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Washington state bill aims to respect Confession, still mandate abuse reporting

Serious priest in confessional

SeventyFour | Shutterstock

J-P Mauro - published on 01/31/24

For the second time in as many years, the state of Washington will vote on a bill that would require priests to report allegations of child abuse or neglect.

Washington lawmakers are taking another shot at passing a bill that would make Catholic priests mandated reporters of suspected child abuse or neglect. Last year, an attempt to pass a similar bill failed due to the bill’s language, which required the breaking of priest-penitent privilege. 

OPB reports that the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Noel Frame, D-Seattle, said that the new bill is a compromise between the wording of the last bill and concerns from Catholic lobbyists. In a legislative committee hearing discussing the bill Thursday, Frame explained that she felt that she had to reintroduce the bill, with the hopes that it finds the “middle path”:

“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 commented.

Washington, one of just five US states that does not require clergy to report child abuse or neglect, almost made it on the list last year. A bill without any exemptions for religious confessions passed through the state House, but it would not make it through the Senate. Frame noted that at the time the major concern was the possibility of infringing on religious beliefs, which she did not fight last year. 

Instead, she has made alterations to the wording of the bill in order to make another attempt at its passage. The first bill’s wording stated that clergy had a “duty to warn” authorities if they believed there was an imminent risk of abuse or neglect, even if they were led to this belief by information “wholly or in part” from a confession. 

The new bill removed the word “wholly,” which would mean clergy would not be required to report anything unless at least some of the information was obtained outside of confession. Furthermore, there is a separate Washington state law that exempts a priest from testifying in court.

Frame said that the new bill would exempt priests from reporting allegations when they are privately shared to an individual member of the clergy and, furthermore, only 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 shared outside of such a setting, a priest is required to report them

She went on to say that while she does not think the bill is “perfect,” she does not want “perfect to be the enemy of good.” The bill must still pass through the House and Senate before it can become a law. It is unclear which way lawmakers will vote this time around. 

AbuseConfessionPriestsUnited States
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