DENVER (KDVR) — Colorado requires certain professionals to report suspected child abuse, but a loophole exempts clergy members.
It puts the state among 33 that exempt clergy from mandatory reporting laws about alleged child abuse, an Associated Press review found.
In these states, clergy members are exempt from any laws requiring professionals such as teachers, physicians and psychotherapists to report information about alleged child sexual abuse to police or child welfare officials if the church deems the information privileged.
This loophole has resulted in an unknown number of child sex abuse cases being allowed to continue for years despite the perpetrator having confessed the behavior to religious officials, the AP found. In many of these cases, the privilege has been invoked to shield religious groups from civil and criminal liability after the abuse became known to civil authorities.
But supporters of the clergy privilege told the AP that abolishing it will not make children safer. Some go so far as to say that the ability of abusers to report privately to clergy encourages them to confess and often leads to stopping the abuse.
Over the past two decades state lawmakers have proposed more than 130 bills seeking to create or amend child sex abuse reporting laws, the AP review found. All either targeted the loophole and failed to close it, or amended the mandatory reporting statute without touching the clergy privilege amid intense opposition from religious groups.
Colorado’s mandatory reporting task force
Colorado lawmakers recently passed a law that gives victims of child sex abuse a window to file civil lawsuits to hold perpetrators accountable. It’s already being used in alleged cases of sex abuse within the church, but it does not address mandatory reporting.
Colorado’s current law lists 39 professions that are required by law to report suspected child abuse. The list includes clergy members from any religious body, but it specifically exempts them from reporting what they learn in “confidential communication” as deemed by the church — for example, a Catholic priest learning of abuse during a parishioner’s confession.
Now, the state is taking a closer look at the law.
Colorado’s mandatory reporting statute has been amended 31 times since it passed in 1987, but the clergy privilege was never specifically targeted, the AP found. Colorado has a new task force investigating the law that is due to report back in 2024.
The task force will last two years and will analyze the law’s effectiveness and issues. Its creation came after a Colorado Child Protection Ombudsman Office study “revealed an inconsistent understanding of the law, a fragmented system of mandatory reporter trainings and a general lack of supports to help mandatory reporters perform the job asked of them — namely, to report suspected child abuse and neglect,” according to the office’s 2022 report.
The study also “raised questions of whether mandatory reporting disproportionately impacts families of color, under-resourced communities and individuals with disabilities, and how best to support such groups,” according to the report.
Task force members — 30 of them, as listed in the law — should be appointed by Dec. 1.
It’s among two new statewide task forces that will address children’s issues. The second task force will investigate how to better respond when children run away from foster care or residential behavioral and psychiatric centers.
The task forces “will center on the experience and voices of family and youth to ensure those who experience these systems have direct input on how these systems can work better,” Child Protection Ombudsman Stephanie Villafuerte said in her office’s annual report.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.