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WA bill requiring clergy to report child abuse dies in House committee

Tom Banse/Northwest News Network

Each of the last two years, Washington state lawmakers on both sides have broadly agreed that clergy should be mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect.

Washington is one of just five states where that’s not required by law. Democrats and Republicans have repeatedly said, often during deeply personal and emotional debates at the state Capitol, that they want to change that.

Yet for the second year in a row, a Washington bill to make clergy mandatory reporters of child abuse has failed. Senate Bill 6298, which passed the Senate, died in a House committee this week. The sticking point this session was once again over whether the law should contain an exception to the requirement that would have allowed priests to hide child abuse from authorities if the priest learned of it during a sacramental confession.

Democratic Rep. Tana Senn, chair of the House Committee on Human Services, Youth and Early Learning, said the committee would have advanced a bill that didn’t include a compromise for Catholics.

“It’s by no means an indication that we don’t take child abuse seriously. If anything, it’s the opposite,” Senn said in an interview Wednesday. “We’re taking a strong stand that we don’t want to systemically allow systemic abuse.”

A division between the Senate and the House regarding confessions doomed the legislation just as it did last year, when the House passed a bill with bipartisan support that contained no such exception but the Senate couldn’t agree. The Washington State Catholic Conference, which lobbies on behalf of the state’s bishops, opposed last year’s bill out of concern that it would require priests to break the seal of confession, though the organization supports clergy being mandatory reporters outside of confession.

This year’s bill, led again by Sen. Noel Frame, D-Seattle, struck a compromise to get the Catholic lobbyists to take a “neutral” stance, allowing the bill to pass through the Senate in a 44-5 vote. The compromise would have kept the exemption for confessions. But clergy would still have a “duty to warn” law enforcement or the Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families if they reasonably believed a child was at imminent risk of abuse or neglect, even if that belief comes from information obtained “wholly or in part” from a confession.

That way, authorities could check on the child without clergy going into any specifics on what was said during a confession.

Rep. Jim Walsh, a Republican from Aberdeen who considers himself a traditionalist Catholic, opposed eliminating the exception for confessions in previous bills because he believes it infringes on religious freedom. But he applauded the bill’s main sponsor Frame for her work on a compromise.

“Noel Frame should be given a medal for this. It was a very well-crafted threading of the needle, and I was ready to support it,” Walsh said.

Walsh was on the House committee where the bill died but blamed a “vocal minority” of Democrats for killing it. In an interview Wednesday, he sarcastically quipped that it failed “because it was too good of a compromise” and “too rational.”

Senn, D-Mercer Island, said that the debate last year over the bill “was really emotionally difficult on the House floor” and went far beyond party lines, with lawmakers sharing personal experiences of sexual abuse and their own faith.

“Unless we had ‘Kumbaya’ agreement, I didn’t want to put people through that again,” Senna said.

Frame is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and has said she’s grateful that the first adult she told about it was a teacher who was a mandatory reporter. She began pushing to make clergy mandated reporters after reading InvestigateWest coverage on sexual abuse cover-ups among Jehovah’s Witnesses and learning about Washington’s relatively weak state law regarding clergy reporting requirements.

Frame has said that while she personally would prefer to see a bill with no loopholes for confessions, she’d rather have any bill that makes clergy mandatory reporters instead of nothing.

But advocacy groups and sexual abuse survivors took the opposite stance in a hearing last week. One woman said she was raped by a priest who went on to sexually assault dozens of other girls, calling the compromise a “loophole that protects abusers, not children.”

Tim Law, founder of a nonprofit called the Catholic Accountability Project that aims to protect children from clergy sexual abuse, said in a press conference last week that three Catholic bishops in Washington have been subpoenaed by the state attorney general for “abuse-related documents.” (The attorney general’s office hasn’t confirmed or denied any such investigation, and Law has not produced direct evidence of the subpoenas.)

Law said he was against any weakened version of a clergy mandatory reporter bill, suggesting lawmakers wait until that investigation is finished.

“Perhaps the Legislature, then, in light of that report, may have a different view about whether the church is entitled to these privileges,” Law said.

Senn said the news of a possible investigation into abuses by the Roman Catholic Church in Washington “didn’t help” SB 6298’s chances.

“I think it might take some time to sit with it. I’m not saying this is never going to happen, but people were not ready to move it forward,” Senn said.

Frame, however, worries that it’s not realistic to wait for the perfect version of a law mandating that clergy report child abuse and neglect.

“I think some of my colleagues are not as aware as I am how hard it has been to find this compromise,” Frame said.

State lawmakers tried to pass similar legislation two decades ago, in the wake of Catholic sexual abuse scandals across the country. But several attempts then also failed amid opposition from Catholic leaders, she noted.

“Perfect has been the enemy of good for 20 years now,” Frame said.

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This story was originally published by InvestigateWest.

InvestigateWest ( is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Reporter Wilson Criscione can be reached at

Wilson Criscione, a lifelong Washingtonian, has reported for various newspapers throughout the state, including the Bellingham Herald and the Inlander. His work has exposed top state officials for ignoring domestic violence, triggered criminal investigations into abusive police and uncovered mistreatment of children in schools and foster care. Reach him at or on twitter @wilsoncriscione.