Washington bill mandating clergy report child abuse dies amid debate over seal of confession

Unsplash/Annie Spratt
Unsplash/Annie Spratt

Washington state lawmakers have again failed to pass a law that mandates clergy reporting of abuse amid concerns that it did not offer legal protection for Catholic confessionals.

Senate Bill 6298, which passed the Democrat-controlled Washington State Senate in a vote of 44-5 earlier this month, was defeated last week in the Washington House Committee on Human Services, Youth & Early Learning, reported Oregon Public Radio.

While the bill received bipartisan support in the Washington Senate, all five lawmakers voting against it were Republicans. 

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A major point of contention was the legislation lacking an exemption for the Catholic Church's sacramental practice of the confessional, in which actions confessed are meant to be confidential.

The Senate version of the bill, which passed in early February, exempted clergy from mandatory reporting if they heard of abuse exclusively in the confessional but required it should they hear about it in another setting, reported The Washington State Standard.

State Sen. Noel Frame, a Democrat of Seattle, said on the Senate floor at the time that the inclusion of the confessional provision was a "delicate" and "very narrowly defined compromise."

"I cannot accept that any one of our clergy would stand on the sideline and know a child could be hurt and do nothing about it," said Frame, as quoted by The Standard.

Organizations like Ending Clergy Abuse and Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests objected to the compromise being included in the proposed legislation.

"The vague and verbose language in this new bill effectively obscures any mandate that clergy must report child abuse," stated Tim Law, a board member of ECA, back in late January.

"It gives the impression that the state is taking action to make churches a safer place for children, while upholding the exemption that has given clergy in Washington state a free pass to legally avoid reporting sexual crimes against children."

The Washington State Catholic Conference, which was critical of SB 6298 due to questions regarding the confessional exemption, released a bulletin earlier this week regarding the vote result.

"Looking to the next legislative session in January 2025, it is anticipated that a new version of SB 6298 will be introduced, most likely without a clergy-penitent privilege," the WSCC predicted.

"Please join the WSCC in advocating for the Seal of the Confessional and the clergy-penitent privilege, and meet with your legislators in the interim between legislative sessions, April through December."

The WSCC went on to argue that admonitions of child abuse in the confessional are "rare" and that the Catholic Church already "supports mandatory reporting outside of the confessional."

"Many legislators are unaware of the grave impacts of holding priests criminally liable for maintaining their vow to protect the Seal of Confession," the Conference added.

Last year, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld a law allowing religious bodies to refuse to answer questions in child abuse cases if the crime was learned within a confessional setting.

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