Message to Utah bishops, pastors, priests: You can report suspected abuse — even if gleaned in a confession

Salt Lake Tribune [Salt Lake City UT]

January 22, 2024

By Peggy Fletcher Stack

Utah lawmaker is pushing a bill to make that clear to clergy.

A longtime Utah lawmaker is shepherding a bill that could lead to more bishops, pastors, priests and other clergy reporting suspected child abuse or neglect to police.

Rep. Brian King’s HB131 makes it clear that ecclesiastical leaders can report such cases — even if the information comes through a spiritual confession and even if their religion opposes revealing those clergy-penitent conversations.

It’s true that Utah law removes clergy from the requirement to report abuse they learn about in confessions — repeated attempts to erase that exemption have failed — but King’s measure clarifies that nothing on the state’s books prevents them from notifying authorities.

“Church policies are distinct from legal obligations,” the Salt Lake City Democrat said. Though their churches might not like it, “clergy don’t have to follow [ecclesiastical] policy.”

Utah’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, instructs its male lay leaders responding to confessed abuse to contact its help line, staffed by the Salt Lake City law firm Kirton McConkie.

For its part, the church says “when abuse occurs, the first and immediate responsibility of church leaders is to help those who have been abused and to protect vulnerable persons from future abuse.”

Critics have countered that the help line — which has come under fire in recent headline-grabbing cases — is mainly designed to shield the church from lawsuits.

“That is not the same as protecting the interests of the child or vulnerable adult,” said King, a former Utah House minority leader who is running for governor this year.

HB131 is intended to make Latter-day Saint bishops and other clergy more aware, he said, that if they want to report suspected abuse, they might be in trouble with their church, “but not from the law.”

King also wants the general public to be aware of the “distinctions.” Clergy “are not going to get into trouble for acting out of conscience,” he said. “Legally, they are on safe ground.”

In conversations with Latter-day Saint officials, King said they wanted a provision that guaranteed the church would have “no exposure to liability if a bishop chooses to go to law enforcement” after hearing a congregant’s confession.

The legislator said he is “considering” adding that provision.

The church declined to comment on King’s bill.

“We understand there are a number of these bills to be filed this legislative session,” spokesperson Doug Andersen said in a statement. “Once that occurs, we can review actual language.”

It will be tougher for Catholic priests to buck their church’s teachings and go to the police.

Breaking the “seal of the confessional,” Catholic experts emphasize, can result in excommunication for the priest involved.

Though King’s bill won’t change any legal obligations, the Democrat hopes it will prompt more awareness of the choices clergy have.

“It’s an almost educational effort,” he said.

A majority of states classify clergy as mandatory reporters, and while some don’t offer clergy any protections, most allow some conversations about abuse to remain private.

In Utah, all clergy fall under the “person” classification and are generally compelled to report abuse. But a clergy-penitent privilege upholds the sanctity of the confessional and allows religious authorities to withhold that information

In the wake of an Associated Press investigation into a case of child sex abuse by a Latter-day Saint father in Arizona, last year three Utah legislators put forward bills that would, in some capacity, require or permit clergy to report abuse to law enforcement.

All of the bills failed.