Ed Brayton's Dispatches from the Culture Wars is my favorite blog and my first read of the day. I think Ed is a great guy and I agree with him most of the time. He's passionate about freedom, justice and decency between people, but in one area I disagree with him completely. It's the question of whether ministers should be state mandated reporters. This subject has come up in his posts before and it came up in one of his posts, again, today. The typical response to his position is enthusiastic agreement, occassionally laced with deep contempt for religion, but I think, most of the time, the agreement stems from genuine concern for the safety and well-being of children. Nonetheless, I see some serious problems with Ed's proposal.
Today the issue arose in reference to a couple of Catholic Church cases in Wisconsin. Ed writes:
"Churches and church leaders should be held to precisely the same standards that teachers, doctors and therapists are held to; all should be required to report any instance of abuse to the police. Anything less is insane."
Sane people, not just me, can and do disagree. I abhor child abuse as much as anyone else. As a psychologist and a mandated reporter, I'm personally familiar with this issue. I could get into the almost inevitable discussion about people not revealing abuse if they know they're dealing with a mandated reporter. That's a complicated clinical issue that I'm not going to tackle in this post. Instead, I'm going to take the discussion in an entirely different direction.
Physician, teacher, social worker and psychologist are professions defined and regulated by the state. These professions have state regulated academic and training requirements and a state defined scope of practice that includes care for children. Members of these professions are answerable to the state, not just on matters of child abuse, but across the board professionally.
Minister is not a state defined or regulated profession, nor should it be. It's a job, sometimes paid and sometimes unpaid. It is often, but not always, based on holding a theology degree and the recitation of some promises during a private ordination ceremony. I say “usually” because I could simply declare myself a minister, rent a space or set up a tent, preach any damn thing I want and I am a minister if that’s what I say am. I could call myself a minister and never do anything but sit in my yard, barbequing wieners, drinking beer and chatting with the neighbors. I have a right to declare that activity my religion because the state doesn’t define a minister or ministry. How can the state regulate a profession it doesn’t even define? Who will be regulated? And if the state defines ministry, it puts itself in the business of defining and regulating religious rules and practices.
The fact is ministers are held to “precisely the same standards” as ordinary citizens. They are treated like any other citizen doing their job -- the butcher, the ice cream man and the salesman are not required to report and neither should the minister be required. Legally speaking, it makes more sense to make barbers and cosmetologists mandated reporters – they often come into contact with children, people gossip with them and reveal confidences and, this is key, they are a state defined and regulated profession. The state has the authority to say Mary Smith is a cosmetologist and Barbara Jones is not a cosmetologist. The state does not have the authority to say that Mary is a minister and Barbara is not.
Think about this: at a backyard barbeque, Tom tells Jane that he suspects their mutual friend Bob of child abuse. As an ordinary citizen, Jane is not required to turn Bob in to DCFS. But what if Jane and her friends think of Jane as a minister in the Church of the Holy Rotisserie? Should Jane be regulated by the state if she and Tom conceptualize their conversation as a specifically religious one, maybe (or maybe not) calling that conversation the Sacrament of Reconciliation? It would seem that imagining the context of the conversation to be religious would be the trigger for state regulation in this case. Moreover, it would seem to me that the state has now implicitly defined ministry, ministers and the scope of religious activity solely for the purpose of imposing state regulations that would not apply to a non-believer.
For now, Americans are not mandated by law to turn each other in for crimes we merely suspect, including child abuse. If we want to make ministers mandated reporters, we should make every single adult American a mandated reporter. But there is a slippery slope that worries some people about such proposals. Why not make all Americans mandated reporters for any crime they merely suspect, as is the standard for mandated reporting of child abuse? Any American who merely suspects a stranger or a neighbor of a crime and fails to report it to the police would automatically be regarded as a criminal by the state. We’ve seen this tried in other places and I don’t think we want to go there.