Why a judge said he’s ‘extremely concerned’ by ex-BYU professor’s abuse of female students

Michael James Clay, 48, was sentenced in a plea deal Monday on three charges of sexual battery.

A Utah judge said it’s “inexcusable” that a former Brigham Young University professor used his position to prey on and sexually abuse three of his female students.

In a hearing Monday, Judge Sean Petersen said he read personal statements from the professor’s victims and believes “the lives of these women will clearly be affected forever.”

“I have to say, I’m extremely concerned,” Petersen said. “Taking advantage of innocent students is just inexcusable. There’s just no room for that type of behavior and grooming in our society.”

His strong statement came during the sentencing for Michael James Clay, 48.

Clay was the previous leader of the Urban and Regional Planning program in the Geography Department at BYU, which is operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His case drew widespread attention when he was initially charged in 2020, when the first student reported to campus police.

She said the professor told her he was inspired by God to touch her — even after she told him she wasn’t comfortable with it. The school said his employment there ended in April 2020, when Clay quit.

Then, about a year later, 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 LDS Church 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.

“I do feel for these victims,” Judge Petersen said.

Clay was eventually charged with seven felonies, which Utah County prosecutors later trimmed to three counts of forcibly sexually abusing the three female students.

But in a plea deal with prosecutors agreed to last month, Clay was allowed to plead no contest to three misdemeanors of sexual battery.

And while Clay signed a statement acknowledging he touched the women and “should have known it would cause affront or alarm,” his attorneys have contended the former professor was wrongfully accused and have maintained his innocence.

During his sentencing for the misdemeanors Monday, Clay declined to comment when the judge asked if he had anything he wanted to say.

“I have nothing to say, your honor,” Clay responded.

His attorney, Cara Tangaro, said the same: “We don’t really have much to say.”

She asked the judge to approve the terms agreed on in the plea deal. And he did.

Clay was sentenced to two years of probation, 50 hours of community service and required counseling on sexual boundaries. He is also prohibited from contacting the women.

Petersen said if Clay violates those terms or violates the law in any other way during his two years of probation, there will be “zero tolerance.”

The judge also told Clay that he was lucky to receive the plea deal. “Without the state’s agreement with the defendant, things today very well may be different,” he said.

An attorney representing two of the women said they did not want to speak at the sentencing; The Salt Lake Tribune reached out to him for comment afterward and did not receive a response. The third woman did not appear at the hearing.

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

Clay allegedly groped the students 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 from the women spanned from 2017 to 2020.

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. 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.

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.

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. She said that he also asked her inappropriate questions.