Priests, ministers, rabbis and other religious leaders would be held accountable for failing to report incidents of abuse or neglect of a minor under a bill filed Monday by an Anchorage lawmaker.
Mandatory reporting laws already exist for school teachers and staff, doctors, child-care providers and police officers. But Republican Rep. Bob Lynn said the law should extend to clergy to protect children as well as religious institutions.
Failure to report instances of abuse, sexual or otherwise, constitutes a misdemeanor under Alaska law.
Lynn said the measure, which is expected to be read on the House floor Wednesday, would apply to religious leaders but not members of their congregations.
It would, however, exempt any information acquired through a confession or "penitential communication."
Lynn did not cite specific examples but noted media reports of clerical sexual abuse prompted his bill.
"Whenever anything gets in the headlines or on the evening news, people become aware of it, and expect responsible legislators to address the issue and that's what I'm trying to do as a responsible legislator," said Lynn, a Catholic who attends St. Benedict's Church in Anchorage.
An Anchorage high school principal recently alleged a former priest at St. Patrick's Catholic Church abused him when he was 18. Pat Podvin said the Rev. Francis Murphy, who later transferred from Anchorage to the Boston area, sexually abused him at a Girdwood residence more than 20 years ago. Murphy was named last week as one of several Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse who were allowed to move to other states and continue their work.
Retired Catholic Archbishop Francis Hurley last week apologized for not helping Podvin after he reported the abuse. Hurley also admitted that there have been other allegations of abuse within the "last few years" but no one was charged with a crime.
Bob Flint, executive director for the Alaska Catholic Conference, said the law would not have applied in Murphy's alleged abuse of Podvin, because the victim was 18, but added that he believes the conference will support the measure.
The Alaska Catholic Conference includes the diocese of Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau.
Flint, an attorney who argues business law in Anchorage, said Lynn consulted with him before introducing the bill. Flint said Lynn was looking for language that provided exceptions for the Catholic confession and extended to similar confessions to other religious leaders.
The Rev. Greg Lindsay of Northern Light United Church in Juneau said he supports the measure and noted he thought it already existed.
"I think that because children get the short end of the stick a lot of the time, they should be protected before anyone else," said Lindsay, who heads a Presbyterian-Methodist congregation.
Lindsay noted that moving religious leaders around from church to church is just as common for Methodists as it is for Catholics.
"(This law) might have the affect of ministerial colleagues holding one another accountable," he said.
Lynn said his bill would protect the church from allowing child abuse to go unpunished.
"I think many in the clergy will welcome this. If you are concerned about the health of the church, you have got to be concerned about this," he said.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.