Utah Legislature hasn’t debated bills that would require clergy to report sex abuse. Here’s why.

Senate President Stuart Adams told reporters religious organizations “do a great job” in handling abuse confessions.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Inside the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023.

In the wake of an Associated Press investigation into a case of child sex abuse by a Latter-day Saint father in Arizona, three Utah lawmakers put forward bills that would, in some capacity, require clergy — or give them permission — to report abuse to law enforcement. Why have none of them been debated by the Legislature?

“I think they have a First Amendment right, I believe there’s protections, and I don’t think I want to put a clergy in a spot where they have to be excommunicated or go to jail,” Senate President Stuart Adams told reporters Monday. “And those are the options and I don’t think that’s right.”

While two bills to address clergy reporting have been put forward by Democrats in the House and remain in its Rules Committee, one from Sen. Stephanie Pitcher, D-Salt Lake City, is stuck in the Senate’s Rules Committee.

“At the very least, this is an issue that legislators should be able to vet publicly and in open committee,” Pitcher told The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday. “I think we should have the opportunity to hear from those of our criminal justice system, I think we should hear from those in religious communities.”

She continued, “While I understand the concerns from our leadership team, I’m really hopeful that this is an issue that we can continue to work on and talk about over the interim, and that at the very least, we can have a conversation in a committee.”

Pitcher’s bill would require clergy to report confessed abuse when they believe it’s ongoing or is likely to occur again, and if they have disclosed the confession to a third party outside of the purpose of ministering to the person who confessed

Under Utah’s current code, an individual who willfully fails to report abuse faces a class B misdemeanor. If convicted, they may be assigned community service hours or required to “complete a program on preventing abuse and neglect of children.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ policy for responding to confessions about abuse, which was the focus of The Associated Press investigation, advises bishops to call a “help line” staffed by lawyers.

The church — which called the AP’s story “oversimplified and incomplete” — has said that hotline helps bishops comply with local laws and instructs them to encourage families to report abuse to authorities. The staff will also, in cases where “a child is in imminent danger,” report the abuse to authorities themselves, according to the church.

In the case covered by the AP, however, a child continued to be sexually abused for seven years after a bishop first reported her father’s confession to the help line, and after a second bishop called to report. Both times, the bishops were reportedly told not to tell law enforcement, because they were excused under Arizona law.

“Religious organizations do a great job,” Adams said. “I mean, there’s no one that likes abuse, ... but many times if you have perpetrators, if they really believe in repentance, or believe in trying to make themselves better, they’ll go to the authorities. And that’s the ultimate goal is to get it stopped and get it to authorities.”

Adams said that it was his understanding after talking to “many religious organizations” that the clergy’s options would be “to be excommunicated or go to jail.” When asked which organizations those were, he didn’t specify, but told reporters that he and Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner, of Ogden, talked to “broad-based religious organizations.”

“We really wanted to hear from lots of different denominations about how they felt about this,” Millner said. “Clergy are there to provide support and counsel and to try to help, and most of the research shows that if people aren’t able to come to them for fear of being reported on, they are not able to provide the help and support they need.”

The majority of states classify clergy as mandatory reporters, and while some don’t offer clergy any protections, most allow some conversations about abuse to remain private. In Utah, all clergy fall under the “person” classification, and are generally compelled to report abuse, but are exempted from reporting if that information is received through a confession.

Prior to the legislative session, two Republican lawmakers had announced they were planning to introduce legislation that would take aim at abuse within churches.

Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, announced in August that he was opening a bill file to remove the clergy exemption in Utah’s law. The version of the bill he ended up introducing, however, appears to have little impact on the clergy exception.

In the Senate, Sen. Keith Grover, R-Provo, wanted to require churches to run background checks on leaders and volunteers, he said in August. The introduced bill does not target churches, specifically, but requires any employee, independent contractor or volunteer who has direct contact with someone else’s child, to get a background check every five years.

With four days left in the legislative session, both bills remain in their respective body’s rules committee and without committee assignments.

Grover, who is a Latter-day Saint, acknowledged last summer that there might be questions about whether his proposal infringed on religious freedom.

“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” Grover said at the time of its constitutionality. “I think the question needs to be asked and heard in (a legislative) committee. We do pass bills from time to time that are not constitutional.”

Correction: Feb. 28, 10:45 a.m. • This story has been updated to communicate the penalties a person in Utah may face for failing to report abuse.