

If people realized that this is what Maryland law requires, and that their churches have capitulated to this law, and their pastors and counselors were irresponsible enough to obey this law, who would seek the help they need? How could any priest, minister or rabbi function in one of his most important and necessary roles of spiritual counseling and direction if he cannot ensure the absolute confidentiality that his people need and require?

That the state of Maryland would uphold such a law is infuriating enough. That the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, in the presence of the cardinal, would direct its priests to obey it, and thus undermine their own functioning as priests, is disheartening to me as one of those priests.

One would expect the church's leadership to oppose and demand change in laws that deny the basic rights of the practice of religion and that do severe harm to people. That the church's leadership is incapable of this can only be interpreted as reflecting its desperate attempt to regain lost public credibility while it continues to avoid personal responsibility for the current sex abuse scandal.

The man at the epicenter of the crisis, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, remains in power and without any public censure from his peers. No bishop has been deposed for covering up the sexual abuse of minors. Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, like all of the other members of his elite college, has not uttered a single public word of criticism against Cardinal Law or any other bishop, while he has announced a "zero tolerance" policy toward his priests.

It is this same leadership that has instructed its priests to violate the sacred trust of those who come to them for spiritual counseling, and to show utter callousness to the wishes and needs of the now-adult victims of abuse. The moral contradictions here should be offensive to any healthy conscience.

If the church's leadership cannot speak out, the priests, ministers and rabbis of our state, who do the actual caring for those who seek the spiritual counsel of their clergy, must speak out.

Maryland's law must be changed, and the rights of those adults who were abused as children must be respected. Let us not violate them again and call it help.

The Rev. William A. Au is pastor of Saints Philip and James Catholic Church in Baltimore City.

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