Family Law Keyed to Weisbergback
Brief Fact Summary. Appellants challenged their convictions for failure to report an incident of child abuse by child care custodians based on their counseling of a sexually abused child. Appellants were pastors in a church and school administrators at the church’s school.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Religious counselors may properly be convicted for failure to report child abuse when their role also involves school related counseling.
Facts. At trial, the victim, 20 year old Christine, testified that she had attended South Bay Christian Academy. At 17 she sought help from appellant Hodges (president of the school and pastor of the church) by telling him that her stepfather, a minister in the church, had been molesting her for many years. Hodges informed her stepfather of the allegations, and told Christine the next day that her stepfather had confessed to everything, that he would be handling the situation, and that she should not tell anyone. A few days later, Hodges told Christine that he had sent her stepfather to a retreat and handed her a letter of apology from her stepfather. He insisted on having her mother and stepfather come into the office after she read the letter against her wishes. She pleaded with Mr. Hodges to not make her go home with her parents because she was frightened of her stepfather, but he arranged to have her parents pick her up from school the next day. Instead, she ran away. She
also told others about the situation. She was instructed to return, and on doing so met with appellants Hodges and Nobbs. Hodges told her unless she returned home she would not be allowed to return to school and graduate. She returned home and left immediately after graduation. Mr. Hodges was subsequently asked during investigation why he did not report the information to police or child protective services or if he knew he was mandated to report. He told the officer he knew of the reporting laws, and understood he was a mandated reporter. He told the officer he wished to take care of the matter within the church, and that he disciplined the father by having him write the letter of apology and confess in front of the entire congregation. Additionally, Hodges took away his ministerial license. Hodges testified that he did not contact the police because he believed that his role in the matter was a pastoral one, and that the incidents were sins rather than sexual abuse. Mr. Nob
bs testified he believed he had been acting in a pastoral capacity as assistant pastor.
Issue. Were appellants properly convicted of violating the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act, which provides that any child care custodian who has knowledge of or observes a child in his or her professional capacity or within the scope of his or her employment whom he or she knows or reasonably suspects has been the victim of child abuse shall report the known or suspected instance of child abuse to a child protective agency immediately or as soon as practically possible?
Held. The jury’s decision that appellants were acting within the capacity of a child care custodian was upheld. The constitutionality of the act as applied to the appellants was also valid.
Appellants first contend they were not acting as child care custodians within the meaning of the statute. Mr. Hodges claims he was counseling Christine as a pastor of the church, with most meetings occurring outside of school hours. Mr. Nobbs claims he was called only to be informed that Christine’s stepfather would be relieved of his ministerial duties, and Mr. Nobbs would assume them. The definition of child care custodian means a teacher, administrative officer, or supervisor of child welfare and attendance of any public or private school. There was substantial evidence to support the jury’s finding that appellants were child care custodians. The school was attended by the victim and operated by the church, where religious and academic classes were taught. Appellants were involved in running the school as president and principle. Nobbs took care of the day-to-day management, while Hodges had overall responsibility. Christine testified that she sought Hodges’ help because
he was in charge of the school.
Appellants next contend the statute violates due process as applied to them, as it fails to give adequate notice of the obligation to report. The terms child, child abuse, and child protective agency are all defined. The intent of the act is to protect children from abuse, and the legislature has been sufficiently definite to give the constitutionally required degree of notice to those subject to the act’s requirements.
Appellants contend the statute as applied in this case is insufficiently specific given its impact on activities potentially subject to First Amendment protection. They argue that they were obligated by their faith to not disclose to the community the contents of pastoral communications with Christine. The act’s purpose would be severely undermined if appellant’s failure to report known child abuse was a protected religious activity under the First Amendment. The protection of all children cannot be achieved in any other way besides application of the act to religious schools.
Appellants finally allege the act constitutes excessive governmental entanglement with religion in violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause. They argue the court has effectively barred a pastor from religious counseling. However, the reporting requirement is designed to ensure the health and safety of children and therefore fulfills a vital and appropriate secular purpose. The compelling state interest fulfilled by the act justifies the interference with appellant’s religious practices when appellants are acting in the capacity of child care custodians.
Discussion. This case discusses the difference between appellants acting in a pastoral role in the church and a child care custodian role in the school. The Court finds the jury justified in finding that appellants acted in a child care custodian role, and that application of the act to appellants was constitutional.