Poll: Most Utahns, LDS or otherwise, support a clergy confession bill

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

No matter their faith affiliation, Utahns overwhelmingly support legislation that would require clergy to report child abuse — even if the information is divulged during a religious confession, a new poll shows.

Most Catholics, Protestants and members of the state’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, back a full-reporting requirement, according to a Salt Lake Tribune survey conducted by Suffolk University.

More than two-thirds of Catholics (77%) favor such a move, along with 73% of Protestants, 73% of self-identifying “very active” Latter-day Saints and 78% of “somewhat active” ones. More than 60% of all those groups “strongly support” it.

Backing runs even higher among those with little to no denominational ties. About 81% of inactive Latter-day Saints and 91% of those citing no religious affiliation support mandatory reporting.

Overall, 78% of Utahns back this requirement, while 11% oppose it, with 10% undecided. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

Those results buoy up Rep. Angela Romero, who is seeking to make that requirement law.

Under current Utah statute, clergy members are required to report all allegations of child abuse, with one exception: when they are gleaned from a religious confessional. The Salt Lake City Democrat’s HB90 would remove that exemption.

Romero said the poll is “a strong indicator that people are on the same page as I am and believe that if therapists and teachers and others must report, clergy should as well.”

If the bill passes and becomes law, Utah would join New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas and West Virginia in denying the clergy-penitent privilege in child abuse cases, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway.

Despite the measure’s apparent support in the pews, it faces opposition from the pulpit.

The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City has come out against it, warning it could prevent sex offenders from coming forward and allowing a priest to counsel the perpetrator to turn themselves in to police or get help from trained personnel.

“The motivation for the bill is understandable, to uncover and stop the abuse of children," Jean Hill, government liaison for the diocese overseeing Utah’s more than 300,000 Catholics, wrote in a recent statement, “but HB90 will not have this intended effect."

Romero’s bill, she and others argue, infringes on the free exercise of religion enshrined in the First Amendment.

“For a Catholic priest, revealing the contents of a person’s confession is a mortal sin and grounds for automatic excommunication,” she wrote in the Intermountain Catholic. “... HB90 places a Catholic priest in the untenable position of violating state law and facing criminal penalties, or violating canon law and facing excommunication.”

The Catholic League also has voiced its opposition, along with Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, who said he “did not support the bill in its current form” and that he had “serious concerns about [it] and the effects it could have on religious leaders as well as their ability to counsel members of their congregations."

The LDS Church, which has said it is reviewing the legislation, has not taken a public position on it.

Poll respondent Russell Shackelford said he wasn’t aware of the current clergy confession exemption, but he wants it erased.

“I just assumed everyone was a mandatory reporter," the Tooele Latter-day Saint said. “I don’t see confidentiality being more important than safety of a child.”

Emily Brooksby, a Latter-day Saint respondent from Saratoga Springs, said she didn’t have strong opinion on the issue, but “if a bishop finds out about abuse, I think they do have an obligation to report it.”