Mandate that WA clergy report child abuse, without exceptions

Seattle Times [Seattle WA]

February 16, 2023

By The Seattle Times editorial board

Religion and government must coexist within a society of laws and norms. And when they intersect, society should determine which entity is serving the greater good.

The state Legislature is in the midst of a debate over House Bill 1098, which would make clergy members mandatory reporters of child abuse and sexual assault. The bill places the humanity of children over any religious practice that would allow a clergy member to withhold knowledge of child abuse — current or in the past. 

Lobbyists for the Catholic Church support the Senate version of the bill that would exempt clergy from reporting any knowledge of abuse gained during the sacrament of confession. That loophole would prevent the enforcement of the bill and place innocent lives in peril. Sponsored by Rep. Amy Walen, the House version would not include the loophole and would require reporting of alleged abuse, including of that learned through confession, within 48 hours.

According to a report by InvestigateWest, the Washington State Catholic Conference says that confession is “a part of faith and religion and a practice that secular government doesn’t have any place to impinge on.” 

When it comes to protecting children from abuse, government not only has a place, it has a responsibility.

Children cannot always rely on their home as a safe place to report abuse, because the abuser may live with them. They can’t always count on those at school because the culprit could be a staff member. But religion has long been viewed as a refuge for the body and soul. A child should be able to rely on a religious leader for protection when un-Godly things are being done to them.

Some survivors have given testimony over the years of confiding in elders or priests about their abuse only for their pleas for help to be ignored, allowing for the abuse to continue. The lifelong psychological effects of child abuse and rape are well documented. Many never recover, and some become abusers themselves. 

Mandated reporting by clergy could spare them more harm, and Washington would join 43 states that have such laws in place, though few have removed protection for confessions.

Without a mandate to report, an abuser who confesses a crime against a child likely would not face consequences for the abuse. But requiring a clergy member to report any knowledge of abuse could end the torture.

Some clergy have been able to continue to abuse children although church leadership was aware, such as a case in Arizona in which a father admitted to a Mormon bishop that he was molesting his daughters but the church did nothing. Or a case in Spokane where two men are suing the Jehovah’s Witnesses for not stopping abuse by an elder with a past conviction of sex abuse.

The Catholic Church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been rocked with civil cases involving sexual assault of children. The Catholic Church has spent millions nationwide in lobbying to keep the confession exemption in state laws.

Society must put children first. To know that a child has been abused, yet not sounding the alarm goes against social norms and is unconscionable.

The Seattle Times editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Alex Fryer, Mark Higgins, Claudia Rowe, Carlton Winfrey and William K. Blethen (emeritus).