MADISON (WKOW) – Wisconsin would join half a dozen other states that require clergy members to report to law enforcement allegations of child sex abuse that they learn of during confidential interactions such as confession under a bill introduced by Democratic lawmakers Wednesday.
Current state law allows clergy members who learn privately about allegations of child sexual assault to keep the claims secret rather than report them. Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, and Reps. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, and Chris Taylor, D-Madison, introduced a bill during a news conference that would end the exemption and force clergy members to speak up.
“Are we going to stand with children who need us to act on their behalf? Or are we going to stand with pedophiles?” Chris Taylor said.
New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas and West Virginia have similar exemptions making clergy members mandatory reporters, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Kim Vercauteren, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, which advocates on behalf of the Catholic Church, said the conference would have “concerns” about the bill if it gains traction. Things said during confession are between the confessor and God, she said. The priest is merely facilitating the process, she said.
“(Confession) is one of the sacrosanct tenets of our faith,” she said. “The priest is there but you’re asking for absolution and the ability to forgive lies with God.”
Amy Grau, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which reached a $21 million settlement with sexual abuse victims in 2015, referred questions to Vercauteren.
The lawmakers introduced another bill Wednesday that would erase Wisconsin’s statute of limitations for people who were sexually abused as children to file civil lawsuits. They currently have until age 35 to file.
The legislators introduced the bills hours after The Capital Times newspaper reported that 13 people are claiming they were sexually assaulted as children during the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s at Calvary Gospel Church, a Pentecostal church in Madison.
One of the alleged victims, Debbie McNulty, appeared at the news conference. Now in her 40s, she said she was 11 years old when she was sexually assaulted by an adult from the church.
“He frames what he did to me as adultery, not as pedophilia,” McNulty tells 27 News.
McNulty tells 27 News she went to her church pastor as a child and reported her victimization.
“He did nothing,” McNulty says.
“When I first told my pastor, he told me that if I told my story it would ruin my perpetrator’s life,” said Rebecca Martin Byrd, who says she was sexually abused as a twelve year old by someone affiliated with Calvary.
“It would make the church look bad, and if the church looked bad, then people wouldn’t come to church, and if people don’t come to church, then they don’t get saved,” Martin Byrd says she was told as a child.
“We are reviewing those allegations,” Calvary Gospel Church Executive Pastor John Seidl says in a statement. “We will continue to cooperate with law enforcement officials.” A Madison Police official says an investigation continues, even though McNulty and Martin Byrd concede their accusations occurred too long ago to legally permit any criminal charge to be lodged. McNulty says she feels it’s important to at least have information on-file with police.
McNulty said she doesn’t believe abusers should get a pass because they’re a member of the clergy or if the first person to hear about their crimes is a sympathetic clergy member.
“It is time for us as a community to support all survivors, no matter where their crime occurred, who committed the crime, or when the crime was committed,” she said.
“We obey and apply all Mandatory Reporting requirements defined by law in Wisconsin,” Seidl says.
The bills’ fate looks uncertain at best, with Republicans in complete control of the Legislature. Similar bills on the statute of limitations have failed in past legislative sessions.
Kit Beyer, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment on the bills. Alec Zimmerman, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, had no immediate comment.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.