By Wilson Criscione / InvestigateWest
As state lawmakers look to advance legislation that would require clergy to report child abuse or neglect, the Catholic Church’s lobbying arm in Washington has come out in support of the bills — but only if they provide a loophole for confessions.
Two bills in the state Legislature — House Bill 1098 and Senate Bill 5280 — would add clergy to the list of mandatory reporters of abuse or neglect. Currently, Washington is one of a handful of states not to list clergy as such.
But debate has begun to swirl over whether Washington should keep a clergy-penitent privilege, which allows clergy to withhold information revealed during confession or another privileged conversation. Child advocates argue it provides a gaping loophole allowing churches to hide sexual abuse by loosely defining certain communications as protected.
Mario Villanueva, the executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference, the public policy voice for Washington bishops, urged lawmakers in Olympia to pass the bill as long as it keeps the clergy-penitent privilege. Removing that exception, he argues, is a violation of the First Amendment and the U.S. Constitution.
“It’s a part of faith and religion and a practice that secular government doesn’t have any place to impinge on,” Villanueva tells InvestigateWest.
This debate has broken out in state legislatures across the country for decades, and the Catholic Church has proved to be a powerful foe in efforts to remove the clergy-penitent loophole.
The Associated Press found last year that lawmakers across the country have proposed more than 130 bills that targeted mandatory reporting of clergy, but the Catholic Church, along with Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormon Church, have in most cases successfully blocked the loophole from being closed. Still, some states — North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas and West Virginia — have managed to eliminate the clergy-penitent privilege.
In Washington, previous efforts to add clergy to the mandatory reporter list failed in the 2000s amid Catholic sex abuse scandals.
This year, Sen. Noel Frame, D-Seattle, introduced a bill to add clergy as mandatory reporters after reading InvestigateWest’s reporting on child sexual abuse cover-ups by Jehovah’s Witnesses in Washington. Frame’s bill maintained clergy-penitent privilege, and she saw it as a compromise that might improve the bill’s chances of passing.
Immediately, the clergy-penitent privilege became a central point of contention this session. In a stark contrast to the Catholic Church, a representative of the Association of Secular Elected Officials urged passage of the bill but only if the clergy-penitent privilege is removed.
Child advocates, some of whom are former Jehovah’s Witnesses who left the religion after seeing how it handled sexual abuse, are concerned that an exception for confessions will be exploited. Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations, or Kingdom Halls, are overseen by a body of elders. Those elders respond to sexual assault allegations according to a manual issued by the Watchtower headquarters in New York, which encourages elders to report allegations to authorities only if state law requires it.
In Montana, for example, a woman accused Watchtower, the church’s national organization, of ordering Montana clergy to keep her abuse hidden from authorities. She was awarded a $35 million verdict in a lawsuit. But that verdict was overturned because — even though clergy are mandatory reporters in Montana — the state also has a clergy-penitent privilege to make an exception for confessions.
Last month in Olympia, the House committee that first read the bill to add clergy to the mandatory reporter list recommended that it pass. Rep. Jamila Taylor, D-Federal Way, made an amendment to remove the confession exception in a move that Villanueva said “blindsided” him. Republicans on the committee who were initially supportive of the bill quickly withdrew their support as a result, with Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, saying it would create a “chilling effect” that would prevent church members from speaking freely during confession.
“I know of many clergy who encourage the confessor to make right in their own life the wrongs they’ve done, without violating the confidence of a confessional process,” Walsh said. “That can be the healthiest response to an unhealthy situation.”
A similar amendment to eliminate the loophole was almost added by Frame in the Senate, but she withdrew it after talking with other lawmakers, including Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake. In an interview, Warnick said she is a lifelong Catholic, and she doesn’t believe a priest should be held accountable for something said in a private confession. While she stressed that “none of us are supportive of crimes not being reported,” she added that confession might be the first step for an abuser to admit what they’ve done wrong.
The bills in the House and Senate have both been sent to the rules committee in the respective chambers.
Frame has said her priority is to add clergy to the list of mandatory reporters, with or without clergy-penitent privilege.
“Given the status of the companion bill in the House,” Frame said, “it’s not a conversation that’s going away.”
InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Reporter Wilson Criscione can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.