Some clergy more equal than others?

crown-molding1I know, it’s hard to read the following story and not get mad about the central image of a pastor spanking a 12-year-old girl with a piece of wooden crown molding, with the permission of her parents, because these adults in her life doubted her claims that she had been sexually molested.

Before I get to my journalistic question about this Chicago Tribune report (Does the “special to” byline mean this is a freelance story?), let’s get the context.

A former Elgin pastor found guilty Wednesday of spanking a girl with a piece of wood in his office admitted he wasn’t prepared for the task of counseling a child who claimed to have been sexually abused.

“The situation was over my head,” said Rev. Daryl Bujak, who avoided jail time when he was sentenced to 12 months of supervision. “I didn’t have the ability to deal with the situation I confronted.”

Bujak was found guilty of two counts of battery for spanking the 12-year-old during counseling sessions in 2005 at First Missionary Baptist Church in Elgin. He was accused of beating the girl with a piece of crown molding, in part because he did not believe her allegations.

Now, here comes the first of two points that make me wonder if something is missing or even inaccurate in this story.

Bujak was found not guilty of violating a state law that requires clergy members to report allegations of sexual abuse. …

In addition to sentencing Bujak for battery, a misdemeanor, the judge ordered him to perform 80 hours of community service and pay a $350 fine. Bujak is to have no contact with the girl.

A bright red flag went up for me, in part because of my church-state studies background.

Does the Illinois law really require clergy to violate the privacy of personal confessions? Does the law see any difference between privileged communications in a Protestant setting, as opposed to those in a Catholic setting? There are, after all, quite a few Catholic parishes in the state of Illinois and I would imagine that the law would address that question.

So far, I have not been able to find a clear answer. It appears that the law tries to have it both ways, requiring clergy to report child abuse, but also recognizing clergy penitent privilege. Here is an old Religion Link report on that issue and here is a Google search that contains a few other links that suggest the same thing.

The other strange point is this:

Bujak’s attorney, Ross Bartolotta, argued that the parents had given his client permission to do corporal punishment as part of the counseling. But the judge rejected Bartolotta’s assertion that a clergyman had a right to spank with parental permission.

So the parents could not grant permission to punish their child? That’s interesting, too. It seems that the parents changed their mind and then struck back at the pastor, who thought he was acting in line with their wishes. If I was a clergyperson in the state of Illinois, that would raise a flag for me, too.

Now this is clearly a tragic case on a host of levels and the point of this post is not to defend the actions of the parents and/or their pastor.

My point is that I have doubts about the accuracy of the story — especially on the crucial point of church-state law that is involved. Might a correction be needed? Or does Illinois law truly discriminate against Protestant clergy and their privileged communications, as opposed to Catholic clergy?

Just asking.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • MDSF

    It gets a little clearer with this addition from the original piece:

    The girl’s parents approached Bujak in March 2005 after the girl said she had been sexually abused. The mother did not believe the allegations, and neither did Bujak.

    It was the start of a series of weekly meetings with Bujak, where the mother would report on her daughter’s behavior. Bujak would spank the girl 15 to 25 times, depending on how she had behaved the previous week, the girl and her mother testified.

    The mother later believed her daughter’s allegations, and in October 2005, Matthew Resh of Ingleside was charged with sexually abusing the girl.

  • Dave

    Bujak would spank the girl 15 to 25 times, depending on how she had behaved the previous week

    And this gets him 12 months’ supervision and 80 hours of service? This guy ought to be out of a job an in the pokey.

  • Bern

    Aside from the very important issue of pasto/client privilege and the quesion of whether RC confessional practice is favored oer Protestant practice–or even for that matter over doctor/patient relationships–striking a minor 15-25 times with a stick once a week is most probably a definition of child abuse in most states whether a parent appoves it, observes it, or does it him or herself, regardless of the biblical, koranic or any other religious injunctions. IMHO.

  • Brett

    I’ve no knowledge of Illinois law, but Oklahoma law requires us as clergy to report sexual abuse of a minor if we learn of it from a victim. I’m Methodist, which means I do not have the obligations about the sanctity of the confessional to the same degree as my Roman Catholic colleagues (i.e., no excommunication).

    Neither the law nor my own heart is as clear regarding the confession of abuse by a perpetrator. Someone who tells me, “I did it, and I intend to do it again.” will be brought to the attention of the authorities just as soon as I can pick up the phone.

    Someone who tells me what they did many years ago…I’m not as certain what I would do then as regards reporting the crime. Obviously their activity within the church would be restricted to situations that involved no children or vulnerable adults, but whether or not I would call the police would probably depend on the potential danger to those kinds of people outside the church. That danger is probably great in most cases unless we’re speaking of abuse that happened decades ago, because the probability that abusers will re-offend is very high. But it is not 100 percent.

    We’re told to make certain that people know if they tell us something that involves ongoing or intended harm to themselves or other people, we can’t guarantee confidentiality even though we will do what we can.

    In any event, this pastor and the parents of the young girl seem to me to be idiots, and I speak as one upon whom corporal correction was applied with no lasting ill effects — although my parents figured out that by the time I was about 8 or 9 I was better guided via other means.

  • The Reverend Lincoln Winter

    I lived in Illinois at the time the law was amended. As it was explained then, clergy who discover abuse as a part of their general professional duties (a clergyman who suspects abuse of a child in the parish school, for example) is required to report it. If something is confessed specifically for religious purposes (the confessional, or even “as a spiritual advisor”) then he is not required to report it.While they probably should have explained it better in the article, those who live in Illinois would theoretically know this already, because it made quite a stir at the time. Here are the relevant sections of the law:

    325 Par 2054 Any member of the clergy having reasonable cause to believe that a child known to that member of the clergy in his or her professional capacity may be an abused child as defined in item (c) of the definition of “abused child” in Section 3 of this Act shall immediately report or cause a report to be made to the Department…
    The privileged quality of communication between any professional person required to report and his patient or client shall not apply to situations involving abused or neglected children and shall not constitute grounds for failure to report as required by this Act.
    A member of the clergy may claim the privilege under Section 8 803 of the Code of Civil Procedure.

    735 Sec. 8 803. Clergy. A clergyman or practitioner of any religious denomination accredited by the religious body to which he or she belongs, shall not be compelled to disclose in any court, or to any administrative board or agency, or to any public officer, a confession or admission made to him or her in his or her professional character or as a spiritual advisor in the course of the discipline enjoined by the rules or practices of such religious body or of the religion which he or she professes, nor be compelled to divulge any information which has been obtained by him or her in such professional character or as such spiritual advisor.

  • Dave

    Brett (#4), I hope you include adult survivors of childhood incest under “vulnerable adults.” The effects are long lasting and can color the survivor’s outlook on everything.

  • Brett

    Dave, you are correct about those effects, and that would be taken into consideration. But in this case “vulnerable adults” is a legal category referring to people over 18 who through reasons of disease, injury or other medical or mental health condition are not able to care for themselves or who are unable to give informed consent to sexual relationships or acts.

  • FW Ken

    Aside from the propriety, usefulness, or possible perversion of this situation, is corporal punishment now, by law, a prosecutable assault?

  • Victoria

    Some people might find it hard to believe as they read this story about a young girl who is being sexually victimized; and so runs for help to those she loves and trusts; but instead of receiving sympathy and comfort from her loved ones, she is beaten and brutalized. Why? Because she told her mother and father the kind of “Bad News” no parent is prepared to hear. … I can only Hope and Pray that the Victim in this story does not lose her Faith in Our Loving and Merciful GOD.

  • tmatt

    Victoria’s highly personal comment was edited because it veered far from the purposes of this blog.

    Please stay on the media issues in my post or perhaps talk about the press coverage of the law involved. Please take your discussions of clergy sexual abuse elsewhere, perhaps to our online coffee shop.

  • Judy Jones

    In this horrific story, both the pastor and the parents were all wrong. When this child claimed that she had been sexually abused, they all should have reported it to law enforcement. The courts are the places to decide if this girl’s claim was true. I am so sorry this child had to endure abuse on top of abuse.. Such a common story. …and Victoria, thank you for sharing your story and your pain. Your’s is also a familiar story. My brother who was sexually abused by our parish priest, and he was not believed by my mom or my dad. In fact, my mom blamed my teenage brother, and said he should have known better. Yet the 49 year old priest was still holier than thou in my mom’s eyes.
    This sickness and abuse has got to stop. Innocent kids lives are being destroyed.
    Judy Jones, SNAP director southeastern Ohio

  • Kirk

    In Texas, there is no clergy exception whatsoever.

    “(c) The requirement to report [child abuse or neglect] under this section applies without exception to an individual whose personal communications may otherwise be privileged, including an attorney, a member of the clergy, a medical practitioner, a social worker, a mental health professional, and an employee of a clinic or health care facility that provides reproductive services.” Texas Family Code section 261.101.

  • Jody+

    Bujak was found not guilty of violating a state law that requires clergy members to report allegations of sexual abuse. …

    We were taught in seminary that clergy are considered “mandated reporters” of child abuse in certain states (Tennessee, where I live, is one). Because of this, and the absolute seal on the rite of reconciliation, one of my mentors said the choice boiled down to doing one of two things: maintain the seal and be willing to go to jail or break it and immediately resign your orders.

    I’m actually not sure the above scenario would count as being bound by confidentiality as it seems the child told the pastor of the abuse herself, and it would therefore be appropriate to intervene. The more difficult scenario would be if the perpetrator of abuse confessed to it without agreeing to turn themselves in as a condition of receiving absolution.

  • Jody+

    Incidentally, I think it is incumbent upon the clergy, as it is on anyone else, to stop child abuse, regardless of the personal consequences. Actually, it is even more so; I can’t imagine Christ standing idly by while someone–especially a child–was abused, there are too many warnings about the fate of those who mistreat them!

  • Hannah

    Does the Illinois law really require clergy to violate the privacy of personal confessions?

    When it comes to finding out a child is being abused wouldn’t you wish clery to do just that? Do we really want to keep silent on that type of issue?