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News / Churches & Religion

Washington Senate strikes ‘delicate’ balance on rules for clergy reporting child abuse

A bill exempts disclosures solely in confession but sets new guidelines for when religious leaders would have to tell authorities if they believe a child is at risk

By Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard
Published: February 9, 2024, 7:29am

Washington lawmakers are trying to thread the needle on when religious leaders must report child abuse.

Clergy would be required to report child abuse or neglect unless it is disclosed to them by a congregant during a confession or other “penitential communication” under a bill passed by the state Senate on Wednesday. They would still have a “duty to warn” authorities when they have reason to believe a child is at imminent risk of harm, even if their belief is based in part on what they hear in a religious confession.

In other words, if a religious leader learns only from a confession that a child may have been abused, they do not have to tell authorities. If they hear of it in a confession and also in another setting, when they are not carrying out their work as a religious leader, they have a responsibility to contact authorities.

“I cannot accept that any one of our clergy would stand on the sideline and know a child could be hurt and do nothing about it,” said Sen. Noel Frame, D-Seattle, the bill’s prime sponsor ahead of the final vote.

Republicans who supported similar legislation last session and opposed the bill on Wednesday said the “duty to warn” provision lacked clarity and could lead priests to violate the “seal of confession,” which would put them at risk of ex-communication.

The Washington State Catholic Conference also voiced concerns about the legislation.

Washington is one of five states without a law making clergy mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect.

State law requires teachers, police, registered nurses, social service counselors and members of several other professions to report to law enforcement authorities if they have reasonable cause to believe that a child has suffered abuse or neglect.

Senate Bill 6298, which passed on a 44-5 vote, would add clergy to the list. But it also preserves their privilege to keep information shared in penitent communications confidential.

Finding such a balance proved an irreconcilable point of contention between the two chambers on a similar Frame bill in the 2023 session.

A unanimous Senate passed Senate Bill 5280 that exempted clergy from disclosing information obtained in the confessional. But the House removed the exemption in the version of the bill it approved. Senators insisted on their position and the bill lapsed.

What emerged Wednesday is a “delicate” and “very narrowly defined compromise” worked out with the Washington State Catholic Conference, Frame said on the Senate floor.

In a statement, Jean Welch Hill, the organization’s executive director, cited concerns while expressing an expectation the bill, as now written, would work as lawmakers intend if enacted.

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“The newly created duty to warn of an imminent risk could require breaking the seal of confession, which raises significant First Amendment concerns for us,” she said. “However, if priests are following the Safe Environment protocols of our three dioceses, we expect they will be reporting reasonable suspicions of abuse based on observed conduct outside of the confessional.”

Frame said she was “personally uncomfortable” with the compromise language but was urged by survivors of child abuse to support it in order to ensure clergy are added to the list of mandatory reporters.

The senator knows the importance. She said she was abused as a child for five years and it only stopped when she told a teacher.

Her bill applies to members of the clergy, defined broadly as any “licensed, accredited, or ordained minister, deacon, priest, rabbi, imam, elder, or similarly situated religious or spiritual leader.”

Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, said she was a reluctant backer of the legislation. She said she didn’t want abuse to go unreported “but I don’t want priests to (break) their vows and lose their jobs.”

The soiled history of the Catholic Church underpinned the floor debate. In Washington, and around the country, thousands of cases of abuse involving church leaders have been documented in the past half-century.

“This bill is so long overdue it makes me ache,” said Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue.

Senate Bill 6298 will now go to the House for consideration.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.