United States

Utah Legislature expands ability of clergy members to report child abuse

Legal (CSA)
United States
Copyright 2024 Associated Press All Rights Reserved
HANNAH SCHOENBAUM. (March 1, 2024 Friday). Utah Legislature expands ability of clergy members to report child abuse. Associated Press International. https://advance.lexis.com/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:6BFJ-Y461-DYMD-60DV-00000-00&context=1516831.

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah faith leaders who learn about ongoing child abuse from a perpetrator during a religious confession will be able to alert police without fear of legal ramifications under a bill that received final legislative approval Thursday in the state Senate.

The measure extends to clergy members the same legal protections that exist for mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect, such as doctors, teachers or therapists. It passed the Senate in a 26-0 vote after receiving similarly unanimous approval in the House earlier this month. It now heads to the desk of Republican Gov. Spencer Cox.

State law in Utah, where the vast majority of lawmakers belong to the locally headquartered Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, exempts clergy of all denominations from a requirement to report child abuse if they learn about the crime in a confessional setting. Certain communications to clergy are considered privileged under the law, meaning neither the clergy member nor the person who confessed can be forced to testify in court about the contents of the conversation.

While the bill does not remove the legal loophole known as clergy-penitent privilege, Rep. Anthony Loubet said it provides new protections that could incentivize clergy members to come forward. State law already requires clergy members who learn about abuse from any source other than the perpetrator to tell authorities.

“We hope to foster an environment where reporting child abuse is seen as not only a moral duty, but also a legally protected act,” the Kearns Republican and primary sponsor said. “This bill represents a step forward in achieving that balance."

Religious leaders who report abuse still will not be required to testify. But by reporting the crime to police, Loubet said a more objective party can start investigating and find other witnesses to speed up abuse intervention.

Past proposals from Utah lawmakers to scrap the clergy exemption never even received a committee hearing as powerful religious groups pressured lawmakers to defend the sacred nature of confidential confessions. The new policy shielding clergy from being sued by a confessant they've accused of abuse is notably not opposed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, both organizations told The Associated Press this week.

However, the Catholic Diocese expressed concern that the bill could be a gateway to further changes requiring Catholic priests to report abuse learned through confession, which spokesperson Marie Mischel said would present them with “the untenable choice of breaking the law or being excommunicated.”

Doug Anderson, spokesperson for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said church leaders do not oppose the policy but would not elaborate.

An earlier investigation by The AP revealed that more than half the states grant clergy-penitent privilege. As a result, some child predators who admit their crimes to clergy but not to law enforcement remain free and can continue harming children without police intervention.

Although child welfare advocates have attempted to alter or eliminate the privilege, religious institutions including the Catholic Church, the Latter-day Saints and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have successfully lobbied state legislators throughout the country to maintain the loophole. The AP has catalogued more than 100 attempts to amend or eliminate the privilege, all of which failed.

The AP investigation also found that the privilege is part of a risk management playbook that has helped the faith widely known as the Mormon church keep child sexual abuse cases secret. In addition to invoking the clergy privilege, the church also runs a sexual abuse reporting helpline that church leaders can use to divert abuse accusations away from law enforcement and instead to church attorneys who might bury the problem.

Loubet has characterized the Utah bill as a compromise that enhances child protections while maintaining respect for sacred practices — interests that he said should not be mutually exclusive.

Similar bills in Vermont and Delaware failed to pass out of committee last year. A clergy reporting proposal remains active in the Washington state House after it passed the Senate earlier this month.

Child abuse prevention advocates such as Rabbi Avremi Zippel, program director at Chabad Lubavitch of Utah and chair of the Utah Crime Victims Council, said clergy members often see the good in people and can be blinded by their own subjectivity when they hear reports of wrongdoing.

Zippel, an outspoken survivor of childhood sexual abuse, said it's important for religious leaders to know they can divert to impartial investigators who might be able to save a child like him from future harm.

“For clergy, so often we make it an attempt in our regular day-to-day lives to portray God. And sadly, from time to time, the impetus is born for us to play God," he said. "The ability for clergy to also have the ability to avail themselves of the protections of reporting, to kick those situations to an objective outsider, is a gift that so many of our clergy across the state approve of.”

But some local lawyers, such as Steve Burton of the Utah Defense Attorneys Association, have said abusers often approach church leaders because they have no one else they can ask for help. The bill, he argued, undermines that trust and may lead abusers to never pursue a path toward healing.

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