Washington state Senate advances bill requiring clergy to report child abuse
Proposal exempts knowledge gained during confession with limited exception
In an 1813 law case known as People v. Philipps, a New York court upheld the right of a Catholic priest to refuse to provide the identity of a thief after the priest returned the stolen items. That marked the official beginning in the United States of the clergy-penitent privilege, a legal principle that allows priests, pastors and similar religious leaders to maintain confidentiality when they receive confessions.
Today, all 50 states have some form of the clergy-penitent privilege: Confess your crime to your pastor or rabbi, and police aren’t legally entitled to that information. In some religions, confidentiality is an inviolate principle; a Catholic priest who shares information learned in a confession can be excommunicated, for example.
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But the legal privilege has come under fire in recent years in cases of child abuse or neglect. Today, seven states1 either make an exception to the clergy-penitent privilege in cases of child abuse or simply list clergy members as those who are required without exception to report instances of child abuse to law enforcement. The other states either don’t require clergy members to report instances of child abuse or make a specific exception for confidential confessions.2
Washington state, which doesn’t require reporting by clergy, is one of the most recent states to consider changing its laws: Its Legislature reached an impasse last year when both its House and Senate approved a bill requiring clergy to report but the Senate wanted an exception for confessions while the House didn’t.
So this year, lawmakers are looking at a compromise that could become law. Senate Bill 6298 passed the Senate on a 44-5 vote this week. It would add clergy to the list of people required to report cases of child abuse or neglect, but it also makes an exception when the clergyperson learns of the abuse during a confessional.
And here’s the legal compromise: If a clergyperson learns of child abuse only in part through a confession, reporting is still required.
For example, under the bill, a priest who has a parent confess to abusing a child would not be required to report it. But if the priest also learns of the abuse from another source, such as a friend of the child, the priest would be required to report the abuse despite the confession.
State Sen. Noel Frame, prime sponsor of the bill, said that the bill was a “delicate” and “very narrowly defined compromise” worked out with the Washington State Catholic Conference.
A spokesperson for the conference, Jean Welch Hill, continued to express concerns about the bill, saying it “could require breaking the seal of confession, which raises significant First Amendment concerns for us.” But she also said that she expects priests will be reporting abuse learned from outside confessions following protocols already in place.3
Policies of the Archdiocese of Seattle require priests to report abuse when they learn about it outside of sacramental profession. Deacons and diocese employees are also required by the policy to report abuse. So are diocese volunteers who work with children.
The fate of SB6298 is now up to the state House. Its Human Services, Youth, & Early Learning Committee will hold a public hearing on it on Feb. 16.
Legislation in other states
At least two other states are considering legislation relating to abuse reporting by clergy.
New York lawmakers are considering a bill that would add any “clergy member or other minister of any religion” to the list of those who are required to report child abuse when they learn of it. The bill is worded similarly to the bill passed by the Washington state, exempting information learned solely in a confession but requiring reporting if the confession is only part of the clergyperson’s knowledge.
Meanwhile, in Utah, lawmakers have introduced two bills to clarify that while clergy members aren’t required to report information learned from confessions, they aren’t prohibited from doing so either. One of the bills would exempt clergy from civil and criminal penalties for making such reports.
New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas and West Virginia. Source: Deseret News.
All states mandate reporting by certain professionals such as doctors and schoolteachers when they learn of child abuse or neglect.