Bill Before Washington State Legislature Threatens the Sacrament of Confession


Jordie Simpson

Seattle University’s Chapel of St. Ignatius pictured at dusk.

Senate Bill 5280, which would designate members of the clergy in the Catholic Church as mandatory reporters even when performing the Sacrament of Confession, has sent a shock through the Catholic community in Washington State. If passed, the bill would require clergy to report instances of child abuse and neglect, with a later House amendment including instances that were admitted in Confession. Currently, the bill is still under discussion in the Washington State legislature due to the Senate and House of Representatives not being able to concur. Now that the session has ended, as of April 24, it is unlikely to be passed this season. 

Reverend Thomas Daly, who serves as the Bishop to the Catholic Diocese of Spokane, released a statement addressing how the House amendment encroaches on religious freedom in the Catholic community.

“I want to assure you that your shepherds, bishop and priests are committed to keeping the seal of confession, even to the point of going to jail. The Sacrament of Penance is sacred and will remain that way in the Diocese of Spokane,” Bishop Daly wrote in the statement.  

Bishop Daly also affirmed his diocese’s focus on protecting children within the congregation and called on state leaders to not introduce legislation that compromises Catholic sacraments. 

The bill was proposed and sponsored by Washington State Senator Noel Frame, who represents the 36th district. Frame has prompted legislation advocating for youth in Washington State throughout her career. Washington State is one of seven states that currently does not list clergy as mandatory reporters for child abuse and neglect.

Senator Rebecca Saldaña, a Catholic alumna of Seattle University, serves as a Washington State Senator for the 37th district and is a co-sponsor of House Bill 5280. Saldaña stated that when the bill was first proposed, before it included reporting on the Sacrament of Confession, Church officials were supportive of making clergy mandatory reporters.

“The House made sure that clergy were mandatory reporters in all instances, including specifically in Confession, which I think is why at the end of the day, the Senate did not concur,” Saldaña said. 

Saldaña also emphasized that the binary choice for the Senate does not offer much room for nuanced conversation on a given topic. She explained that the Catholic Church emphasizes the role of mandatory reporters, particularly in children’s faith formation spaces. 

“In my experience as a parent sending my kids to CCE [Catholic Christian Education], all volunteers and staff have taken on the role of being mandatory reporters, and I’ve taken on the training myself as a volunteer. I know that the Catholic Church has embraced that and taken on that leadership…On this issue they were not against the legislation that would have all clergy be mandatory reporters with the exemption of the penitent and confessional role,” Saldaña said.

Jade Quintana, a second-year kinesiology major and Catholic at Seattle U, addressed how the bill may affect parishioners in the Catholic Church if passed. 

“It would be tough to know, but there would be a lot fewer people to go to Confession. The whole point is knowing that you can talk to someone that won’t go and tell your deepest darkest secrets to the whole world. There are pros and cons on both sides. If it were me in Confession, I wouldn’t want something I said to be required to be reported, but I also know I am not going to commit awful crimes,” Quintana said.

Quintana offered some alternatives to the bill, elaborating on the possibility for a standard of confidentiality if clergy were required by law to report on what was shared in Confession.

“I think the bill is extreme and wouldn’t do very much good. The people in those situations would no longer go because they are essentially confessing to crimes,” Quintana said.

Jocelyn Garcia, a first-year history and political science double major, described the bill as appalling. She spoke to how legislation similar to Senate Bill 5280 may encroach on safe spaces such as the Catholic Church.

“I feel like that is just so wrong. There should be a sense of trust and confidentiality when you confide in a member of the clergy or a priest,” Garcia said.

Garcia addressed the gray area within the legislation and how misinterpretations may potentially stop people from confiding in members of clergy altogether. 

“It feels like an attack on something a lot of people view as a safe space,” Garcia said.

Similarly to Quintana, Garcia felt that there was room for legislative alternatives to work against child abuse in Washington State without violating the confidentiality of the sacrament. 

“If there is a sense someone may hurt themselves or be seriously hurt or injured, there should be an obligation from a priest or a clergy, but other than that, I feel that if there is no immediate danger then there should be some confidentiality,” Garcia said.

While the Senate and House of Representatives debates the legislation in Olympia in future sessions, the Catholic community waits to see how they’ll be affected.