New Washington Bill Would Make Clergy Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse

KHQ-TV/NBC affiliate [Spokane WA]

February 10, 2024

By Grady Glover

State Bill 6298 would require priests and other ministers to become mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect. The bill was introduced to the Washington State House of Representatives on Feb. 9 after passing through the Senate.

This bill uses complex language, such as “penitential communication,” but it really boils down to the Catholic practice of confession. Information learned during confession would be exempt from reporting, but some priests are still worried this bill would violate their sacred practice.

Clergy refers to any leader of a church or religious group. All clergy would be mandated reporters for child abuse under this law. Penitential communication is the communication between a person and a member of the clergy in a confidential manner with no other party present. This is most common during the practice of confession in the Catholic Church.

Rector Darrin Connall works for the Cathedral of Our Lady Lourdes in downtown Spokane. He says the seal of confession is sacred, and the punishment for breaking it is severe.

“Any priest who violates the seal of confession identifies sin and sinners outside of confession incurs a penalty of automatic excommunication from the church. So, it’s a very serious violation,” Connall said.

If they learn of a child abuse situation during confession… They’re not legally required to report it, but the bill does say they should feel duty-bound to report the abuse if they have reason to believe the child is at imminent risk of being abused or neglected again in the future. This is where priests are concerned this infringes upon their mandate to secrecy during confession.

Mary Dispenza, a cofounder of the Catholic Accountability Program (CAP) and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests(SNAP), says that she was abused by a priest, and this law could change the outcome of situations like hers.

“If that priest was a mandated reporter, or there was an exception to reveal criminal acts of abuse and neglect against children, my life would have been different,” Dispenza said.

Supporters of the bill believe that clergy members should not be given special exemptions to keep crimes hidden.

“I don’t think they have a right to keep crimes under wraps, so to speak,” Dispenza said.

Father Connall believes there is a way to accomplish the bill’s goals without requiring clergy to potentially break the seal of confession.

“I want to protect our people, protect our children, protect the sanctity of the sacraments, and I think we can do all that,” Connall said.

He also says that if this bill passes, the priests of Eastern Washington will not do anything that could break the sacred seal of confession, citing previous priests who had been pressured to break the seal of confession under the threat of prison or death and would not oblige.”

“We will not break the sacred seal of confession under any circumstances, whether whole or in part. It will not happen. And in fact, if the legislature pushed it that far, we would go to jail for this,” Connall said.

The bill is scheduled for public hearing in the House of Representatives on Feb. 16.