Privacy laws force chaplains to make ‘cold calls’

Published April 1, 2004

It used to be that Rev. Mary-Ann Somerville knew which Anglican in the hospital needed her prayers or a visit, and which patient she could refer to other community clergy who minister to the sick and the dying. As a priest, she would be provided by hospital staff with a list of patients with their religious affiliations.

Due to new privacy legislation, today, like a traveling salesman, she has to make “cold calls” to fulfill her job. She either has to walk door-to-door looking for Anglican patients at Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital, where she is chaplain, or rely on sympathetic staff to tell her who she may visit. It has made her work “very frustrating and labour-intensive,” she said.

As for clergy who call her and say, “One of my people is there, can I verify?” she has to tell them, “I’m sorry, I can’t do it.” They are, she said, “absolutely shocked that I can’t assist them.”

Concerns over privacy, including pending legislation known as Bill 31, are forcing medical institutions to deny clergy access to members of their faith who are patients in the hospital or clinic.

Churches in Ontario have expressed concern that the bill would hamper pastoral care and are, therefore, asking that it should “clearly state that providing basic information to clergy and religious caregivers is not a violation of the Act.” In a brief presented to the Ontario legislature’s committee on general government, the churches stated that the bill should be amended to include chaplaincy services in its definition of healthcare practitioners.


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