Ending clergy exemption for reporting child abuse seemed like done deal, Editorial Board writes, until it wasn’t

Too much of the Utah Legislature’s process is invisible. Even to some lawmakers.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Senate President Stuart Adams at the opening of the 2023 General Session, on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023.

For all the fussing and fighting and failure to launch that so often characterizes the Utah Legislature, the 2023 session began with hope of a bipartisan agreement to do at least one good thing.

It came in the wake of a detailed and, frankly, sickening report from the Associated Press about how leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had allowed a particularly horrible case of long-term child sexual abuse in Arizona to go unreported for years.

Utah lawmakers from both the supermajority Republicans and the happy few Democrats were preparing bills that would end any suggestion that the clergy of any faith is exempt from the rules that require health care providers, teachers and others to report suspected cases of child abuse to the appropriate authorities. Among those pushing the changes were state Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, counted among the Legislature’s most conservative members, and Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, one of its most liberal.

It was, in the words of one advocate for abused children, “A no-brainer.”

Until it wasn’t.

As the regular session of the Legislature wound down last week, it became apparent that none of the bills aimed at ending the clergy exemption would get so much as a committee hearing. The momentum apparently ended because legislative leadership pulled the plug.

Pressed on the issue, Senate President Stuart Adams uttered some unbelievable bilge about how, “Religious organizations do a great job” of reacting to reports of child abuse among their members. Which suggests that Adams has neither read a newspaper nor seen a movie in the last few decades.

The Senate president also said a reporting requirement would put a member of the clergy, such as an LDS bishop or Roman Catholic priest, in an impossible position, having to decide between following the secular law or his (it’s always a he) religious calling.

“I don’t think I want to put a clergy in a spot where they have to be excommunicated or go to jail,” Adams said.


Does either Adams or anyone else really believe that any religious institution, no matter how conservative or patriarchal, would really excommunicate a member for going to the police or social services when they learn that one of their religious charges has been sexually abusing their own children for as much as seven years, as was the case in the AP report?

Yes, as Adams notes, there are First Amendment protections for religious belief. But they are not without limit. It took awhile but, just as an example, one leader of a faith group that long ago broke away from the LDS Church found his claim to a religious right to sexually abuse and “marry” underage girls won him nothing but a life term in a Texas prison.

By failing to pursue these bills, legislative leaders may think they are protecting the free exercise of religion. But what they are really doing - whether out of ignorance or arrogance - is seriously undermining public confidence in both government and religion, institutions whose ability to guide society in a healthy direction is already pretty wobbly.

This is another example of how our Legislature gets bad results from a flawed process.

The bills deserved public hearings before the relevant committees. If religious leaders wanted to speak against them, they should and would have every opportunity. But catching the ear of the Senate president should not have been all it took.

Defenders of the status quo should have been expected to sit next to victims of child abuse and their advocates, listening to their testimony about how their victimization over months and years brought no assistance from the religious communities they loved and trusted.

That’s the legislative process. Sometimes, it works. For example:

• A House bill that started out as a cut-and-paste copy of Florida’s hateful “Don’t say gay” bill was amended, and later allowed to die, when its sponsor, Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper, sat down with LGBTQ advocates and came to understand how hurtful it might be to students or teachers and their families.

• Legislation to force state universities to get out of the diversity business was pulled when its sponsor heard objections from Black Utahns and from the leaders of the state’s higher education institutions.

• A bill that would have restored the undeserved power of Utah political parties’ caucus and convention system over the voice of primary election voters appears to have gone to a well-deserved death.

• A bill to take on domestic violence in the state, by building a database of offenders and requiring local law enforcement agencies to better assess the likelihood of violence or death, was shepherded through the legislative process by Sen. Todd Weiler and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson. Their efforts began well before the session opened.

Sometimes, it doesn’t:

• Legislation to further politicize — i.e., make more Republican — the process of appointing state judges was apparently on its way to becoming law.

• Lawmakers moved to make abortion services even less available.

• An unenforceable bill to require parental permission for any Utahn under the age of 18 to have a social media account was also on its way to the statute books. It is basically a measure that says we will prove just how much we don’t trust social media outfits by demanding that families give those companies more of their private information.

The legislative habit of drowning measures that seem to have widespread support even as they spring unpopular and unwanted laws on us with little or no notice is a matter of process. A process that more people need to follow and, as the next round of party caucuses and conventions approaches, get involved in.

Before it is too late.