April 21, 2020
By Mary Jo Pitzl
When a Bisbee man told his Mormon bishop he was sexually abusing his own five-year-old daughter, the bishop provided counseling. He involved the man’s wife in the sessions, apparently hoping that knowledge of her husband’s activities would prompt her to keep their children safe.
What the bishop didn’t do was report the abuse to police. He didn’t have to. Although Arizona law classifies clergy, as well as many others, as mandatory reporters of child abuse, there is an exception for clergy to not report if they believe it is “reasonable and necessary within the concepts of the religion.”
The bishop’s counseling sessions apparently had little effect. The man continued to molest his daughter, and later, after her birth in 2015, his infant daughter. He made videos of the encounters and posted them on pornographic websites, which were eventually discovered by Interpol, reported to his employer, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and led to criminal charges.
Arizona’s mandatory-reporting law requires clergy, among many others, to contact law enforcement or child-welfare officials when they suspect child abuse.
But the law also allows clergy to not report if they are told of the abuse in confidence or during a confession. In those cases, state law says, clergy may withhold a report if the clergy member feels it is “reasonable and necessary within the concepts of the religion.”
Thirty-two states besides Arizona have such exemptions, commonly called the “clergy-penitent privilege.” They are a necessary protection of the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom from government dictates, say attorneys who have represented religious institutions.
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