Saturday, July 20, 2024

Clergy members could become mandatory reporters of child abuse

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OLYMPIA - When Sen. Noel Frame, D-Seattle, learned how Jehovah’s Witness elders in Spokane had covered up child sexual abuse for years, she looked to the law for answers. 

Frame found that, under Washington State law, clergy members have no responsibility to report what they suspect to be child abuse. Washington is one of five states that has yet to change this rule. 

Frame says she experienced abuse as a child, and it was only once after her teacher, a “mandatory reporter,” said something to her guardians that the abuse stopped. 

If SB 6298 passes, clergy members will be required to report their suspicions to either the Department of Children, Youth or Families (DCYF) or law enforcement. Teachers, law enforcement, medical professionals, therapists, and more are already designated as mandated reporters in Washington. 

Following objections from Catholics, an amendment was made to the bill that now exempts clergy members from having to report information obtained “solely” during confessions. If they learn of abuse outside of confessions, they are required to report. 

In committee, Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, said she was not able to support the bill until that amendment was added.  

“We don’t want to encourage people to hide behind the clergy cloak, but we are taking steps to protect our children,” Warnick said. 

Sen. Mike Paddon, R-Spokane, and Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, as members of the Catholic Church, pleaded for additional changes that remove the consideration of information obtained during confession altogether, as they feel it still violates the “seal of confession.” 

“This is a big deal to me personally, and a big, huge deal in the Catholic church,” Fortunato said. Additional changes were not adopted. The bill passed with a 44-5 vote. 

Only seven of the 45 states that regard clergy members as mandatory reporters have mandated that information obtained from confession must be reported. 

“I am wildly uncomfortable with this compromise, with the exemption for penitential communication,” Frame said. “But I am doing it because I have been asked by survivors to not let perfect be the enemy of good.”

The Washington State Journal is a non-profit news website funded by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.



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