Lawmakers hope a compromise will get Catholic lobbyists on board
By Wilson Criscione / InvestigateWest
After failing a year ago, Washington state lawmakers are trying again this session to pass a bill that would make clergy mandatory reporters of child abuse or neglect.
Senate Bill 6298 would add clergy to the list of mandatory reporters in Washington. And the bill’s main sponsor, state Sen. Noel Frame, D-Seattle, hopes a compromise regarding whether clergy should still report information obtained during a confession will be enough to win over Catholic lobbyists, who proved to be the main obstacle to passing the law last year.
“I cannot handle the idea that a member of a faith community, a leader in a faith community, would stand on the sidelines when they believe a child is at imminent risk of abuse or harm,” Frame said in a legislative committee hearing discussing the bill Thursday. “I really hope this is the middle path.”
Washington is now one of five states where clergy are not mandated reporters of child abuse or neglect, according to a federal agency that tracks such laws.
Both the state House and Senate passed versions of a bill last year that would change that. The chambers, however, couldn’t agree on whether clergy should still be obligated to report allegations if they learn the information during a religious confession. The House, in a bipartisan vote, passed a version without any exemption for confessions, but the Democrat-led Senate couldn’t agree to go that far.
Nationwide, of the 45 states in which clergy are mandated reporters, only seven states have removed that loophole.
Frame, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who introduced the bill last year after reading InvestigateWest’s reporting on sexual abuse cover-ups among Jehovah’s Witnesses, said she knew the 2023 bill was dead when the Washington State Catholic Conference wouldn’t agree to a last-minute compromise. In an interview this week, Frame said their opposition signaled to lawmakers who were religious — Catholic or not — that the bill would somehow violate one’s religious beliefs.
“They did not feel comfortable going against that signal, which is why I felt compelled to find agreement with the Catholic Conference,” Frame said. “Not because everybody here is Catholic, but because it was a proxy for other people with other faith traditions.”
SB 6298 would strike a similar compromise as the one Frame proposed late in the 2023 session. That compromise would have kept the exemption for confessions but create a “duty to warn” authorities — law enforcement or the Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families — if clergy reasonably believed a child is at imminent risk of abuse or neglect, even if that belief comes from information obtained “wholly or in part” from a confession.
This year’s bill leaves out the word “wholly,” meaning clergy would not be obligated to either report suspected child abuse or warn authorities that a child may be in danger unless some of the information that raised concerns was obtained outside a confessional setting.
“It’s a slight modification, but a meaningful one,” Frame said.
It may not be meaningful enough for the Roman Catholic Church. Jean Hill, executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference, tells InvestigateWest, “We believe our clergy are mandatory reporters,” except regarding information obtained in a sacramental confession. The section of the bill requiring a duty to warn based on information even partially obtained through a confession, she said, “could require breaking the seal of confession,” adding that it “raises significant First Amendment concerns for us.”
In Thursday’s hearing, Hill said the Catholic Conference supports the motivation behind the bill, but reiterated that she was still concerned it could require priests to break the seal of confession if they are called to a courtroom to testify what led to their belief a child was in danger. Frame clarified that nothing in this bill changes a different part of state law that exempts clergy from having to testify in court.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers, sexual abuse survivors and activists wish the bill didn’t include a loophole for confessions at all.
Tim Law, co-founder of a nonprofit called Ending Clergy Abuse that aims to protect children from sexual abuse by the Roman Catholic Church, spoke out against the bill, arguing the compromise is a “capitulation to the churches.”
“Clergy need to be mandatory reporters, without exception,” Law said.
Former Jehovah’s Witnesses who left the religion over their concerns with sexual abuse cover-ups say that clergy may exploit a confession exception to hide allegations because the church has a broader definition of sacred communications.
InvestigateWest previously reported on several examples since the 1970s in which Jehovah’s Witness elders kept child sexual abuse allegations hidden from authorities even when the information had been presented to multiple church leaders. Today, that remains legal under Washington state law.
Frame, however, said that the definition of the confession exemption is narrow enough in this year’s bill to address those concerns. The bill only exempts abuse or neglect allegations shared with clergy if they’re spoken privately to an individual member of the clergy, intended to be a confidential “act of contrition or a matter of conscience,” and done in a setting in which clergy are “specifically and strictly under a level of confidentiality that is considered inviolate by religious doctrine of the member of the clergy.” If the same allegations are also shared outside a confessional setting, the exemption does not apply.
On Thursday, two former Jehovah’s Witnesses who have spoken out against sexual abuse cover-ups within the church said they supported the bill, even if confessions remained exempt from reporting requirements.
Frame said she remains personally opposed to any confession exemption. But she said she’d rather find a middle ground than not have clergy listed as mandatory reporters at all.
“I’m wildly uncomfortable with this,” Frame said. “But I am doing it because survivors are asking me to not let perfect be the enemy of good.”
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