Because Alaska has struggled with the issue of child abuse by clergy for so long, I find it fascinating that we are on the short-list of states which have yet to address the issue of clergy-penitent privilege and the mandated reporting of child abuse. Twenty six states currently charge members of the clergy among other professionals with the duty of reporting known or suspected child abuse or neglect. In 18 states, the law obligates any person suspecting child abuse or neglect to report it. Alaska however, is among 8 states and 4 territories yet to address this issue (United States). Requiring clergy to report child abuse is a complex issue that creates an ethical dilemma for clergymen. Clergy walk a fine line between their moral obligations to protect innocent children from harm while maintaining the ethical call for confidentiality with congregants. This is a difficult dilemma, but it should not remain unaddressed by our state. It is here on the crossroads between two ethical superlatives that we Alaskans must come together and find consensus.
Recently a pastor said to me, “you’d be surprised by some of the things people will tell their pastor. And often I think, ‘I didn’t want to know this,’ but it’s just part of it”. The need for clergy-penitent confidentiality is of supreme importance in religious contexts within our society. By its very nature the communication between a minister and his or her parishioners is about baring one’s soul without fear of reprisal. Our rabbis, priests, and pastors have held privileged confidence with the utmost integrity, and because of this legacy they receive information and deal with issues that people would otherwise tell only God.