Law in Effect: Pastors now mandated reporters

Released: Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Virginia pastors have been officially added to the list of people “required to report suspected child abuse or neglect.” And like many new laws, HB 1659/SB 1257 is anything but straightforward. Here are several of the key provisions now affecting you and your team.

WHAT: If a pastor has “reason to suspect” that a child has been abused or neglected, you “shall report the matter immediately.”

WHERE: To the local Department of Social Services in the county or city where “the child resides or the abuse or neglect is believed to have occurred or to the Department's toll-free child abuse and neglect hotline.”

“If an employee of the local department is suspected of abusing or neglecting a child, the report shall be made to the court of the county or city where the abuse or neglect was discovered.”

WHO: The new law covers “minsters, priests, rabbis, imams, and other duly accredited practitioners of any religious organization or denomination usually referred to as a church.”

If someone in his or her professional capacity other than the organizational leader receives the information, instead of making the report him/herself, he or she can choose to “immediately notify the person in charge of the institution or department, or his designee, who shall make such report” right away.

After the “new reporter” files the concern with the authorities, he or she must inform the “initial reporter” it has been submitted and “the name of the individual receiving the report [and] forward any communication resulting from the report, including any information about any actions taken regarding the report, to the person who made the initial report.”

WHEN: “As soon as possible, but not longer than 24 hours after having reason to suspect a reportable offense of child abuse or neglect.”

OR ELSE: “Any person who fails to [meet the deadline] shall be fined not more than $500 for the first failure and for any subsequent failures not less than $1,000. In cases evidencing acts of rape, sodomy, or object sexual penetration as defined in Article 7 (§ 18.2-61 et seq.) of Chapter 4 of Title 18.2, a person who knowingly and intentionally fails to make the report required pursuant to this section shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.”

HOWEVER: The bill exempts clergy members when the information “is required by the doctrine of the religious organization or denomination to be kept confidential” or relates to someone confessing confidentially and “seeking spiritual counsel and advice” for “himself or another” that would be in “the usual course of [the clergy’s professional] practice or discipline.” This applies to clergy members testifying in civil and criminal cases. 

PROTECTION: “Any person who makes a report or provides records or information . . . or who testifies in any judicial proceeding arising from such report, records, or information shall be immune from any civil or criminal liability or administrative penalty or sanction on account of such report, records, information, or testimony, unless such person acted in bad faith or with malicious purpose.”

Recent accusations and reports of child abuse in church settings are disturbing. Again, VAIB strongly encourages pastors to conduct background checks on anyone working with children in their ministries, use “two-deep leadership” in all circumstances, and take other reasonable precautions.

For more information, resources are available at NCLL.org or other similar organizations.