Foundation behind MormonLeaks urges Utah lawmakers to remove ‘clergy exemption’ from child abuse reporting laws

The Truth and Transparency Foundation — the nonprofit group behind the controversial MormonLeaks website — is launching a petition drive calling on Utah legislators to drop the “clergy exemption” from laws about mandatory reporting of child abuse.

This exemption frees religious leaders from reporting abuse if they learn about it from perpetrators. It is based on a belief in the sanctity of the communication between penitent believers who confess to their spiritual leaders.

Such an exemption, though, is “an affront to the safety and well-being of abuse survivors,” the group writes in an email that went out Wednesday to all Utah legislators, “and provides an environment where predators are enabled.”

Thus, the group writes on its website, it is proposing “the exemption be removed entirely and that clergy members explicitly be required to report child abuse reported to them by any individual regardless of the reporter’s role in the abuse.”

The petition comes in the wake of detailed grand jury allegations of abuse by 300 Catholic priests and other church workers involving 1,000 minors over a 70-year period. The state’s attorney general called it a “systematic cover-up by senior church officials in Pennsylvania and at the Vatican.”

In September, the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City reported receiving “credible allegations” in the past three decades of sexual abuse involving 16 priests. Two of the allegations surfaced this year.

MormonLeaks has revealed similar accusations — though on a smaller scale — against Utah’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Truth and Transparency Foundation says in a news release that “clergy typically and intentionally avoid reporting abuse to law enforcement except in states where they are required to do so.”

All 50 states have similar mandatory reporting laws, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway but 12 have no exemption for clergy.

“We implore you to put survivors of abuse first,” the group says in its email to legislators, “and to consider supporting and fighting for this.”

Jean Hill, spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, which covers Utah’s 300,000-plus Catholics, said it won’t comment until there is actual legislation, but added: “We would be very concerned if lawmakers attempted to legislate the relationship between priest and penitent and to debate the merits of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.”

David Clohessy, a former national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, commonly called SNAP, has noted that clergy exemptions can even be used by fellow clerics.

“We’ve heard rumors over the years,” Clohessy told Think Progress in 2016. “Say ‘Father A’ molests kids but fears that ‘Father B’ has suspicions. Father A then asks Father B to hear his confession, so that Father B is constrained and unable to say anything to anybody.”

The LDS Church declined to comment Wednesday.

For an earlier story, however, a church spokesman explained that when a crime is confessed, the Utah-based faith directs its bishops to encourage the offender to self-report to law enforcement.

And while Utah law allows a perpetrator’s confession to remain confidential, any abuse disclosed either by the victim or a third party, clergy must report to authorities.

MormonLeaks’ parent foundation attached suggested changes to the Utah Code removing the phrases “clergy exemption” as well as language defining it.

The foundation does not have a Utah lawmaker to sponsor such a bill, said MormonLeaks founder Ryan McKnight, a former Latter-day Saint who lives in Las Vegas, but he hopes the petition drive will garner enough support to “put pressure on the legislators.”

Ryan McKnight