Bill to make clergy mandatory child abuse reporters advances

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — A bill that would require clergy members to report child abuse or neglect in Washington state has cleared the Senate.

The state Senate passed Senate Bill 5280 unanimously Tuesday.

Sponsored by Sen. Noel Frame, D-Seattle, the measure would require clergy to report sexual abuse allegations to authorities unless the information was received in a context protected by clergy-penitent privilege, such as a confessional setting.

Washington is one of only a handful of states in the U.S. that do not list clergy as mandatory reporters of child abuse or neglect.

Frame has been open about being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. She said the abuse ended only after she told a teacher who was a mandatory reporter. The Associated Press does not publish the names of sexual abuse survivors without their consent.

“This subject is personally very important for me,” Frame said. “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. Faith leaders have similarly trusted relationships with children in their communities and should share the same responsibility.”

Frame told KUOW that she was at least the third generation in her family who was sexually abused by a family member.

“It takes really smart public policy to interrupt those cycles of violence,” she told the news outlet.

The bill passed Tuesday contains the exemption for clergy-penitent privilege and would not require mandatory reporting of abuse discussed in confession. Frame said she expects tough conversations on that point as the measure heads over to the House.

“This bill is already a major step forward for protecting children, and my priority is to pass it into law this year in the strongest form we can,” she said.

The Associated Press found last year that lawmakers across the country have proposed dozens of bills to address mandatory reporting by clergy, but the Catholic Church, along with Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormon Church, have in most cases successfully blocked the confession loophole from being closed.

Mario Villanueva, executive director for the Washington State Catholic Conference, said during a Senate public hearing earlier this month that the organization was supportive of mandatory reporting, but it does not support ending clergy-penitent privilege, The Olympian reported. He said he believes the First Amendment protects this privilege.

Mandated reporters are required by state law to report abuse or neglect of minors to law enforcement or the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families. Failure to report can result in a gross misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to about a year in jail and/or a fine up to $5,000.