Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, introduced a bill requiring ordained ministers and clergy to be included as mandatory reporters of suspected abuse or neglect of children. It’s the fourth time Holland has sought to add church officials to other occupations, including teachers and firefighters, to the list of required reporters. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Sen. Tom Holland is attempting for the fourth time to convince the Kansas Legislature to approve a measure mandating ministers and clergy leading religious organizations to be required reporters of suspected abuse or neglect of children.
Holland, a Baldwin City Democrat, gained traction for a bill in 2019 but progress was halted during the COVID-19 pandemic. A comparable bill introduced in 2021 and a proposed state constitutional amendment in 2022 didn’t reach the governor’s desk. The latest incarnation is Senate Bill 87, which would place ordained ministers and clergy with health workers, teachers, child care providers, firefighters, law enforcement officers and others required under state law to pass along reports of abuse to authorities.
“I’m very optimistic, this time, the Legislature will take the opportunity to look at this issue,” Holland said in an interview Thursday. “This is a bill that needs to be heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee.”
Previous efforts to expand the circle of mandated reporters to church officials was met with questions about violating the sanctity of confessionals or other “privileged conversations.” Holland’s new bill wouldn’t provide an exemption for church leaders who encounter evidence of abuse through private discussions.
Other skeptics of the legislation have raised the possibility the court system would find such a law a breach of the separation of church and state.
Derek Schmidt, the former attorney general of Kansas, released prior to leaving office in January a summary of the four-year investigation of Catholic clergy abuse by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. The KBI inquiry led to identification of 188 church members suspected of committing offenses ranging from indecent liberties with a child to aggravated sexual battery and rape. KBI officials forwarded documents to local prosecutors in 30 cases, but the statute of limitations and other impediments prevented filing of charges against anyone.
The KBI investigation was a sensitive issue as Catholic dioceses in Kansas and organizations such as Kansans for Life took a lead role in seeking statewide voter approval of a constitutional amendment reversing a Kansas Supreme Court decision that found women had a right to bodily autonomy and abortion. In August, the Value Them Both amendment was rejected by more than 170,000 votes.
Holland said the “sobering” summary of the KBI investigation, conclusion of the constitutional amendment vote on abortion rights and election of Kris Kobach as the new attorney general provided a window of opportunity to reconsider reporting requirements of church leaders.
“Our children are taught to trust in certain authority figures in their communities, because adults are supposed to speak up for children when they’ve been harmed,” Holland said. “Far too many of our faith leaders, those who are foundational to the development of our sense of self and spirituality, have violated that trust.”
He was drawn to the issue in 2019 after constituents brought his attention to leaders of a Lawrence church who discouraged reporting of child sexual abuse. At the urging of Senate Republicans, Holland amended his bill to exempt information disclosed to clergy during private religious confessionals.
In 2022, he attempted to force the Senate to take action on a constitutional change labeled the “Stop Protecting Pedophile Priests Amendment.” He needed 24 votes from senators to pull the amendment out of a committee, but his request was rejected 10-24.
“The Kansas Legislature has a duty to protect Kansas children but in past years has failed to act to address this horror,” Holland said.
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