Ex-BYU professor takes plea deal in case involving sexual battery of three female students

Michael James Clay, originally charged with felonies, has pleaded no contest to three misdemeanor counts.

(Tribune file photo) The BYU campus in Provo on Wednesday June 1, 2016. On Monday, May 8, 2023, former BYU professor Michael James Clay pleaded no contest to sexual battery charges involving three of his female students.

The first Brigham Young University student who reported Michael James Clay to police said the professor told her he was inspired by God to touch her — even after she told him she wasn’t comfortable with it.

Then two more women came forward with similar allegations, saying Clay also abused his position as their teacher and their boss. One of the women said he misrepresented his role in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which operates BYU, and gave her a blessing to seek counseling from him; he was not qualified to provide therapy. Both said he pushed his body against theirs, while he reminded them of the control he had over their futures.

The now-former professor was eventually charged with seven felonies, which Utah County prosecutors later trimmed to three counts of forcibly sexually abusing the three female students. Clay, 48, was scheduled to stand trial last week.

But in a plea deal with prosecutors, Clay has instead pleaded no contest to three misdemeanors. And while Clay signed a statement acknowledging he touched the women and “should have known it would cause affront or alarm,” his attorneys contend the former professor was wrongfully accused and maintains his innocence.

“When a person is assailed by allegations of sexual harassment, especially in the present social circumstance, and suffers the resources of the government on the side of the accuser, the accused may chose to plead no contest to misdemeanors and move his life forward,” they said in an emailed statement. “That is the path that Mr. Clay has chosen.”

The Utah County Attorney’s Office, which has prosecuted the case, did not respond to a request for comment about the plea agreement.

In the deal, which a judge has approved, Clay agreed to two years of probation, some community service and counseling on sexual boundaries. His formal sentencing hearing is set for June 26.

Clay was the previous head of the Urban and Regional Planning program in the Geography Department at BYU. His case drew widespread attention when he was first charged in 2020, in connection with the first woman who reported to police.

The school said his employment there ended in April 2020.

A little more than a year later, two more students reported to campus police that they had similar interactions with Clay, where he allegedly groped them and threatened to withhold letters of recommendation and job opportunities if they told anyone; Clay was in a unique position where he had sole control over opportunities in the program. The allegations with all three women spanned from 2017 to 2020.

Clay “used his position as a university professor, employer and priesthood holder in the LDS Church to control and manipulate the young women,” charging documents alleged. “… In doing so, defendant took advantage of the victims and manipulated them for the purpose of sexual gratification.”

Additional charges were added at that time. A four-day trial for Clay had been slated to start Monday.

Clay was a professor of the three women and offered to counsel each as they told him about their personal struggles, according to police documents, though he was not qualified to do so.

The first woman who came forward said she met with Clay more than 20 times, and he would tell her that his “office was a safe place and that she should not tell anyone what went on there,” she told officers. According to BYU Police, Clay instructed the woman to delete any texts he sent her.

At the start of 2020, the woman said, Clay drove her up a canyon in Utah County and touched her over her clothes. She told police she felt she had to say “yes” because of the authority Clay had over her at school.

He allegedly told her that he had prayed and felt inspired by God to fondle her. Later, in February 2020, the woman said Clay asked her to straddle his lap, according to the charges. She told him to stop touching her, but she said he didn’t.

With all of the students, Clay allegedly initiated private counseling sessions, they said, and misrepresented himself as a religious leader in the LDS Church who could offer them blessings. With two of the women, Clay also supervised them in non-campus jobs at his private firm.

Police say he leveraged that control over them.

The second woman to report said she began working for Clay around January 2017. His long hugs, she told police, turned into him holding her and fondling her. He also asked her intimate questions about her sexual experiences, she alleged. She, too, said Clay pushed her to straddle him.

“She stated that defendant was not only her boss at the university and at his private firm, but her progress in her field of study was at defendant’s sole discretion,” according to charging documents, which also said Clay “often reminded victim of that fact.”

She said he also used their shared religion to “manipulate her into feeling a certain way.”

The third woman was a student and intern at his private firm, as well. She said she was groped by Clay from January 2018 through December 2019 and that the then-professor also would grind his body up against her. He additionally asked her inappropriate questions, she said.

The charging documents stated: “When defendant discussed these things, he said he had a rule that what was said in his office stayed in his office, indicated that if she told people what he said that he could not trust her, and said that he would never recommend anyone for jobs if he could not trust that person.”