By PETER HANCOCK
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – Members of the clergy in Illinois would be legally required to report cases of physical abuse or neglect against children, and they would face possible criminal charges for failing to do so, under a bill that cleared the Illinois House on Sunday.
Clergy are already required to report suspected cases of sexual abuse against children, but Senate Bill 1778 would expand that requirement to include physical abuse and neglect as well.
“Children under the age of 5 especially, in smaller communities around Illinois, sometimes the only people they really see are members of their church, their ministers,” said Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, the bill’s chief sponsor in the House. “They are the go-to people. They are the ones that witness problems in families.”
The bill would reorganize all mandatory reporters in Illinois into 10 categories: medical personnel; social service and mental health providers; crisis intervention personnel; education personnel; recreation or athletic program or facility personnel; child care personnel; law enforcement personnel; funeral home directors; clergy members; and abortion service providers.
Under current law, which the bill does not change, mandatory reporters who “knowingly and willfully” fail to report cases of abuse and neglect can be charged with a class A misdemeanor for a first offense and a class 4 felony for a subsequent offense.
In addition, people who knowingly and willfully violate the act “as part of a plan or scheme” to prevent discovery of an abused or neglected child, or for the purpose of protecting or insulating someone from prosecution, could be charged with a class 4 felony on a first offense and a class 3 felony for subsequent offenses.
Of all the people covered by the law, members of the clergy are the only ones not specifically licensed by the state. And that prompted some House members to question how that provision would be enforced.
Rep. Tom Weber, R-Lake Villa, for example, noted many people become ordained ministers simply by filling online forms and paying a fee. He said many of those people might not be aware they are mandatory reporters in Illinois or that their duties under that law are being expanded.
Feigenholtz, however, responded by saying clergy are already required to report suspected sexual abuse against children, and that organized denominations already routinely send to state authorities lists of their clergy members who are mandatory reporters.
Rep. Keith Wheeler, R-Oswego, suggested the requirement might create a chilling effect by deterring people who are experiencing family problems from seeking counseling from their minister if they know the minister is a mandatory reporter.
“If there’s the potential that someone won’t reach out to clergy because they think they’re going to be mandated to report something that they may or may not understand, that was a concern brought to me by clergy,” Wheeler said.
But Feigenholtz said free online training is available to mandatory reporters so they will know what is required to be reported and what is not.
She also said 40 other states require clergy to report physical abuse and neglect, in addition to sexual abuse.
“We thought that in the environment we’re in right now, the more eyes on children, the better, and the more reporters we have, the better.”
The bill passed the House on a vote of 91-to-14. It now goes back to the Senate for a vote on whether to concur with an unrelated amendment added onto the bill by the House.