This week’s Ask Your Government

Dear readers,

This week’s Ask Your Government question comes from a reader in the northeastern part of the state. Here’s what she asked:

“Can the government step in and do an investigation into the Catholic Church clergy abuse of children and women instead of the Catholic Church policing itself?

Even in rural North Dakota, we aren’t exempt from this problem of clergy abuse. I’d like to know what the government has to say.”

It took me several phone calls to determine the best way to answer this question.

A spokeswoman for the North Dakota U.S. Attorney’s Office said there would be “no comment from our office on this subject.” However, I did get responses from others.

North Dakota State’s Attorneys Association Executive Director Aaron Birst said:

“From a legal perspective, law enforcement has the ability to investigate any person or organization that it suspects is or has been involved in criminal activity.

“Generally, those investigations start when someone makes a specific allegation of wrongdoing to a law enforcement agency or someone who is otherwise required by law to report the allegation.

“Law enforcement can seek court orders compelling searches for evidence, but those orders cannot be issued unless law enforcement first provides the court probable cause that such property, potentially, constitutes evidence of a crime.”

Here’s what Marlys Baker, administrator of Child Protection Services with the state Department of Human Services, said:

“County social service agencies accept all reports of suspected child abuse or neglect and use their expertise to analyze the reports and ensure that concerns are sent to the appropriate entity to be addressed.

“When a county social service agency receives a report of suspected child abuse or neglect, the report is first reviewed to determine whether the report concerns a child under age 18. Adults who want to report past abuse are referred to law enforcement.

“Another part of this analysis is whether the person suspected of abusing the child was in one of the ‘caregiver roles’ listed in the North Dakota child protection law (NDCC 50-25.1):

  • A person who has responsibility for the care or supervision of a child and who is the child’s parent, an adult family member of the child, any member of the child’s household, the child’s guardian or the child’s foster parent.
  • Employees and persons providing care for a child in a public or private school or child care setting.

“So, if a clergy person meets this definition, the social service agency will begin an assessment. If the person suspected of abusing or neglecting a child is not in one of these roles, social services cannot intervene, and it may become a law enforcement matter.”

Tanya Watterud, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Fargo, said the following:

“Information regarding what the Catholic Church has done nationally to respond to sexual abuse can be found at www.usccb.org/catholic-church-sxl-ab.pdf.

“The Catholic Diocese of Fargo reports incidents or suspected incidents of sexual abuse of minors to civil authorities as required by law.

“The diocese includes the following notice in publications and on its website to assist others with reporting abuse:

“ ‘The Diocese of Fargo is committed to the protection of youth. Please report any incidents or suspected incidents of child abuse, including sexual abuse, to civil authorities.

‘If the situation involves a member of the clergy or a religious order, a seminarian, or an employee of a Catholic school, parish, the diocesan offices or other Catholic entity within the diocese, we ask that you also report the incident or suspected incident to Msgr. Joseph P. Goering, vicar general, at (701) 356-7945 or to Larry Bernhardt, victim assistance coordinator, at (701) 356-7965 or VictimAssistance@fargodiocese.org.

‘For additional information about victim assistance, visit www.fargodiocese.org.

‘The Diocese of Fargo is audited for compliance with The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People annually, with on-site audits, like the audit currently under way for the Diocese of Fargo, being conducted every third year.

‘The Diocese of Fargo was found to be in full compliance with the charter following the 2009 audit.’ ”

Do you have a question for a state government official or agency? Send us your question, and we’ll do our best to find an answer.

E-mail politics@wday.com (Subject: Ask your government).

You may also write to Teri Finneman, c/o Forum Communications, Press Room, State Capitol, Bismarck, ND 58505.

Please include your name, town and a phone number to reach you for verification.

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