Priests and other clergy would be required to report claims of child abuse under a bill approved by the state House on Friday.
State law currently requires teachers and therapists but not ministers and priests to report suspected child abuse.
“The first step towards stopping abuse is to report it,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson. “I’ve seen firsthand the effects of abuse. These scars never fully heal.”
House Bill 1054 was prompted by the priest sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church.
“Too long, we’ve given too much slack to the church, to the clergy,” said Rep. Dave Quall, D-Mount Vernon, whose father was a pastor. “If classroom teachers are required to report why not in a church setting?”
Opponents, arguing the bill’s “chilling effect” on confessions, tried to push several amendments that would limit the responsibility of clergy to report complaints of abuse.
“What do we do if we create a worry that whatever you say can and will be used against you in a court of law?” said Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis. “Say you’ve got a drug problem and you go to your clergy are we going to have to report that next?”
The legislation could result in even more victims, because abusers will be too afraid to confess to priests who might help stop the behavior, said Rep. Roger Bush, R-Spanaway.
The measure, which Dickerson said is backed by the Washington Association of Churches and several victims’ rights groups, exempts information gathered during confessions. Priests could only report such information to authorities with the consent of the person confessing.
Twenty-nine other states already require clergy to report child abuse claims, said Dickerson, and 14 provide no exemption for information gathered during confessions.
Opposition to the bill sparked heated debate.
“I hope that we don’t forget that we’re trying to protect children who have no one to defend them against the adult population,” said Rep. Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam. “I can’t believe some of the things I’ve heard today.”
Failing to report abuse would be a gross misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail.
The bill passed 62 to 35, and now moves to the Senate.