House Bill 1942 was introduced by Rep. Linda Ichiyama, an Oahu Democrat. The measure notes the state’s Child Welfare Services received 3,702 reports of child abuse and that half were made by people required to report it.
It also points out Hawaii “is one of only a handful of states that do not include members of the clergy as mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect.”
The version of the bill presented to the committee by Puna Sen. Russell Ruderman, the committee chairman, was one proposed by the state Department of Human Services that removed a provision that would exempt clergy from reporting information about suspected abuse acquired during confessions.
The vote was 3-2, with Ruderman and Vice Chairman Karl Rhoads voting aye, and Sen. Les Ihara voting aye with reservations. Sens. Kurt Fevella and Gil Riviere voted nay.
“I believe the top concern here is protecting children from abuse. I realize there are competing concerns,” said Ruderman, who chaired the meeting on Zoom from his Puna home while the others were at the state Capitol in Honolulu. “… There are many who are concerned with protecting our clergy and the religious processes, and I share that concern, but that concern does not rise to the point of hiding child abuse.”
Riviere, an Oahu Democrat, said he couldn’t support the legislation “if it’s going to require clergy in all cases to step forward, even including something that was revealed in confession, which, I think, is of the greatest importance within the many faiths.”
Fevella, an Oahu Republican and the chamber’s lone GOP member, said he thinks people should feel comfortable when confessing their sins to clergy.
“I cannot support this version,” he said.
An earlier version of the bill received written testimony in favor by the Most Rev. Larry Silva, Bishop of Honolulu, who said the Catholic Church “has been diligently working on and implementing safeguards to the welfare of minors against sexual abuse.”
Silva’s support of the bill, however, was predicated upon excluding “penitential communications” — information received during confession — from mandated reporting requirements.
Hawaii Youth Services Network, an umbrella organization that includes Bay Clinic, Big Island Substance Abuse Council, Domestic Violence Action Center and Friends of the Children of West Hawaii, among others, provided written testimony in support.
“Requiring members of the clergy, computer technicians and print or image processors to be mandated reporters of abuse and neglect of a minor will increase the safety of our children,” wrote Judith F. Clark, the organization’s executive director.
The bill is also supported by Parents and Children Together, a nonprofit social services organization for families in need, which said the legislation “would help to strengthen current child abuse reporting laws and continue to keep our keiki safe.”
Imua Alliance, which describes itself as “one of the state’s largest victim service providers for survivors of sex trafficking,” supports the measure as well, calling sex trafficking “a profoundly violent crime.”
“The average age of entry into commercial sexual exploitation in Hawaii may be as low as 14 years old, with 60% of trafficked children being under the age of 16,” the organization testified.
The group said many of its victim clients “are misidentified as so-called ‘voluntary prostitutes’ and are subsequently arrested and incarcerated, with no financial resources from which to pay for their release.”
In voicing his support for the bill’s intent, but also misgivings about the measure’s current language, Ihara, an Oahu Democrat, said he’s “not sure exactly how to approach this,” and wants the legislation “to be improved in the next committee.”
“I believe that religious organizations, churches, pillars in our community, are encouraged to and have a right to participate in civic democracy,” he said. “And eventually, I believe the civic values … should prevail over religious values that harm civic values. In this case, it’s child abuse.”
The bill’s next destination is the Senate Judiciary Committee, which hasn’t yet scheduled a hearing.
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.