Robert Gehrke: Requiring clergy to report abuse is a thorny issue, but protecting kids makes it worth it

Rep. Angela Romero’s inbox has been a busy, hostile place for a few weeks. Since the Catholic League issued a call to action to its members about a week ago, Romero estimates she has received somewhere between 400 and 600 emails.

A sampling: “You are doing the work of Satan and will not prevail.” “Disgusting anti-Christian politicians like you … attack Christianity relentlessly.”

It goes on from there.

She incurred the unholy wrath by sponsoring legislation that would require members of the clergy to notify law enforcement when they receive information about child abuse or neglect — even if it happens in a religious confession. Failure to report would be a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

This piercing of the clergy privilege is a hot-button issue, particularly for Catholics, who view the sanctity of the confessional as absolute with priests who violate it facing excommunication.

Romero, who is Catholic as well, was at Sunday dinner and her family warned her that what she’s attempting to do could get her excommunicated, too.

“If I’m standing up for children, then excommunicate me,” she said.

[Read more: A Utah bill would require clergy to report child abuse confessed to them]

House Speaker Brad Wilson, after a barrage of emails from the Catholic League, said he opposed the bill, which he believes limits the ability of religious leaders to counsel members of their congregations.

Last week, the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City issued a statement, acknowledging preventing child abuse is a noble cause, but contending the bill violates the spirit of one of the faith’s sacred sacraments. The Diocese urged its members to oppose the bill.

“In the past, priests have been tortured and given their lives rather than break their solemn vow to protect the seal of confession,” the statement read in part. “[Romero’s bill] places a Catholic priest in the untenable position of violating state law and facing criminal penalties or violating canon law and facing excommunication.”

Catholics are, obviously, not the only religion that might be affected by Romero’s bill. Thus far, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has not formally weighed in, but it’s hard to envision them or any church being eager supporters of this idea.

That’s partly because it could expose churches, according to Romero, to civil liability, but also because they view it as an infringement on how the clergy interacts with parishioners and how parishioners interact with their clergy and, therefore, the right to freely exercise their religion.

But there is a more important right at play here — the right of children to not be preyed upon. When those competing interests are weighed against each other, the scales tip in favor of legal protection for kids, not confidentiality for those who exploit them.

The reasons for requiring mandatory reporting go beyond one perpetrator or one victim. The data has shown that most individuals who exploit children have between six or seven victims before they are caught, Jenn Oxborrow, a licensed social worker, told me.

Earlier intervention means potentially sparing children the trauma of abuse, it can reduce the impacts of long-term abuse, and it means those who have been abused can get help sooner, improving outcomes.

Oxborrow said it is best for those who commit acts against children to get help as early as possible, since it improves the chances for rehabilitation and reduces the guilt she has seen fester in some cases.

It likely would also benefit the member of the clergy — in Utah, likely one without training — who is forced into the unenviable position of having to navigate the competing interests of preserving privacy of a confession and protecting other members of the congregation.

Frequently, members of the clergy have found ways around the privilege. In 2017, Christine Bartholomew, a law professor at the University of Buffalo, looked at 700 cases involving claims of the clergy privilege and found that, in an increasing number, the courts have denied the claims of privilege — largely because members of the clergy themselves had a narrower interpretation of what is or is not confidential than the law allows.

“Time and time again, clergy will treat a conversation or communication that would fall facially within the protections of statutory law and treat it as if it were pulled out,” she said. The one exception to the rule, she said, is when the individual who confesses is also a fellow clergy member, in which case she saw attempts to apply the privilege more broadly — essentially protecting their own.

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need this kind of legislation. A clergy member who is told of child abuse could persuade the penitent to go to authorities and the problem would be solved. But it is far too common that that doesn’t happen and the crime goes unreported, with no accountability for the perpetrator and no help for the child.

And Romero is not blazing a new trail here. Her bill is modeled after a similar law in Texas. Seven states, in all, have passed laws requiring clergy to report child abuse and others — like New York and California — have legislation that has been proposed.

Legislative attorneys have looked at her bill and believe it would withstand a legal challenge, since it doesn’t put a heavy burden on churches and furthers an important interest of curbing child abuse.

None of this likely matters. With the opposition it is already facing, the bill is probably already as good as dead — a fact that speaks to misplaced priorities of a Legislature willing to put fears of eroding religious liberty ahead of the wellbeing of abused children.