FARGO — A bill introduced at the North Dakota statehouse would require clergy to report cases of child abuse and neglect learned during confession or other private religious conversations. The legislation has prompted strong criticism from Catholic opponents.

Current state law presents a loophole that does not require pastors, priests and other clergy to report abuse to a law enforcement agency if it's information received in the capacity of a spiritual advisor.

The proposed legislation, Senate Bill 2180, has bipartisan support. It was introduced by Sens. Curt Kreun, R-Grand Forks, Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, and Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo, and cosponsored by Rep. Mary Schneider, D-Fargo.

Under the bill, clergy would be added to the list of mandatory reporters, which already includes dentists, coroners, mental health professionals, teachers, counselors, foster parents and law enforcement. A mandatory reporter's failure to report abuse is a Class B misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine.

William Donohue, president of the New York City-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, wrote a letter Wednesday, Jan. 20, condemning the proposal as "anti-Catholic" and “draconian.” Donohue challenged legislators behind the bill to identify one instance when a “grave injustice was done to a victim of clergy sexual abuse owing to the failure of a priest to disclose what he learned in the confessional?”

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“We deal with many issues of anti-Catholicism across the nation, but none galvanizes us more than a wholesale assault on our sacraments. What you have done is now a priority for us. We are not going away,” Donohue wrote.

Hogan said the bill is not aimed at Catholic clergy.

"It truly is just a discussion about: Do they have a duty to warn, like other medical professionals and psychologist(s) and other groups? It’s about the vulnerability of all children, and the protection of all children from abuse and neglect," Hogan said.

Kreun said he ran two large child care centers for more than 13 years, and during that time he often accepted children who had been severely abused. He said he introduced the bill because he has a deep understanding of how trauma can affect children.

“If I don’t do what I can to alleviate some of this pain and anguish that takes place over a lifetime, then I’m not doing the right thing,” Kreun said.

Earlier this month, North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem announced the results of an 18-month-long criminal probe into child sexual abuse allegations against more than 50 Catholic clergy members accused since the 1950s. Stenehjem determined no charges would be filed because most of the accused clergy had died before the investigation was completed. For the others, the statute of limitations had expired.

Other bipartisan bills filed in this legislative session would extend statutes of limitations and open up windows of time for survivors of child sex abuse to pursue legal avenues in civil courts.

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