Lawmakers arguing whether clergy have a ‘duty’ to report child abuse

Jan 29, 2024, 4:52 PM | Updated: 5:25 pm

clergy duty child abuse...

Exterior of St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral (Photo by Artur Widak/Getty Images)

(Photo by Artur Widak/Getty Images)

Washington lawmakers are debating whether to make members of the clergy mandatory reporters of child abuse or neglect after Senate Bill 6298 was introduced in the state legislature in Olympia. (A PDF of the original bill can be viewed here.)

Catholic officials have expressed opposition to the bill unless it exempts confessions. A previous version of this bill requiring clergy to report child abuse was introduced last year, but stalled over a deeply divided vote in the Senate. The previous version of the bill did not have an exception for confession.

Both bills were sponsored primarily by State Sen. Noel Frame, D-Seattle.

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“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 Olympia discussing the bill last week. “I really hope this is the middle path.”

Washington is one of just five states — along with Iowa, Kansas, New York and South Dakota — that do not list clergy as mandatory reporters of child abuse or neglect.

This version of the bill clarifies that a member of the clergy has “a duty” to warn the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) or law enforcement when they have a reasonable cause to believe that a child is at risk of being abused or neglected, even if the information was obtained as a result of confession.

“That’s the word keyword there. They have a duty, (but they’re) not required,” KIRO Newsradio reporter Matt Markovich told The Gee and Ursula Show Monday. “They have a duty to go out and not identify who is the person who confessed about the child abuse, but a duty to go out to law enforcement and talk or the state or any kind of child protective services to say, ‘this child may be in danger. You may want to go check on them.’ And that’s the compromise to see if they can pass this bill.”

Currently, Washington 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 DSHS.

Why this is important to Sen. Frame

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

“This subject is personally very important for me,” Frame said when she first introduced legislation last year involving mandatory reporting among the clergy. “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,” Frame continued. “Faith leaders have similarly trusted relationships with children in their communities and should share the same responsibility.”

Last year’s bill passed unanimously in the Senate while the House passed it on a 75-20 vote, according to The Olympian. However, the two chambers could not agree on added amendments that came from the House, particularly whether or not an exemption should be included for information revealed to a Catholic priest during confession.

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Others, including Jean Hill, the executive director for the Washington State Catholic Conference, argued this bill and its compromise could be misinterpreted to mean “breaking self-confession.”

“The Catholic sacrament of reconciliation is unique among religions,” Hill said in a prepared statement. “It is not a counseling session or a judicial process, it is purely a right of worship, like the mass, following prescribed prayers established in the order of penance. The Sacrament of confession is so critical to our faith (that) priests who break the seal are automatically excommunicated.”

The bill is scheduled for an executive session Tuesday in the Senate Human Services Committee.

Frank Sumrall is a content editor at MyNorthwest. You can read his stories here and you can email him here.

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Lawmakers arguing whether clergy have a ‘duty’ to report child abuse