Reporting child abuse should be everyone’s duty

Salt Lake Tribune [Salt Lake City UT]

September 2, 2022

By Dale A. Whitman

Recently, in the pages of The Salt Lake Tribune, Stuart C. Reid made a passionate defense of confession to one’s spiritual advisor as a God-given right. He argued that if a pastor or bishop had a duty to report confessed crimes to civil authorities, religious liberty would be violated to the detriment of all concerned.

I believe this is entirely wrong. Consider the case, such as reported recently by the Associated Press, of an LDS man who confesses to his bishop that he is sexually abusing his own daughter. The bishop, told that he cannot inform the civil authorities, attempts to counsel the man and persuade him to repent.

Is he likely to succeed? The evidence is that pedophilia is exceedingly difficult to cure or stop. It may respond, if at all, only to a long series of intensive counseling sessions in the hands of a highly trained and experienced psychologist. Even then, the rate of success is probably lower than 50%.

LDS bishops, on the other hand, have virtually no training or experience in such matters, and LDS Social Services counselors are scarcely better off. The typical protestant minister or Catholic priest will likewise be over his head in such a situation. The abuser may weep and claim repentance, but the chances of any actual change in behavior as a result of such amateur counseling is essentially zero.

The result? The cycle of abuse will continue, no one in authority will intervene, and the disastrous psychological consequences to the victim of the abuse will become more and more embedded and harmful. Surely there is a better course of action.

Suppose in every clergy person and bishop’s office there was a small sign reading “Crimes disclosed here may be reported to civil authorities.” Do we really think that the number of confessions would be significantly reduced? I very much doubt it, for when one is feeling guilty, the urge to confess can be very strong indeed. Yet no one would be able to claim surprise if his or her misbehavior were reported to the police or to Child and Family Services.

Present Utah law (Utah Code Ann. § 62A-4a-403) exempts clergy from the duty to report child abuse if they learn of the abuse from a private confession and if they are bound, under church doctrine or practice, to maintain the confidentiality of that confession. (If a clergy person learns of abuse in some other way, they have the same duty to report it as everyone else.)

It would be highly desirable to remove this exemption from the Utah code, so that clergy would be obligated to turn in abusers. At least seven other states have done this. Contrary to Mr. Reid’s supposition, I don’t think doing so would be likely to affect the rate of confessions much at all; people don’t make the decision to talk to their pastor, priest or bishop on the basis of whether or not they might get reported to the police.

But the result of repealing the exemption would be that more cases of abuse of innocent children would come to light, so that Child and Family Services could rescue them at an earlier point. Does that intrude on a principle of religious liberty? Yes, but it does so to advance the far more important principle of protecting children against violence.

Dale Whitman is a retired law professor who has taught at both Brigham Young University and the University of Utah, among many other law schools. He currently divides his time between Utah and Arizona.