(OSV News) — A bill that would require clergy to report child abuse or neglect in Washington state is under consideration by the Legislature, but some have expressed concern that this bill could force Catholic priests to violate the civil law in order to uphold Church law regarding the seal of confession.
SB 5280, sponsored by state Sen. Noel Frame, D-Seattle, would make members of the clergy mandatory reporters, people required by law to report suspected or known instances of child abuse or neglect.
Washington’s state law currently names school personnel, medical professionals and therapists, among other professions, as mandatory reporters. Supporters of the bill point out that Washington is one of just seven states in the country that do not name clergy among mandatory reporters.
The bill, as introduced by Frame, would make clergy mandatory reporters, but contained an exemption for what her office described in a February press release as “clergy-penitent privilege, referred to as confession in some faith communities.” That exemption was removed as the bill went through an amendment process in the state House, leading to objections from the state’s Catholic bishops.
Mario Villanueva, executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the state’s Catholic bishops, told OSV News that priests and bishops “are very mindful of the need to protect children, very mindful.”
“It’s a painful part of our history that we have the sexual abuse chapters that we’ve lived through, and so they’re anxious to comply and be protective of children, abused children, neglected children, in every way,” Villanueva said.
Existing state law, Villanueva said, does require members of the clergy as nonprofit staff to report abuse outside of the confessional. Guidance to priests in Washington tells them to encourage penitents who mention abuse during confession to discuss it outside of the confessional, whether reporting it themselves or telling the priest outside the sacrament of reconciliation so they may then report it.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that priests are strictly forbidden from divulging what penitents tell them during confession, part of the sacrament of reconciliation, and states that information a penitent divulges is under “seal.”
“Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him,” (No. 1467), the Catechism states.
An action alert sent to supporters by the state’s bishops asked them to contact their lawmakers and ask that they “amend Senate Bill 5280 to include the clergy-penitent privilege,” adding they support mandatory reporting “outside the confessional.”
Villanueva said Washington’s Catholic bishops would support legislation making clergy mandatory reporters with clear language for clergy-penitent privilege as comparable laws in other states hold. But without that exception, he said, they will continue to oppose the bill on the grounds that it would attempt to require priests to break the seal of confession.
“I think I can say safely that the Church is not going to violate canon law,” Villanueva said. “We’re not going to violate it. We just won’t.”
Villanueva pointed to priests throughout Church history who have been martyred rather than violate the seal of the confessional.
Frame, the bill’s sponsor, said she is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse that ended thanks to a teacher who was a mandatory reporter.
“This subject is personally very important for me,” Frame said in a Feb. 28 statement lauding the state Senate’s passage of her bill. “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,” she said. “Faith leaders have similarly trusted relationships with children in their communities and should share the same responsibility.”
Frame acknowledged in February there would be “some tough conversations about the issue of clergy-penitent privilege here in the Legislature and find what’s possible for us to pass.”
“This bill is already a major step forward for protecting children,” she said, “and my priority is to pass it into law this year in the strongest form we can.”
Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington. Follow her on Twitter @kgscanlon.