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Lawmakers propose mandatory child abuse reporting for WA clergy

caption: Washington State Senate chamber
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Washington State Senate chamber

Many people are required to report child abuse or neglect in Washington state. They include doctors, nurses, and teachers. One group not on the list of mandatory reporters is clergy members. But that could change.

A proposal in the state Legislature would require clergy members to report child abuse or neglect to the police. State Sen. Noel Frame, a Democrat from Seattle, is the bill's sponsor. She told KUOW’s Kim Malcolm about why she's pushing for the change.

Please note: This interview contains discussions of child abuse.

State Sen. Noel Frame: Mandated reporters play a really important role in our state in protecting children. It's why our teachers and others with a really special relationship with our children are asked to take on that responsibility. Religious leaders have that same relationship with children in our state. They are trusted friends and mentors. If a young person in a school setting tells their teacher that they are being sexually abused by their neighbor, the teacher would have an obligation, a legal requirement, to report that to law enforcement. This legislation just extends that duty to report to include religious leaders as well.

Kim Malcolm: I understand that there's an exception in the bill when it comes to that privileged space between a priest and a parishioner in the confessional.

There is something called clergy-penitent privilege, often commonly referred to as confession in some faith communities, that appears to have some legal protections that may be tough to include in this bill. But the bill itself says if clergy learn about abuse or neglect of a child outside of that setting, they still have to report it. And if they do learn about abuse in that privileged setting, they still have the choice to report it.

We actually think the most important piece here is that children can go to trusted adults and ask for help. That is where this bill, as drafted, would help make that step in the right direction. I think we're going to have to have a really tough, deliberative conversation in the Legislature about going that next step towards also including clergy-penitent privilege. My sense is that is where some hiccups have been met in the past. And hopefully, we can at least take one giant step forward with the bill as it is introduced.

You've spoken before about how this issue is personal to you, and how this has impacted your life.

Indeed. I've spoken on KUOW in the past about it. I've shared publicly that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I was abused from the ages of 5 to 10 by a member of my own family, a teenage cousin. And I didn't know that I could tell an adult. I didn't know that until a classmate sadly shared her own story of being abused by her stepfather. When she told another adult that it had stopped. And mind you, we were 10-year-olds having these conversations, which is quite devastating when you think about it.

From that conversation, I told a teacher who was a mandated reporter. That resulted in my parents being told and the abuse stopping. So, it's a pretty important piece of legislation for me personally. Frankly, it's one of several pieces of legislation that I'm bringing forward this year to really understand how cycles of violence repeat themselves, particularly within families. As I've shared, I am at least the third generation in my family who was sexually abused by a fellow family member. It takes really smart public policy to interrupt those cycles of violence. I think this legislation on mandated reporters for clergy is one of them. I think the other bills I'm bringing forward this year will also be a part of that solution.

What are you hearing from your colleagues in the Legislature on this issue? And do you think this bill could pass?

I do think this bill could pass this year, and was really delighted to have Sen. Matt Boehnke, our ranking Republican member on the Senate Human Services Committee, sign on as a co-sponsor of the legislation. I think wherever we can prevent childhood sexual abuse, where we can interrupt cycles of violence and prevent it from happening further, we should do that. I think there's broad support for that in the Legislature and I think this bill is very likely to pass this year in some form.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

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