ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Child abuse isn’t always easy to catch, but mandated reporters have the job of keeping a watchful eye. Senator Dick Sears of Bennington says he was shocked to learn Vermont is one of 33 states that still allows a loophole for members of the church.

“I don’t want to interfere with the Catholic Church or any other church, any other religious group. On the other hand, I don’t think you have a free pass,” Sen. Sears says to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.

Vermont law names clergy as mandated reporters, but also adds there is an exception if what they learn comes during a confession or when acting as a spiritual advisor.

(j) A member of the clergy shall not be required to make a report under this section if the report would be based upon information received in a communication that is:

      (1) made to a member of the clergy acting in his or her capacity as spiritual advisor;

      (2) intended by the parties to be confidential at the time the communication is made;

      (3) intended by the communicant to be an act of contrition or a matter of conscience; and

      (4) required to be confidential by religious law, doctrine, or tenet.

Vermont 33 V.S.A. § 4913: Reporting Abuse Of Children

Senator Sears says he believes this loophole went unnoticed until he started investigating decades of physical abuse reported at the now closed St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington

“In those cases, there appeared to be mandated reporters that didn’t report, and we looked at our mandated reporting laws, tried to update them, and quite frankly, I don’t know how the loophole got in there,” he explains.

“It was constant fear. In fact, I still had constant fear until I was 40 years old. If any authority figured called my name or even a boss called my name, I thought immediately I was in trouble. My stomach was in knots,” Deborah Hazen recalls of her experience following her stay at St. Joseph’s from 1958 to 1964.

Hazen and Brenda Hannon are members of the Voices of St. Joseph’s Orphanage group, which is an organization of former St. Joseph’s residents. The group organizes events and brings issues to lawmakers in order to prevent future child abuse.

Both say what they went through was something they hope no child experiences.

“They would practically torture my sister because she wouldn’t cry. They ran a butter knife under scalding hot water, put it on her arm to make her cry. They would squirt onion juice in her eyes,” Hazen recalls.

“One time, the nuns locked me in a trunk when I was very small and told me snakes and spiders were going to get me in there. [My sister] kept trying to get to the trunk to let me out, and they’d yank her back by her hair. She told me that was the only time she almost cried, because I suddenly stopped crying and she thought I ran out of air. She thought he killed me,” she says.

“The shortest version I can give you of that place is it was a pit of despair,” says Hannon who lived at St. Joseph’s from 1958 to 1968. “A lot of us were the thrown away and forgotten children. Nobody would listen to us. Children would run away or go to the police and we were not believed.”

Sears say he will introduce a new bill this legislative session proposing to eliminate the clergy exception. He says it is currently in draft and should be introduced next week.

“I’ve personally been a mandated reporter, and I know how difficult it is sometimes to report things on people that you’re trying to help, but at the same time I think we have an obligation to the victims,” Sen. Sears says. “You can forgive somebody or do whatever you need to do for your religion, but I don’t think you can keep that hidden from authorities.”

The St. Joseph’s Orphanage survivors say after not being believed for so long, it’s validating to see Vermont move towards change. 

“These are things that are going to be here long after I’m gone, but the significance is to keep people aware of protecting the children,” says Hannon.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington replying to an email on behalf of Bishop Christopher Coyne says he “wishes to wait until we know what is in the bill and then he will reach out to those involved and try and come to a mutual understanding of what is important for the Catholic community in Vermont.”

NEWS10 research shows Massachusetts has a similar clergy exception in its mandated reporting laws while New York does not.