Adams says ending exception for child abuse reporting forces clergy to choose between faith, jail

Deseret News [Salt Lake City, UT]

February 28, 2023

By Bridger Beal-Cvetko,

Lawmakers have proposed several bills this session that would end the clergy exception for reporting child abuse, but with less than a week before the Utah Legislature adjourns, none have been granted a public hearing.

When asked why the bills — all of which were publicly released before the legislative session began in January — have yet to come up for discussion, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said he doesn’t want to force clergy to choose between breaking a tenet of their faith or breaking state law.

“I think they have the First Amendment right of religious protections, and I don’t think I want to put clergy in a spot where they have to be excommunicated or thrown in jail. Those are the options and I don’t think that’s right,” he said.RELATED

The Utah Division of Child and Family Services’ child protective services website says that “Utah law requires any person who has reason to believe that a child has been subjected to abuse, neglect or dependency to immediately notify the nearest office of Child and Family Services, a peace officer or a law enforcement agency. Abuse, neglect or dependency of a child can be physical, emotional or sexual.”

Utah code stipulates the reporting requirement “does not apply to a member of the clergy, with regard to any confession made to the member of the clergy while functioning in the ministerial capacity of the member of the clergy and without the consent of the individual making the confession, if:

  • The perpetrator made the confession directly to the member of the clergy; and
  • The member of the clergy is, under canon law or church doctrine or practice, bound to maintain the confidentiality of the confession.”

Several of the bills were proposed last August, after the Associated Press published a story about how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints handled child sexual abuse cases in Arizona and West Virginia. According to the report, an Arizona bishop was counseled by staff members of the church’s abuse help line to not report a father who confessed to sexually abusing his 5-year-old daughter.

The church pushed back on the AP’s reporting, saying the help line was “seriously mischaracterized” in the article, and called the story “oversimplified and incomplete” and “a serious misrepresentation of the church and its efforts.” The bishop, following advice from the help line about Arizona’s law on reporting abuse and its priest-penitent privilege exception, urged the man and his wife to report the abuse to authorities but did not do so himself, according to the church.

“The abuse of a child or any other individual is inexcusable,” the church said. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes this, teaches this and dedicates tremendous resources and efforts to prevent, report and address abuse. Our hearts break for these children and all victims of abuse.”

House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, was one of the lawmakers who proposed ending the clergy exception, after unsuccessfully running a bill to do just that in 2020. In August, she was joined by Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, in speaking out against the exception.

Romero, Lyman, Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, and Sen. Stephanie Pitcher, D-Salt Lake City, have all opened bills related to child abuse reporting this session.

Why the bills haven’t advanced

Adams said that if clergy are forced to report child abuse, it would remove the incentive for people to confess abuse, and clergy would be less able to provide support to congregants. He reiterated that clergy would face a choice of being excommunicated from their faith or serving jail time for violating state law.

“I’ve heard from many religious organizations and those are the options for them,” Adams said. “I would say, too, that religious organizations do a great job. There’s no one that likes abuse. No one would want to tolerate abuse. But many times if you have perpetrators, if they really believe in repentance, or believe in trying to make things better, they’ll go to the authorities. And that’s the ultimate goal, is to get it stopped and go to the authorities.”

He said he had spoken with a “broad base of religious organizations,” but wouldn’t specify which churches were involved.

spokeswoman with the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City previously said legislation ending the clergy exception would “interrupt that sacred moment” of confession “in a manner that could permanently destroy the relationship between our priests and ourselves in the confessional, without furthering the stated goal of the legislation.”

Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden, also said legislative leaders heard from “lots of different denominations” about the clergy exception, indicating they opposed such changes.

“Clergy are there to provide support and counsel and to try to help. Most of the research shows that if people aren’t able to come to them for fear of being reported on, they’re not able to provide the help and support that the reporter needs,” she said. “If we really want to help people, we need to keep that door open, so individuals in those situations can come and have those conversations and then get the help they need.”

The 2023 general session ends Friday at midnight, and Tuesday is the last day for standing committee hearings, making it unlikely that any of the clergy reporting bills will be heard this year.