When are we finally going to put children first? There's a war being waged against them, and itis being manifested through psychical and emotional abuse, through neglect and through sexualexploitation.

In 1999 alone, child protective services substantiated an estimated 826,000 cases of childmaltreatment, including neglect, and physical and sexual abuse, according to a US Department ofHealth and Human Services report.

The case of Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children, ages 6 months to 7 years, in thebathtub, is a bleak reminder that children are brutally murdered at the hands of those who aresupposed to protect them. In fact, an estimated 1,100 defenseless children die each year as aresult of abuse and neglect.

Historically, the protection of children has not been a top priority. Regarded primarily aschattel, the legal property of their parents, abused and neglected children were long expected tocarry the burden of their abuse with little or no help from law enforcement, medical professionalsor government agencies.

It wasn't until the Mary Ellen Wilson case in 1874 that abused children in the United States hadany right to protection. Mary Ellen was a 9-year-old severely beaten and neglected by her fostermother. A neighbor, who frequently overheard the child's agonized screams during beatings, tried toget help from police and other organizations. She was unsuccessful - told that she needed proof ofthe beatings and had no legal rights over the child,

In a desperate attempt to save Mary Ellen, the neighbor turned to the New York Society for thePrevention of Cruelty to Animals (NYSPCA), where she discovered that laws at the time made itpossible to rescue abused animals more easily than abused children.

The founder and president of NYSPCA, Henry Bergh, argued: The child is an animal. If there isno justice for it as a human being, it shall at least have the rights of the stray cur in thestreet. It shall not be abused. Bergh and his attorney had the child removed from the home, andthe foster mother was convicted of assault and battery and sentenced to a year at hard labor in thecity penitentiary.

This landmark case sparked formation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children(SPCA) and other organized efforts to combat child maltreatment that eventually led to an amendmentto the Social Security Act to mandate child welfare and protective services.

Although intervention became mandated, social workers alone were charged with the detection ofchild abuse. And at the time, except for caring medically for abused children, physicians,including pediatricians, would not become involved in the plight of such victims.

The pediatricians healed the sick but did not deal with social, psychological, cultural,religious or economic afflictions. They shunned politics and scrupulously avoided any controversialpolice activity that might conflict with the Hippocratic principle of confidentiality. At the time,child abuse was considered a social problem and not necessarily a strict medical problem, so abusewent unreported and children continued to suffer.

But, over time, physicians did become involved in combating child abuse. By 1968, all 50 stateshad passed laws mandating that physicians and other health-care workers report child abuse andneglect.

After the Mary Ellen Wilson case, it took nearly 100 years to put the safety of our childrenahead of preconceived legal complexities and ahead of personal and professional fears of beingblamed when child protective services and law enforcement care called in to investigate childabuse.

In this century, we have the Catholic Church being resistant to the reporting of child abuse. Itclaims that such reporting might compromise the sacramental seal of confession. Just as physicianswere previously resistant to putting children's safety first, the Catholic Church is doing thesame. And Nassau County District Attorney Denis Dillon is in the church's corner.

In a recent letter to state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick), Dillon stronglydisagreed with legislation already passed in the Senate that would require the clergy to becomemandated reporters of abuse. Dillon went so far as to urge reconsideration of the matter.

In an outrageous attempt to cloud the issue and minimize sex crimes committed against adolescentboys, Dillon's letter went on to make a distinction between offenders who carry out sex crimesagainst prepubescent vs. postpubescent boys. Using archaic and extremely destructive stereotypes,Dillon suggested that abuse of adolescent boys by priests makes it likely that the problem ishomosexuality in the priesthood. A child molester is a child molester. Regardless of the age ofhis victims, he must be regarded as such.

Meanwhile, Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota is using his position to ask a grand jury toinvestigate whether the Diocese of Rockville Centre has covered up repeated cases of sexual abuseand reassigned accused priests to other parishes. Spota's actions will set a national precedent byplacing the value of a child well above the word of a religious institution that has demonstratedit is not capable of policing its own clergy.

By now, most would agree that mandated reporting for the clergy is an absolute requirement.Helath-care workers and teachers and many others are required to report suspicions of child abuse.The Catholic Church and any other clergy cannot be exempt because that leaves children toovulnerable and puts the church above the law.

Mandated reporting alone for clergy doesn't go far enough. If we really want to put childrenfirst, we will require any people in pastoral roles in any places of worship to be licensed by thestate so they can be carefully monitored in their roles with children -- as other professionalsare.

We must put the value of our children first and demand licensing and mandated reporting forthose providing counseling services for children.