Bill making clergy mandatory abuse reporters passes Washington Senate

Members of the clergy might be required to report child abuse in Washington.

The state Senate unanimously passed a bill that makes clergy mandatory reporters, but it includes a big exception for confession.

“I think it’s a huge problem. For example, I was raped by a parish priest when I was seven and I could have very possibly gone to him for confession,” said Mary Dispenza of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and Nuns.

Dispenza said when priests confess to one another, there’s no requirement to report abuse.

“I don’t think the seal of confession protects children, I believe it harms them,” she said.

Legal protections for the confessional will be front and center as the clergy mandatory reporting bill now moves to the state House, where a growing number of legislators want to remove the exemption.

“I think the strongest possible bill should pass,” said sponsor Rep. Amy Walen (D-Kirkland). “We’ve grown beyond a time where we can allow that to continue, where terrible things can be confessed and kept secret even though children are harmed.”

Mario Villanueva of the Washington State Catholic Conference told lawmakers his organization supports making clergy mandatory reporters outside of confession, and that the clergy penitent privilege is protected by the First Amendment, and that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld it since 1818.

“There’s no justification for the rash elimination of a longstanding clergy penitent privilege, the one evidentiary privilege that is founded on the concept of freedom of religion,” Villanueva said.

The sponsor of the bill that passed the Senate, Sen. Noel Frame (D-Seattle), said she hopes it is strengthened in the House.

“The goal is to protect children,” she said.