A Utah bill would require clergy to report child abuse confessed to them

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, speaks with Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, on the House floor Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019, in Salt Lake City.

Utah clergy would be required to report all allegations of child abuse — even those gathered in a religious confessional — under a bill proposed for the 2020 legislative session.

HB90, sponsored by Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, would, if passed, remove the exemption that clergy now have in certain circumstances for reporting abuse.

Romero said many survivors of sexual abuse — as well as relatives of those who have been victimized — have contacted her to say they support such a change to state law.

“Their perpetrators went to confession, confided in a religious leader, and nothing ever happened," she said. “The purpose is to get rid of the exemption and hold religious leaders to the same standard as teachers and doctors.”

If approved, Utah would join several other states that have no reporting exemption for clergy, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway.

The Roman Catholic Church, among other faith groups, has opposed similar bills in California and other states. The removal of the “clergy-penitent” privilege, religious leaders argue, violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

Jean Hill, government liaison for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, did not yet want to comment on HB90, saying she had just started looking at the legislation and “needed more to time consider the constitutional and other issues.”

Romero, who was raised Catholic, believes HB90 will pass legal muster.

“My first obligation,” she said, “is to children and vulnerable populations being exploited by people who hide behind the fact they have confessed to a religious leader. ... Some of these individuals have gone on to perpetrate and harm other children.”

HB90 could impact other religions in which confessions are kept confidential, including Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox and the state’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said this week that "the church would need to review the bill and its implications before taking a position.”

The Salt Lake City-based faith already directs its lay bishops to encourage the offender to self-report to law enforcement when a crime is confessed. Bishops also must call a church hotline to speak to an attorney regarding their legal duty to report abuse and are instructed to seek professional counseling for the victims, their families and even the perpetrator.

The same hotline policy applies if a Latter-day Saint reveals a criminal offense involving a third party. In that case, attorneys decide how best to notify appropriate law enforcement agencies.

In Utah, clergy — along with teachers, medical professionals and law enforcement — must report allegations of child abuse they learn of in any way outside of the confessional, including through victim statements or from other observations. But state law currently exempts clergy from reporting child abuse or neglect when a perpetrator confesses directly to a religious leader.

Colorado lawyer Eric Kniffin, who closely followed the bill in California, said proposals like Romero’s “would damage religious liberties” because the Catholic Church prohibits priests from disclosing anything that is said in the confessional and under canon law priests who break the seal of the confessional are automatically excommunicated.

Kniffin, a First Amendment attorney, said people may think that the clergy privilege is being abused, but in reality it may help bring about justice.

“The confessional is not just a black hole,” he said. “If a priest hears something in confession, they may urge the person to get help, talk to police or say ‘talk to me outside of the confessional.’"

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

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

Sam Young, a former Latter-day Saint bishop who founded Protect Every Child, is in favor of the mandatory reporting for religious leaders.

“There are stories almost weekly of a pastor, bishop, priest, youth leader or Sunday school teacher who is arrested for abusing children,” said Young, who was excommunicated after he pushed to end the practice of lay Latter-day Saint leaders having one-on-one interviews with children, which sometimes included sexually explicit questions. “And in many cases there was prior knowledge, but the church didn’t want to make other people look bad so they continued to have access to children.

“Right now, we are protecting the predator,” he added, “not the child.”