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Reporting abuse threatens fabric of confessions

Clerics decry child abuse but cite need for confidentiality

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OGDEN — Balancing state law with religious policy when dealing with issues of child abuse is among the most difficult tasks facing church leaders today. The desire to aid victims of abuse is pitted against the cleric's responsibility to keep private confessions confidential.

The issue of priest/penitent privilege, a legal principle that limits how much information, if any, clergy members must disclose to law enforcement officials, was discussed Wednesday at the 13th annual Mountain West Child Abuse and Domestic Violence Conference. After more than an hour of discussion, one thing was clear: The Utah statute about disclosure of child abuse is complicated and can be interpreted many ways.

The session comes as two LDS Church bishops have been changed for failure to report child abuse. On Friday, Bruce R. Christensen, bishop of the Salt Lake 21st Ward, is slated to appear in 3rd District Court on charges that he allegedly failed to report abuse of a 13-month-old baby girl. In May, Sandy LDS Bishop David Maxwell was also charged for allegedly failing to report the sexual abuse of a 15-year-old female church member. Failing to report the abuse of a child is a criminal class B misdemeanor, which carries a possible penalty of up to six months in jail and/or up to $1,000 in fines.

Panel member David McConkie, legal counsel for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the law requires that information about child abuse from any source other than the perpetrator must be reported. For example, clergy have the legal responsibility to report abuse if they learn about it from the victims. On the other hand, McConkie said, if a perpetrator confesses to abusing a child to his church leader, that leader is bound by confidentiality issues.

Not everyone agrees with McConkie's interpretation of the law.

Detective Mike Johnson, a conference keynote speaker from Plano, Texas, told panel members he has "a significant problem with the priest/penitent relationship." In his 19 years in law enforcement, Johnson said he has seen numerous children's faith shattered when church leaders fail to report abuse.

"I don't believe that a pious man, a godly man, can stand by and know that a child is being hurt," Johnson said.

Angela Micklos, Salt Lake deputy district attorney, said in an interview Thursday that the failure-to-report statute requires individuals in positions of power, which includes clergy, to report cases of suspected child abuse, child sexual abuse and fetal alcohol syndrome to the Division of Child and Family Services or local law enforcement. The catch, she said, is when the confession comes directly from the suspect because it is considered a confidential communication.

Most clergy members are bound and gagged by their religious policies. If church members specify they are talking to their clergy in confidence, church leaders are not allowed to act upon anything they hear, Father Charles Cummings, Catholic chaplain for Utah State University's Newman Center said. In his view, the information is sacred and goes beyond privileged and according to church policy, Cummings cannot act on anything he hears in confessional.

But Johnson said the severity of child abuse supersedes typical sins, such as alcoholism and thievery, and church leaders should do everything in their power to protect otherwise defenseless children. "My heart, my spirit, my sense of God is hurt by what you are saying," Johnson said.

The Rev. Mary Allen of the Grace Episcopal Church in Ogden said "her soul hurts, too," but church members need to know their confessions are in confidence. And although she may not be able to act directly on what she hears, she would do everything in her power to encourage victims to report the abuse, as well as to urge perpetrators to turn themselves in. McConkie, Cummings and Baptist Pastor Charles Petty agreed they would do everything in their power to convince suspected child abusers to turn themselves in.

The panelists said all their churches have training programs to familiarize leaders with local law and church policies, as well as how to recognize the signs of abuse. The Catholic Church requires clergy to undergo a background check and provides a training video and annual policy review. The Episcopalian faith also requires a background check, as well as extensive training for all vestry members "from the janitor to the receptionist to Sunday school teachers." The Baptist church conducts annual training. And the LDS Church has established a 24-hour toll-free help line for ecclesiastical leaders in the United States and Canada who become aware of abuse involving church members.

The hot line is manned by social service workers who can counsel leaders on child abuse symptoms and dangers, and legal counsel is always available for callers who need it, McConkie said.


Contributing: Jennifer Dobner

E-MAIL: awelling@desnews.com