Having presided over and pastored six congregations — two as a bishop for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and four as an active duty Army chaplain — it is clear to me that the sinner/perpetrator, child abuse victims and society generally are better off when the confessional is protected by the government as the free exercise of religion’s God-given right.
In Utah there is much talk about religious freedom, particularly when it is considered operational to win this or that battle in the culture conflicts, but when the sanctity of the confessional is under attack, legislators and others go silent, or worse, many rush to get in line to rob religion of its long-standing freedoms.
Short-sighted knee jerk reactions by legislators, running roughshod over religion and its God-given rights is fundamentally un-American. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the great American experiment is the First Amendment, designed to protect against the establishment of religion and the violation of its free exercise. Those legislators rushing to rob religion of its sacred rights reveal what they truly think about religious freedom.
It is a grave mistake for the Utah Legislature or any legislative body for that matter to rob religion of its free exercise in the name of protecting victims of child abuse or any other crimes against the state. This fundamental right is precisely why the free exercise clause of the First Amendment exist at all. Very little could be more important under the First Amendment than protecting the right of confessional confidentiality.
As legislators rush to rob religion of its God-given rights, which should be protected under the First Amendment, believing they are heroically rescuing victims, especially child abuse victims, they are in fact ignorantly doing just the opposite.
If the Utah Legislature requires clergy to violate the sanctity of the confessional by reporting information about child abuse crimes obtained in the confessional, all its doing is guaranteeing in the future that sinners/perpetrators will not confess their sins/crimes, cutting off any opportunity for the clergy to influence the sinner/perpetrator to self-report their crimes to government authorities as part of their repentance process required by some religions.
How does it help child abuse victims or the general welfare of society when the clergy are forced to violate the confidentiality of the confessional? Such a situation places clergy in the predicament of either refusing to report, accepting the pain of incarceration and/or fines. Or, out of fairness, leaving the clergy no choice but to preemptively warn repenting sinners their confession of abuse crimes require clergy reporting. What an absolute tragedy for all involved, especially victims of child abuse.
There is very little that could be worse for religion than forcing clergy to violate the sanctity of the confessional confidentiality. For at least one major religion the confessional is a sacrosanct saving sacrament to be protected even under the pain of clergy death. For others, the confessional is critical for full repentance necessary for exaltation. For many religions these are of the highest stakes not to be considered cavalierly.
Victims, especially child abuse victims, are better off if sinners/perpetrators are able to confess their sins/crimes to clergy under confessional confidentiality. There is a greater chance under clergy influence that the sinner/perpetrator will not only self-report crimes, but child abuse victims will receive the necessary interventions sooner to rescue them from further harm and help them to more quickly recover from being violated.
Utah legislators should carefully consider before rushing to judgment whether they are actually helping or hurting child abuse victims by forcing clergy to report crimes they were made aware of during the confessional. From my many years of experience as a clergyman, receiving hundreds of confessions, I am more than convinced that religion’s God-given right to the protected confessional is better for all concerned, especially child abuse victims.
Stuart C. Reid, Ogden, is a former Army chaplain, LDS bishop and Utah state senator.