Clergy become mandatory child abuse reporters in bill, with big exception

Feb 8, 2024, 4:58 AM | Updated: 6:36 am

Image: A silhouette of a crucifix and a stained glass window inside a Catholic Church in New Orlean...

A silhouette of a crucifix and a stained glass window inside a Catholic Church in New Orleans is seen in December 2012. (File photo: Gerald Herbert, AP)

(File photo: Gerald Herbert, AP)

The Washington Senate approved a compromise Wednesday that makes clergy and faith leaders mandatory reporters of child abuse with one big exception.

If the information about the abuse is obtained solely in the context of penitential communication, otherwise known as confession in the Catholic Church, then the clergy member is not required to report it.

The compromise can be seen in Senate Bill 6298’s language that says “a member of the clergy has a duty to warn” state officials or law enforcement that there is “a reasonable cause to believe a child is at imminent risk of being abused or neglected.” (A PDF of the bill can be viewed here.)

In 2023, the Senate rejected a similar bill after there was no carve out for Catholic confession with many senators saying it violates the separation of church and state.

Jean Hill, the executive director for the Washington State Catholic Conference, previously 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.”

National coverage: Churches defend clergy loophole in child sex abuse reporting

According to the federal Administration for Children & Families (ACF), a division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), there are 29 states and Guam that include members of the clergy as mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect.

Washington is not one of those states.

The bill’s key provisions

The bill, which received bipartisan support, introduces a number of key provisions:

  • Mandated reporting: Members of the clergy are designated as mandated reporters of child abuse and neglect. This means that they are legally required to report any suspected cases to the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) or law enforcement authorities.
  • Exception for penitential communication: While clergy members are mandated reporters, an exception is provided for information obtained solely within the context of penitential communication, or confession. The bill acknowledges the confidentiality of such conversations and preserves the sanctity of the confessional.
  • Duty to warn: Clergy members have a “duty” to warn DCYF or law enforcement if they have reasonable cause to believe that a child is at imminent risk of abuse or neglect, even if this belief stems from information shared during penitential communication.
  • No limitation on reporting obligations: Importantly, the bill clarifies that the “duty” to report child abuse or neglect is not limited by penitential communication. Clergy members must report any suspicions of abuse or neglect, regardless of the context in which the information was obtained.

Furthermore, the legislation defines key terms such as “penitential communication” and “member of the clergy,” providing clarity and guidance for implementation.

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, the DSHS reports.

Clergy members were previously exempt from these requirements, a loophole that Senate Bill 6298 aims to address.

More from Matt Markovich: Could a 10-cent bottle deposit system be in the state’s future?

Senate Bill 6298 moves to the Washington House of Representatives for further consideration and, if approved, will be a landmark piece of legislation in the state’s efforts to prioritize child welfare and safety.

Contributing: Frank Sumrall, MyNorthwest

Matt Markovich often covers the state legislature and public policy for KIRO Newsradio. You can read more of Matt’s stories here. Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email him here.

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