Clergy Exempt from Reporting Child Abuse, High Court Rules

Seattle Times/March 22, 1988

Olympia -- Ordained clergy do not have to report cases of suspected child abuse as required by state law - but non-ordained religious counselors do, the Washington Supreme Court ruled today.

The unanimous decision overturned the conviction of E. Scott Hartley, an ordained minister of the Community Chapel, an evangelical Christian church in Burien. Hartley had been convicted of failing to report incidents of child abuse reported to him during counseling sessions.

At the same time, the decision upheld convictions of David Motherwell and Louis Mensonides on the same charge. They were both paid counselors at Community Chapel.

All three men argued that being forced to report information they learned in religious counseling sessions violated establishment and free exercise of religion clauses in the federal and state constitutions.

During oral arguments, attorneys for the three contended "their practice is to first tend to their parishioners' problems through prayer and counseling, and to inform secular authorities only in those cases where their religious procedures prove ineffective.''

Justice Barbara Durham brushed aside that argument.

"Even if we assume that these statements amount to tenets of their religion, and even if we concede they are sincerely held, the counselors have not shown that the government coerced them into violating any such tenets,'' Durham wrote. "Requiring them to report suspected child abuse does not prevent them from counseling their parishioners.''

In Hartley's case, however, Durham agreed that a 1975 amendment to the reporting law implied clergy are exempt from reporting child-abuse cases.

Before that amendment, the law expressly included clergy among groups that were required to report suspected child abuse.

A rule requiring clergy to report under all circumstances would dissuade parishioners from acknowledging the existence of abuse and seeking a solution to it with their pastors, Durham wrote.

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