National News

Washington State Bill on Abuse Reporting Moves Forward Without Seal of Confession Exemption

The Washington state Capitol is pictured in Olympia April 11, 2020. A bill that would require clergy to report child abuse or neglect advanced in the state House April 11 without an exception that would protect the seal of confession. (Photo: OSV News)

WASHINGTON — Catholic leaders in the state of Washington have expressed concern over a bill advancing in the state legislature that would require priests to report child abuse or neglect even if they heard about it during a person’s confession.

The bill, in its original form, required clergy members to be mandatory reporters of abuse, but it contained an exemption known as clergy-penitent privilege, protecting what was learned under the seal of confession. This exemption was removed from the amended bill the House passed April 12.

An alert on the website of the Washington Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops, urged Catholics to contact their state senators and ask them to reject the amended bill when it returned to them for a vote to “protect the clergy-penitent privilege.”

The site noted that the state’s bishops had supported many aspects of the original bill “including making priests mandatory reporters of child abuse or neglect,” but they opposed making clergy members “mandatory reporters of information obtained solely inside the confessional.”

The Catholic leaders said their objection was to preserve the sacrament of reconciliation and religious liberty, noting that “removing the clergy-penitent privilege would be an unconstitutional violation of civil liberties.”

They also said requiring priests to break the seal of confession would “violate the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause because it would threaten priests with legal sanctions unless they violate their religious vows.”

The Church takes the seal of confession so seriously that any priest who breaks the seal is automatically excommunicated.

A sample letter to state senators on the website points out that the sacrament of reconciliation is “an act of worship and part of our liturgy. This religious liberty must be protected.”

It stressed that “preserving the seal of the confessional does not prevent a priest from promoting justice. In fact, confession is an opportunity to tell offenders to turn themselves in as a matter of restitution.”

The letter to state senators emphasized that the U.S. Constitution protects the clergy-penitent privilege, and that the U.S. Supreme Court has backed this. It added that the Ninth Circuit Court, which includes Washington state, similarly “recognizes that no state or federal court has ever approved government invasion of the sacrament of confession.”

Other states this year have also considered legislation to break the seal of confession between a priest and the person who confessed, including Delaware, Utah, and Vermont.

Proposals by Utah lawmakers requiring clergy to report child abuse and to remove exemptions for the seal of confession failed to advance during the legislative session.

A similar measure in Delaware has been criticized by the state’s Diocese of Wilmington.

“The sacrament of confession and its seal of confession is a fundamental aspect of the Church’s sacramental theology and practice. It is non-negotiable,” the diocese said in a March 7 statement, adding: “No Catholic priest or bishop would ever break the seal of confession under any circumstances.”

Like Washington state’s Catholic leaders, the Wilmington Diocese said a break of the seal of confession would be “a clear violation of the First Amendment for the government to interfere in this most sacred and ancient practice of our faith.”

Responding to the similar measure before Vermont legislators, Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vermont, testified March 3 at a state Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that the Church opposes lawmakers’ efforts to remove an exemption from Vermont’s child abuse and neglect reporting laws that protects priests from having to break the seal of confession if a penitent confesses to child abuse or neglect.

He stressed that children must be protected, and criminals must be held accountable. “But disregarding fundamental religious rights is unnecessary,” he told the lawmakers, according to The Associated Press.

Bishop Coyne also said the bill “crosses a Constitutional protective element of our religious faith: the right to worship as we see fit.”