The Catholic Church strictly forbids priests from divulging what penitents tell them during confession
A bill that would require clergy to report child abuse or neglect in Washington was advanced by the state’s House, prompting concern from some Catholics who are seeking a clergy-penitent exemption to protect the seal of the confessional.
Catholics in the state have expressed concern the House’s version of the bill could force priests to violate the civil law in order to uphold church law regarding the seal of confession.
The bill passed the House on April 11 in a 75-20 vote.
Mario Villanueva, executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the state’s Catholic bishops, told OSV News he is asking lawmakers to consider “what our confession is.”
“It’s one-on-one; it’s private; it’s part of our worship; it’s liturgy,” he said.
SB 5280, sponsored by state Sen. Noel Frame, D-Seattle, would make members of the clergy mandatory reporters, or people required by law to report suspected or known instances of child abuse or neglect. Washington’s current mandatory reporting law names school personnel, medical professionals and therapists, among other professions, as mandatory reporters.
The bill, as originally introduced by Frame, would make clergy mandatory reporters, but contained an exemption for what her office described in a February press release as “clergy-penitent privilege, referred to as confession in some faith communities.”
Frame’s bill passed the Senate unanimously. But the version of the legislation approved by the House lacks that exemption, leading to objections from the state’s Catholic bishops.
The House’s version now goes before the Senate for concurrence before it can head to the governor’s desk.
Supporters of the bill point out that Washington is one of just seven states in the country that do not name clergy among mandatory reporters, with some arguing there is no room for exception in adding them. But the state’s Catholic bishops are seeking an exception only to what priests are told by penitents in confession.
Current guidance to priests in Washington state, Villanueva said, tells them to encourage penitents who mention abuse during confession to discuss it outside of the confessional, whether reporting it themselves or telling the priest outside the sacrament of reconciliation so the priest may then report it.
The Catholic Church strictly forbids priests from divulging what penitents tell them during confession, part of the sacrament of reconciliation, and states that information a penitent divulges is under “seal.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him,” (No. 1467).
Villanueva noted that there are priests who have been martyred throughout church history who refused to break that seal. He added that Catholics are cognizant the church does have “a history that has included egregious violations of child abuse.” But Villanueva noted in the 20 years since the Dallas Charter, the church has taken strides to reform and correct those failures.
Without a clergy-penitent exemption, he said, the bill would be “an attack on the Catholic Church.”
Frame, the bill’s sponsor, said she is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse that ended thanks to a teacher who was a mandatory reporter. She called the subject “personally very important for me” in a Feb. 28 statement lauding the state Senate’s passage of her bill.
In the February statement, Frame acknowledged there would be “some tough conversations about the issue of clergy-penitent privilege here in the Legislature and find what’s possible for us to pass.”
“This bill is already a major step forward for protecting children,” she said, “and my priority is to pass it into law this year in the strongest form we can.”
Villanueva said he hoped to have a conversation with Frame about the importance of the clergy-penitent privilege exception included in her original bill.