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Legislation requiring clergy to report child abuse stalls again in Olympia

By JERRY CORNFIELD, Washington State Standard
Published: February 22, 2024, 7:34pm

An attempt to require clergy to report child abuse or neglect met a quiet end Wednesday amid disagreement between the House and Senate on whether to exclude information shared in confession.

A Senate-passed bill, described as a “delicate compromise” by its author, exempted disclosures in confession while still requiring religious leaders to notify 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 heard in confession, or other penitential communication.

But the House Human Services, Youth and Early Learning Committee didn’t advance Senate Bill 6298 ahead of Wednesday’s deadline for action on non-budget policy legislation from the opposite chamber.

Members of both parties on the panel did not want to protect what is said in confession.

“People are really concerned about kids and don’t want to give anyone a pass,” said Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, the committee’s chair. “We had an honest discussion of issues in our caucus and with the other side and we didn’t have the votes to get it out of the committee.”

The same point of contention buried a similar bill in 2023.

Last time around, 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 it approved. Senators insisted on their position and the bill lapsed.

Sen. Noel Frame, D-Seattle, wrote both bills.

“This has been unaddressed for 20 years. It’s going to be unaddressed for another year,” she said Wednesday.

A search for compromise

Washington is one of a handful of 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.

After last year’s setback, Frame set out in search of a potential middle ground. She worked with Senn and Rep. Amy Walen, D-Kirkland, who sponsored a related House bill in 2023, and leaders of the Washington State Catholic Conference.

Senate Bill 6298, which passed on a 44-5 vote on Feb. 7, sought to add clergy to the list of mandatory reporters and preserved their privilege to keep information shared in penitent communications confidential.

But it also creates a “duty to warn” for clergy to tell authorities when they have reason to believe a child is at imminent risk of harm.

The idea is, 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 in another setting, when they are not carrying out their work as a religious leader, they have a responsibility to contact authorities.

“We understood this compromise was as good as we were going to get,” Frame said. “I thought this compromise would be good enough. I was wrong in my assumption.”

She said she understood House members are “uncomfortable” with the exemption. She had hoped the “duty to warn” language could win support.

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“That was my threading of the needle to try and protect children,” she said.

On Wednesday, Jean Welch Hill, executive director of the Catholic Conference, said they appreciated the bill did not move forward without the clergy-penitent privilege.

“We will continue our efforts to educate legislators about the inviolable nature of the Sacrament of Confession,” she said in an email. “Regardless of this year’s legislative outcome, we also maintain our consistent policies and practices of training individuals serving children within our Catholic entities to recognize and report signs of abuse, with or without a statutory obligation.

Tim Law of the Catholic Accountability Project, an advocacy and support group for survivors of clergy abuse, opposed the bill in large part because of the exemption. He said he was surprised at the outcome as it seemed there was momentum for the new language.

“I feel bad for Senator Frame and the people who worked with her on this,” he said. “It still leaves too big of a hole. If they passed this, there would be no energy to do anything else going forward.”
Law also expressed concern the legislation could complicate the state attorney general’s office efforts to obtain documents on past allegations of abuse involving members of the Catholic church in Washington.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson did not take a position on the bill. A spokeswoman said the office has “a longstanding policy that we do not comment on investigations, including confirming whether they exist.”

Frame said she reached out to officials in the attorney general’s office and “did not get the idea that the bill” complicated any of their activities.

Mary Dispenza, a founding member of the Catholic Accountability Project and member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, also opposed the exemption for confession.

“It’s good the bill is not going anywhere yet,” she said. “It was a confusing bill. It really needed a lot of work.”

The Washington State Standard is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet that provides original reporting, analysis and commentary on Washington state government and politics. We seek to keep you informed about Washington’s most pressing issues, the decisions elected leaders are making, how they are spending tax dollars and who is influencing public policy.