Bill forcing clergy members to report child abuse passes WA Senate

Feb 28, 2023, 4:10 PM
clergy-penitent privilege...
Bishop William Skylstad, Bishop of Spokane, Washington and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, (L), and Monsignor William Fay, General Secretary of the Conference, (C), listen to Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago and Vice President of the Conference, (R) during the organization's spring meeting June 15, 2005 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Legislation has advanced through the Washington state Senate to make members of the clergy mandatory reporters of child abuse or neglect — passing on a unanimous vote.

SB 5280, sponsored by Sen. Noel Frame (D-Seattle), would require clergy to report sexual abuse allegations to authorities. The lone exception is if the information was received amid clergy-penitent privilege, a nationally-recognized form of privileged communication that protects conversations between religious advisers and an advisee, which has sparked a statewide debate.

As the bill continues to move through the legislative process, legislators will argue whether to continue that exemption or amend the bill to close it.

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“We’re going to have some tough conversations about the issue of clergy-penitent privilege here in the Legislature and find what’s possible for us to pass,” said Frame in a prepared statement. “This bill is already a major step forward for protecting children, and my priority is to pass it into law this year in the strongest form we can.”

Washington is one of just seven states that do not list clergy as mandatory reporters of child abuse or neglect. Alaska, in addition to Washington, are the only two states that currently protect clergy-penitent privilege, meaning clergy within the state are exempt from being examined in court for any confession made in confidence.

The Washington State Catholic Conference is urging the Legislature to keep the clergy-penitent privilege clause in the bill, claiming it would be a violation of the First Amendment otherwise.

Currently, in the state, Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) employees, law enforcement, social workers, professional school personnel, county coroners, and health care providers alongside employees of social service, welfare, mental health, home care, and home health agencies are required to be mandatory reporters, according to the DHSH.

Frame is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and the abuse ended only after she told a teacher who was a mandatory reporter.

Churches defend clergy loophole in child sex abuse reporting

“This subject is personally very important for me,” said Frame. “I was abused from the ages of 5 to 10 by a member of my own family, a teenage cousin. It stopped when I told a teacher, who then reported it to the authorities, and ultimately to my parents.

“Mandatory reporters play an important role in protecting children, which is why teachers and others who have close relationships with children have to take on that reporting responsibility,” said Frame. “Faith leaders have similarly trusted relationships with children in their communities and should share the same responsibility.”

The bill now goes to the House for consideration, the reverse of a similar bill’s fate from 2005. Eighteen years ago, a bill that would have compelled clergy to report sexual abuse passed in the House unanimously, but couldn’t make it out of the state Senate.

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Bill forcing clergy members to report child abuse passes WA Senate