Travers pushing for exception to state laws that allow clergy to hide abuse confessed

Arizona Capitol Times [Phoenix AZ]

November 1, 2023

By Howard Fischer

A first-term Democratic lawmaker wants to enact an exception to state laws that allow clergy to refuse to disclose what was told to them in confession or similar confidential communication.

But Rep. Stacey Travers of Phoenix has so far run into a procedural wall. Rep. Quang Nguyen, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, where her bill was assigned earlier this year, refused to even give it a hearing.

And the Prescott Valley Republican told Capitol Media Services that he’s not prepared to allow the bill to proceed in 2024, even if it deals only with cases of child abuse and neglect.

“The seal of confession is a sacred, sacred part of the Catholic church,” said Nguyen who is Catholic.

“The seal of confession is never to be broken,” he said. “And priests will go to jail for it.”

Still, Nguyen acknowledged that there are difficult issues to be addressed. And he said he is willing to at least speak with Travers, who plans to reintroduce her measure when the Legislature convenes in January.

If Travers can get her bill past Nguyen — and through the Legislature — she could get a friendlier reception from Gov. Katie Hobbs who also is Catholic.

“I certainly think it’s worth having the conversation, how we can continue to respect people’s religious freedom but also address this kind of abuse,” she said.

The idea isn’t new. A previous version had been sponsored by Victoria Steele, a Tucson Democrat who served in the Legislature between 2013 and the end of last year.

“I picked up the mantle because I had LDS constituents come to me,” Travers said, referring in shorthand to what is formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

That involves an incident out of Bisbee where bishops, citing the clergy-penitent privilege, did not disclose to police that Paul Adams, a church member, had confessed to raping his daughter. Adams continued to abuse her for another seven years and also raped her infant sister.

He was caught only after someone saw a video he had posted online. Adams later committed suicide in jail.

“They were very upset,” Travers said of her constituents, and wanted to know how to alter the law to keep that from happening again.

Existing Arizona law that makes certain people “mandatory reporters” of child abuse, physical injury or neglect. That list includes medical professionals, behavioral health professionals, parents, school personnel and advocates for domestic violence and sexual assault victims.

That list also includes members of the clergy.

But that covers only the things that they actually witness. And the law spells out that they are not required to report what is conveyed to them in confession or communications.

What Travers wants to do is insert language saying that ability to withhold information from a confession does not apply in any case where a member of the clergy “had knowledge or a reasonable suspicion that a person is committing or may commit child abuse or neglect.” And to narrow it even further, the legislation says that requirement to report only applies if the clergy member “determines that the abuse or neglect is still ongoing or will occur in the future.”

One problem with that, said Nguyen, is his belief that if lawmakers make that change it won’t be the end of it.

“I believe that if you make an exception for anything at all, you’re going down that slippery slope,” he said.

“It’s a sacrament of penance,” Nguyen continued. “It’s a part of the church for 2,000 years and it’s not to be broken. So I don’t want to make an exception for anything.”

Travers said she isn’t buying the argument that creating an exception to the clergy-penitent privilege in cases of ongoing or future child abuse will throw the doors open to wholesale changes in the laws protecting what is said in confession.

“You could argue anything has a slippery slope,” she said. And Travers said if that kind of thinking prevailed at the Legislature many problems would never be addressed.

“I don’t know how it will impact 10 or 15 years down the road,” she said. “But I know that if children continue to be sexually abused and there is a social structure that allows that abuse to continue, then we haven’t done our duty to the children that we are trying to protect.”

Nguyen, however, questioned whether there is even the need to have members of the clergy calling the police, the Department of Child Safety or other authorities.

“The victim has the parents, the victim has the teachers, the victim has friends, the victim has relatives that he or she is close to,” Nguyen said. “So, it doesn’t need a priest to be able to go to court and testify.”

But he had no specific answer to the facts of the case that got the attention of Travers and others where, according to the allegations, the rape started when she was about six, the girl’s mother did nothing to protect her daughter — and the abuse continued for seven years after a bishop had spoken to the father about it but did not call any authorities or do anything further to protect the victim and her sister.

According to a later interview by an investigator with the Department of Homeland Security, one of the bishops he acknowledged — without disclosing specifics — he had spoken to Adams as far back as 2012 and told him, “You need to turn yourself in.” But the bishop also said that he was told by church officials that because of the clergy-penitent privilege, he “absolutely can do nothing except for encourage him to turn it in.”

Nguyen, however, said it’s an issue of his faith.

“I believe, personally, in some ways this is an attack on the church,” he said. “That is how I see it.”

And Nguyen said he isn’t alone in his views that there should be no exceptions to the Arizona laws that say clergy need not report crimes that are confessed to them — even those that are ongoing.

“I have spoken about this issue before I decided not to hear the bill to multiple Catholic bishops,” he said, along with Ron Johnson who lobbies for the Arizona Catholic Conference which is made up of all the bishops in the state.

“This is sacred to the church, to never reveal or break the seal of confession,” Nguyen said.

Any move to eliminate the ability of clergy to withhold information they obtain in confession about child abuse or neglect will get a fight.

“The Catholic Church cannot allow exceptions to the narrow seal of confession as part of our faith,” said Brett Meiser, spokesman for the Diocese of Phoenix.

In a prepared statement, Anne Vargas-Leveriza who is director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection and Safe Environment training for the diocese, said the policy is for all clergy to report suspected cases of abuse of a minor. And she said that includes abuse revealed or suspected through “spiritual direction, counseling, pastoral guidance, or other situations.”

But Vargas-Leveriza said that does not apply when the matter arises through confession, which she called “extremely narrow and exceedingly rare.”

“Nevertheless, in the unlikely event such a situation involving the inviolable sacramental seal were to arise, clergy are taught to make every effort to encourage reporting of the allegation to civil authorities and all other steps necessary to stop any abuse and protect the victim.”

The Catholic Conference did release a statement after Steele’s 2022 bill died, calling it “legislation hostile to religious liberty. And it also criticized an earlier effort, saying the legislation “demonstrates the willingness of some to essentially attempt to have the government regulate a sacrament.”

A spokesman with the LDS church in Salt Lake City said he had no comment about the measure.