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Note: While the Washington State Catholic Conference purports to represent the views of all Catholic bishops of Washington, Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane opposed Senate Bill 6298.

OLYMPIA, Washington (LifeSiteNews) — The sponsor of a mandatory abuse reporting law in Washington suggested that priests should ideally be required to break the Seal of Confession, and the state’s Catholic leadership has said that her bill could do just that, even though they support the legislation.

Democrat Senator Noel Frame’s bill would make Catholic priests mandatory reporters of child abuse even if they hear of the crime “in part” through the Sacrament of Confession.

They would also be required to break the Seal of Confession, an excommunicable offense, if a child is at “imminent risk” of being “abused or neglected.”

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. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives. This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the ‘sacramental seal,’ because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains ‘sealed’ by the sacrament.

Senate Bill 6298 is an amended version of a bill introduced last year. The earlier bill drew criticism from Catholic bishops who objected to a provision that would force priests to violate the Seal of Confession.

Sen. Frame lamented how legislation last year that would remove all “exemptions” (religious liberty protections) died and thanked her colleagues for trying to pass the bill. But she urged her colleagues to accept the compromise bill.

“Last year, of course, you all on the committee removed that exemption entirely and defended that decision vigorously on the floor, on both sides of the aisle, and I wanted to commend you for that and tell you how personally grateful I am that you all did that last year,” she said.

But she could not pass that bill, so she urged her peers to pass this legislation that she wrote with Catholic leadership in the state.

“I encourage you to stick with the compromise approach that I’ve developed, because it is the version of the bill that I can pass, this year,” she said.

Frame also said the clergy would not need to identify the perpetrator, though it is unclear how abuse could be reported without naming a suspect. She said the legislation would not require clergy to come into court.

She did not know what the penalties would be for not reporting.

Frame then went on to ask her colleagues to “take comfort” in the reporting provisions that require “imminent risk” reporting even for alleged crimes heard during Confession. She noted the Washington State Catholic Conference (WSCC) is “neutral” on that part.

WSCC: SB 6298 ‘could require breaking the Seal of Confession’

The WSCC acknowledges that the bill “could require breaking the Seal of Confession,” but it still supports the legislation.

It has already passed the state senate and is pending in the Washington House of Representatives. The next step is a hearing tomorrow.

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Priests are already required by the bishops in Washington and by United States Conference of Catholic Bishops rules to report child abuse allegations obtained outside of the Confessional.

Under the proposed law, “clergy [have] a duty to warn the department or law enforcement when they have reasonable cause to believe that a child is at imminent risk of being abused or neglected, even if that belief is informed by information obtained in part as a result of a penitential communication,” the bill states.

Commenting on this part, the WSCC stated:

While the duty to warn provision on its face could require breaking the Seal of Confession, we are neutral on this provision since, with our strong Safe Environment protocols and policies, clergy, lay employees and volunteers should all be reporting reasonable suspicions of abuse based on witnessed conduct long before a confession.

“The WSCC is in support of most of this bill, which represents a compromise between the religious liberty rights of religions and the rights of survivors of abuse,” the advocacy group for the bishops wrote in a February 9 statement. “Thus, the bill provides a strong exemption from reporting for any information obtained solely in the Sacrament of Confession.”

The WSCC declined to clarify its position in response to a LifeSiteNews email.

“As the bill is still being amended, we are not able to comment at this time,” Director of Communications Adrienne Joyce wrote in a February 16 email to LifeSiteNews.

The proposed reporting requirement “applies to members of the clergy, except with regard to information that a member of the clergy obtains in the member’s professional character as a religious or spiritual advisor when the information is obtained solely in the context of a penitential communication.”

“The clergy penitent privilege does not apply and the member of the clergy shall report child abuse or neglect if the member of the clergy has received the information from any source other than from a penitential communication,” the bill states.

An amendment to “[affirm] that the knowledge which provides the basis for a duty to warn is not obtained in the context of a penitential communication,” was not adopted.

Alex Bond, the listed spokesperson for Sen. Frame, did not respond to a February 16 email from LifeSiteNews.

Legislative counsel Luke Wickham confirmed that priests would be required to break the Seal of Confession if there is an “imminent risk.”

He made the comments at the Friday hearing in response to a question from Democratic Representative Lillian Ortiz-Self.

The Catholic Accountability Project, a group that pushes for legislation that would require priests to break the Seal of Confession, opposed the law because it includes some exemptions for clergy.

Contact information 

Washington State Catholic Conference

Email: [email protected]

Phone:(206) 301-0556

Senator Noel Frame

Email: [email protected]

Phone: (360) 786-7670

Washington residents: Click here to lobby your legislators and bishops today