Rep. Lyman proposes requiring Utah clergy to report child abuse

KUTV, CBS-2 [Salt Lake City UT]

August 12, 2022

By Daniel Woodruff

A Republican lawmaker is proposing changing Utah law to require members of clergy to report cases of child abuse to authorities.

Rep. Phil Lyman (R-Blanding) announced in a news release Friday morning that he has opened a bill file for the upcoming 2023 session to get rid of the exception which states that members of clergy don’t need to report child abuse if they learn about it through confession and are bound by church doctrine to keep it confidential.

“This exception concerns me. While I understand and deeply value the confession process, providing an exception for clergy when it comes to reporting abuse creates unnecessary ambiguity for both the clergy member and for the person who is confessing,” Lyman said in a statement. “Worse yet, it can delay intervention for innocent victims. There are too many heartbreaking stories of abuse in Utah and across the Nation of help that never came or came too late.”

He’s not the only lawmaker pushing this issue. Rep. Angela Romero (D-Salt Lake City) told KUTV 2News Friday she has refiled a bill she first proposed in 2020 to remove the exception for clergy. Her bill failed to pass that year without even receiving a committee hearing.

Romero said she has spoken to Lyman about his plan, “and we are meeting at interim to discuss it. He’ll defer to me should I feel strongly about running the bill. It will be a team effort.”

Lyman’s announcement Friday comes after the Associated Press reported on an abuse case in Arizona involving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The AP reported a bishop learned about child abuse, but that attorneys for the church told him via a 24-hour “help line” that he had to keep it confidential because the abuse was revealed “during a counseling session the church considered a spiritual confession.”

The church later released a statement criticizing the AP article, saying it “seriously mischaracterized” the purpose of the help line designed to help local leaders when dealing with members who confess to abuse.

In his news release, Lyman cited “recent news stories” as showing “example after example of failed systems that should be protecting underage, vulnerable children.” He did not mention the AP article specifically.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declined to comment on Lyman’s proposal.

Jean Hill, spokesperson for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, declined a request for an interview but referred KUTV 2News to materials put out in 2020 expressing opposition to Romero’s bill to end the clergy reporting exception.

“For a Catholic priest, revealing the contents of a person’s confession is a mortal sin and grounds for automatic excommunication,” Hill wrote. “In the past, priests have been tortured and given their lives rather than break their solemn vow to protect the Seal of Confession. This isn’t just a convenient means of maintaining confidentiality, it is a sacred duty and thus critical to the free exercise of our religion.”

Lyman declined an interview request from KUTV 2News about his proposal.

Romero, the other lawmaker pursuing a bill, said she believes there is now “more awareness” about this issue since her effort to remove the clergy exception two years ago.

“This is about children. This doesn’t have a party label,” Romero said. “So, we’re all going to work together, and I’m really excited with the fact that Rep. Lyman is as committed as I am to this issue.”

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