Utah lawmakers make it safer for clergy to report abuse, but will it really protect more children?

Salt Lake Tribune [Salt Lake City UT]

March 5, 2024

By Tamarra Kemsley

LDS and Catholic churches did not oppose the measure, but experts are divided over how much difference it will make.

Whether a bill awaiting Gov. Spencer Cox’s signature goes far enough to protect children from abuse remains an ongoing debate as experts split over the issue of mandated reporting for clergy.

HB432 protects Utah faith leaders from civil or criminal liability if they report ongoing child abuse based on information obtained from a perpetrator during a confession, but it stops short of requiring them to do so.

Laurieann Thorpe, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Utah, said her team was “supportive” of its passage but that she ultimately hopes to see reporting required in cases of sexual and physical abuse.

“When the information comes from the perpetrator, then we have 100% knowledge that the crime has taken place,” Thorpe noted. “In order to protect children and to make sure it doesn’t happen again, [the abuse] needs to be brought to light and handled through proper law enforcement channels.”

Utah law does not force clergy to report abuse they learn about in confessions. Repeated attempts to remove that exemption have failed, but there is nothing on the state’s books that prevents religious leaders from notifying authorities.

Weber County Attorney Chris Allred, president of Utah’s Statewide Association of Prosecutors and Public Attorneys, also applauded the measure’s passage, calling it a “very good place to start.”

Unlike Thorpe, though, he is not as confident that mandated reporting should be the ultimate goal.

“Hopefully we can generate experience and data from this [bill],” Allred said, that will reveal whether “this is the right decision” or if additional action is needed to protect minors.

He said the organization’s members, including individuals with experience in ecclesiastical leadership, engaged in “robust discussions” about whether HB432 was in children’s best interest. A concern voiced by some was that it would discourage confession of abuse that could lead to self-reporting under the guidance of a faith leader.

“In the end of the day,” Allred said, “we concluded that we would be more likely to have opportunities to intervene in child abuse situations with the bill such as it is.”

Chris Yadon, managing director of Saprea, a Lehi nonprofit dedicated to supporting survivors and preventing further abuse through education and awareness, said he, too, was “a fan” of the bill.

It remains to be seen, he added, whether this legislation represents the best possible outcome for Utah children.

“There’s not enough research,” Yadon said, “that definitively answers the question whether clergy reporting actually helps the child.”

His “intuition,” he said, is that it does, but the information he’s seen to date is “inconclusive.”

For now, he said, it’s critical to keep in mind the shared goal of the parties involved in conversations surrounding clergy reporting.

“Both those in various faith traditions and those who advocate for protecting children — we all care about children,” he said. “That’s really important for the public to remember.”

Critically, neither Utah’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, nor the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City opposed HB432, originally proposed by Rep. Anthony Loubet, R-Kearns.

For Catholic priests, divulging any information obtained during confession can translate into excommunication for the cleric.

While the same is not true for lay Latter-day Saint bishops, the Salt Lake City-based church has previously opposed mandated reporting. Bishops and other lay leaders are instructed to call a church-run help line staffed by attorneys from the faith’s risk management team.

According to a 2022 church news release, the line helps bishops comply with reporting laws, while instructing them to encourage families and offenders to seek counseling and report abuse to authorities themselves. Staffers will, when “a child is in imminent danger,” report the abuse to authorities themselves.

The bill’s passage comes in the wake of a number of high-profile disputes brought by survivors of alleged abuse against the church. Among them was Chelsea Goodrich. The Idaho woman said a law like HB432 could have made all the difference in her case, which prosecutors dropped after her alleged abuser’s bishop opted not to take the witness stand. In recordings, the faith leader can be heard expressing concern that doing so would open him up to legal retribution.

“I believe it definitely would have helped him feel less afraid to do the right thing,” she said, “and testify.”

Going forward, she hopes the bill acts as “a catalyst for deeper changes in how child sex abuse is handled in the LDS Church and beyond.”

A similar clergy measure, HB131, introduced by Rep. Brian King, failed to reach the floor. King, a Salt Lake City Democrat, is challenging Cox this year for the governor’s mansion.