Utah bill would allow clergy the option to report ongoing child abuse or neglect

Jan 30, 2024, 1:13 PM | Updated: 9:00 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah clergy could be allowed to report instances of child abuse or neglect even if the perpetrator told them during confession if the clergy member believes the abuse is ongoing, under a newly proposed bill.

Rep. Anthony Loubet, R-Kearns, spoke with KSL.com about his legislation — which has not yet been made public — saying it also provides legal protection to members of the clergy who decide to inform law enforcement of ongoing abuse.

“What my bill is trying to do is to at least give them those protections that others currently receive,” Loubet said of the civil and criminal liability protections. “So if they report, they don’t have to worry about getting sued for failing to report or being aware of neglect or abuse or anything like that.”

Loubet said he’s working to find a middle ground on the issue of penitent privilege, by giving faith leaders the option of reporting and protections to go with it — without requiring that they inform police when they learn of abuse.

The lawmaker said he has had conversations with the state’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, along with several other congregations while crafting the bill.

“I can’t speak for them of how they feel about this bill, but I did make sure that they were aware and I was able to get some feedback,” he said.

Although the Utah Division of Child and Family Services’ website says state law “requires any person who has reason to believe that a child has been subjected to abuse, neglect or dependency” to report that abuse to the division, a peace officer or to law enforcement, clergy are exempted from reporting abuse they learn of through confession.

Similar bills that would have ended the clergy exception entirely have been proposed in the Utah Legislature in previous years following a report from the Associated Press about the Church of Jesus Christ’s handling of child sexual abuse cases in Arizona and West Virginia. The church pushed back on that reporting, saying its helpline for bishops was “seriously mischaracterized” and called the story “oversimplified and incomplete.”

The bills proposed last year did not receive committee hearings, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, expressed concern about violating First Amendment religious protections.

“I don’t think I want to put clergy in a spot where they have to be excommunicated or thrown in jail,” he said at the time.

A spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said the faith is not opposed to Loubet’s current bill, and the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City issued a similar statement.

“The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City does not oppose the bill regarding child abuse and neglect reporting that is being proposed … as it is currently written,” the diocese said in a statement to KSL.com. “However, we remain concerned about the possibility that the language could be changed to require that Catholic priests report such abuse even if they have learned about the abuse solely during the Sacrament of Confession. If this requirement were to become law, Catholic priests would face the untenable choice of breaking the law or being excommunicated.”

House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, who has previously sponsored clergy reporting legislation, said she thinks Loubet’s bill makes progress on an issue that has not gained much traction in the past.

“I’d love to see it go further,” Romero said, “but in any legislation you run sometimes you have to take it in intervals, and I see this as a step in the right direction.”

Romero expressed hope that further progress could be made later.

“I would eventually like to see Utah become a mandatory reporter when it comes to spiritual religious leaders,” she said.

Rabbi Avremi Zippel, chairman of the Utah Crime Victims Council and a cleric himself, said he thinks the bill is a “great start” toward treating clergy the same as others who are required to report abuse.

“I think everyone agrees something needs to be done about it. The easy fix is eliminating this loophole,” Zippel said. “I think that any progress on this front is something which so many of us would love to see.”

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Utah bill would allow clergy the option to report ongoing child abuse or neglect