What the Church can learn from JoePa and Penn State
Penn State and Mandatory Reporting Laws
Many have heard and seen the recent events regarding Penn State, its football program, allegations of sexual abuse and the termination of Joe Paterno (JoePa) from the Head Football Coach position at Penn State. My hope in discussing this case is for youth workers to understand how something like this can happen to them and how to avoid this situation if it were to happen in their church.
Keep in mind, every state laws have different nuances and you should consult your lawyer about these and how to help you through a mandatory reporting situation.
PA Code 49-42.42 covers mandatory reporting. In general, mandated reporters are those who have some oversight or care capacity over children and their supervisors. Some states list these, when they do pastors, day care workers, are often included on this list. In other words, pastoral confidentiality and penitent confidentiality do not apply. The section of law I will focus on is below:
42.42. Suspected child abuse—mandated reporting requirements
Upon notification by the licensee, the person in charge or the designated agent shall assume the responsibility and have the legal obligation to report or cause a report to be made in accordance with subsections (a), (c) and (d).
See also: 23, § 6311 for more mandated reporting situations.
Standards for Making a Report
Citation: Cons. Stat. Tit. 23, § 6311
A report is required when a person, who in the course of employment, occupation, or practice of a profession, comes into contact with children, has reasonable cause to suspect, on the basis of medical, professional, or other training and experience, that a child is a victim of child abuse.
JoePa – What he did Right:
Upon hearing an allegation of child sex abuse from one of his staff, Joe Paterno reported this to his supervisors and followed up with them regarding his supervisors. Note that the law does enable institutions to a “designated agent” to make the report on behalf of anyone in this agency. Some churches choose to do utilize a “designated agent”. That person should be trained in how to handle and report these situations. JoPa worked up the ladder and did this part right. This is probably the biggest reason he’s not in jail at the moment.
JoePa- How he Got Burned:
Joe Paterno learned that the institution did not follow up or report this to CPS hotilines etc. At this point he technically became responsible for making that phone call to the state. Instead, he kept silent inline with his supervisors. While he escaped the Grand Jury, his culpability tainted his job and his school. The trustees really didn’t have much of a choice. (The president of the school also was fired because of this.)
Safeguarding your Church and Ministry
When a report of child abuse (physical or sexual) comes across your desk, you have some degree of responsibility throughout the process. Remember, that “looking into” an allegation, is tacitly doing your own investigation. If you need to do more digging and ask more questions about a situation, you are most likely crossing that line to where someone needs to make a call to the proper authorities.
The designated agent clause can get tricky. On one hand it enables a main contact to be used and that person to be the “expert” in the church in how to handle a report of child abuse. However, if there is enough cause and no phone call is made… it can fall back onto you (if you are the one who made the report to the designated agent or know of the abusive situation). Remember you are responsibility to report the reasonable suspicion of abuse, not the proof positive of said abuse.
- Remember that in all reporting cases to keep a strong paper trail of who you talk to, when and what was conveyed. Record who is the designated agent, when they were informed and what you know of what they did to follow through.
- Review your reporting and child safety policies. Do you have a Designated Agent? Do they know how to do what they need to do when asked?
- If the mandated reporter chooses not to call… yet you feel there is more than enough to call… you still need to make the call. Realize that often in small church environments, this may get you fired. You can often do this anonymously… covering yourself (you get a reporter ID number in general). While you might have some whistle blower protections, your church might not care.
- Keep training your staff on these policies and procedures.
- Hopefully your church has a lawyer on retainer. If so ask them if you have doubts. If not, you can still call that hotline with the information you have, and they will still choose whether or not you have enough information to go on.