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Abuse-report law faces challenge

Bishop says he fulfilled his legal, ethical obligations

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Bruce R. Christensen, an LDS bishop accused of failing to report child sex abuse, said Monday he fulfilled his legal and ethical obligations and plans to challenge the statute under which he was charged.

In his first public statement since being charged with misdemeanor failure to report, Christensen of the 21st Ward in Salt Lake City said a woman in his congregation came to him saying her husband was abusive to her. Christensen made arrangements for the woman and her infant child to stay at a local women's shelter and to hire an attorney.

"I protected the victim," Christensen said after a pretrial hearing Monday. "She needed someone in her corner and in the corner of the child."

During that same conversation, the woman allegedly told Christensen she on one occasion perceived some questionable contact between her husband and their child while the two were bathing together. Christensen said he didn't consider the contact reportable.

The woman's allegation surfaced during the couple's divorce proceedings, alerting law enforcement. The man was never charged with a crime in connection with that incident, Christensen's attorney Brad Rich said.

Christensen is the second LDS bishop charged with failing to report child sex abuse. Both were charged under a statute requiring clergy to report allegations of child sexual abuse, when the allegation originates from someone other than the confessor/perpetrator. Confessions from perpetrators to clergy are protected under the First Amendment.

Rich said Monday that forcing members of the clergy to "snitch off" on their parishioners violates the constitutional separation between church and state and sullies the relationship between clergy and congregation.

"We ought not require bishops to sit in judgment on ward members," Rich said. "We ought not require our bishops to act as police officers."

Christensen maintained his innocence even under current law and said he expected to be vindicated.

"I am innocent. I feel I followed the law," he said, his voice trembling as tears welled in his eyes.

"It is causing great pain and suffering to the victims, and it has been a hard thing for me and my family," he said. "But more importantly, it is hurting the victims and the people I'm trying to help. That's what I'm concerned about.

"Now, if someone comes to my office, I feel I need a sign above the door, saying, 'Anything you say I have to report to the police.' I feel that is inappropriate."

Rich will argue the unconstitutionality of the statute at an Oct. 2 hearing in 3rd District Court.

Prosecutor Angela Micklos said though Rich's move was unexpected, she will be prepared to argue the statute's merits.

"I'm not sure it's ever been challenged before," Micklos said. "But the the statute is constitutional on its face."


E-MAIL: jnii@desnews.com