How Washington State Law Allows Clergy to Hide Child Sexual Abuse

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Nearly 20 years ago, in the wake of the Catholic sex abuse scandal, former Washington State Representative Mary Lou Dickerson wanted to make sure that child sex abuse couldn’t be hidden if easily by church leaders.

In Washington, clergy — unlike teachers, doctors and law enforcement — were not listed as mandatory reporting of child abuse or neglect. Dickerson, D-Seattle, introduced a bill that would have changed that.

“I really wanted to have as strong a law as possible that would compel clergy to report abuse,” Dickerson told InvestigateWest today. “And I was worried about the kids.”

But every attempt failed. The closest version comes from 2005, when a bill that would have required clergy to report sexual abuse was unanimously passed by the State House. However, a watered down version still couldn’t come out of a state Senate committee.

No similar bill has been proposed since.

Washington, to this day, still has one of the weakest mandatory reporter laws in the nation when it comes to clergy.

Without a law listing clergy as mandatory reporters, church leaders can hide sexual abuse from authorities and allow predators to continue to abuse children. Examples have occurred across the country involving a variety of religions. Last month, InvestigateWest reviewed several lawsuits alleging Washington Jehovah’s Witness elders knew about sexual abuse allegations but failed to alert law enforcement, resulting in the abuse of more children.

If elders had been required by law to report to authorities, other children might not have been abused, said Steven Reich, an attorney with the Seattle-based law firm Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala, representing the victims in several cases in Washington.

“If the priority we place is on protecting children, then I think clergy should be mandatory journalists,” Reich said.

Washington’s Single Law

Each state has its own requirements dictating who must report suspected cases of child abuse or neglect to authorities. According to a federal agency that tracked state laws in 2019, 43 states list clergy as mandatory reporters, either explicitly or under a broader definition. the requirement if the information was learned from a person seeking spiritual guidance or during confession.

Washington’s law is unique in several ways. It is one of seven states that does not list clergy at all as mandatory reporting of child abuse or neglect. And of these seven, only Washington and Alaska also protect penitent clergy privilege. This means Washington clergy have no obligation to report when they suspect child abuse or neglect, and are exempt from being questioned by a court for any confessions made in confidence. .

Washington clarifies that clergy can choose to report child abuse or neglect without fear of being sued for disclosing confidential information. But lawmakers and child advocates argue that if left to choice, too many church leaders will choose to hide allegations of sexual abuse. Jehovah’s Witness elders, for example, are instructed to call the New York headquarters first when informed of sexual abuse involving a church member. Headquarters will instruct them to call law enforcement if the law explicitly requires them to report it.

In Montana, a woman who accused the national organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses of ordering clergy not to report her abuse to authorities received a $35 million judgment in 2018. But the Montana Supreme Court State reversed that judgment because, although clergy are obligated to report child abuse, state law contains the loophole for penitent clergy.

“If an abuser admits that they touched a child, this is considered confidential by church elders and they use every means possible to keep this confidential and not report it to law enforcement,” said said Mark O’Donnell, a former Jehovah’s Witness who is now acting. as a consultant in sexual abuse cases against the church.

Other religious organizations have also ordered church leaders to hide allegations of sexual abuse. In Arizona, as The Associated Press detailed in August, Mormon church attorney and Utah Republican Representative Merrill Nelson told a Mormon bishop that state law in the Arizona required the bishop to keep the abuse allegations confidential. It was not — Arizona, like Montana, lists clergy as mandatory reporters, though there is also a loophole for penitent clergy. Without the allegations being reported to authorities, the alleged rapist continued to abuse his children for years.

In recent lawsuits against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Washington, elders were allegedly told of abuse in some cases by relatives, not by confessions or other privileged communications. Elders may have been required to report if they were listed in state law as mandatory reporters, since penitent clergy privilege would not have applied.

Reich said there was “no reason” clergy shouldn’t be required to report in these cases.

“I think that might have had an effect on stopping the abuse sooner,” Reich said.

Washington tried to change the law before

A handful of states have successfully closed the penitent clergy loophole. But some 130 bills to change mandatory reporter laws in other states have failed in recent decades, the AP reported in September, finding that the Roman Catholic Church, Mormon Church and Witnesses of Jehovah had lobbied against the bills.

Washington lawmakers, including Dickerson and former state senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, proposed five bills from 2003 to 2005 that would have strengthened requirements for clergy to report suspected cases of child abuse, according to landmark research from Washington Senate Democrats. The first, proposed by Kohl-Welles in 2003, would not have removed the clergy-penitent loophole, but it would have added the clergy as mandatory reporters. A similar bill introduced by Dickerson in the House passed 62 to 35 but failed to make it out of the Senate.

The following year, Rep. Marc Boldt, R-Vancouver, proposed a bill that would have required clergy to report when there is an established reasonable cause. He couldn’t get out of the Chamber. The final bill proposed by Dickerson in 2005 would have required employees of nonprofit organizations to report when they have reasonable cause, while maintaining the privilege of penitent clergy. The House passed it unanimously – at a time when stories of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy were making headlines – but it couldn’t get out of the Senate.

While the bills sometimes enjoyed bipartisan support, Dickerson recalled that some Republicans worried that a new law would prevent open communication with clergy in churches.

“That was primarily their concern,” Dickerson said. “And some of them just didn’t like the state getting involved.”

In an email, Kohl-Welles, now a King County board member, said his bills had been met with opposition “on the grounds that for many denominations, clergy have a therapeutic relationship with their congregation.” Removing this confidentiality would have damaged this trust.

“In Catholicism, confession is an important part of their religion,” Kohl-Wells said. “This opposition was enough to mean that these bills lacked the necessary support to pass.”

Other religions may not see it the same way. Ladd Bjorneby, a longtime Lutheran pastor in Washington, told InvestigateWest that while this is a sensitive issue, he tends to err on the side of reporting to authorities rather than dealing with it internally. His view, however, is partly shaped by the fact that the denomination owns Lutheran Community Services Northwest, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of victims of sexual abuse.

“We own an agency where social workers do all of this work, and we tend to trust them,” Bjorneby said.

This is often not the case with other religious organizations.

“They want to trust their own systems, which ends up being scary because a lot of them aren’t prepared for what we’re seeing,” Bjorneby said.

Today, Washington State Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, told InvestigateWest that he would need to see the details of any bill before he knows whether he will vote for it.

“But I generally support requiring clergy to be mandatory abuse reporters,” Billig said.

Dickerson hopes lawmakers will pay attention to recent coverage of Jehovah’s Witnesses and work to strengthen the state’s mandatory reporters law.

“I think that should be addressed now,” Dickerson said. “This should have been resolved in 2005.”

InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Visit invw.org/newsletters to sign up for weekly updates.

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