The Utah House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to pass a bill that would shield clergy from criminal and civil liability if they report ongoing child abuse and neglect discovered during religious confessions.

The bill, HB432, advanced to the Senate with a 64-0 vote Friday afternoon, marking broad consensus on the effort to protect both children and clergy-penitent privilege in the state. It will now proceed to the Senate for committee consideration.

“This bill aims to increase child protection while maintaining respect for religious liberty,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Anthony Loubet, R-Kearns, prior to the final vote.

The bill would amend the state’s child abuse reporting requirements to include legal protections for members of the clergy who report cases of ongoing abuse or neglect learned through a religious confession.

Utah House Judiciary Committee approves bill that would allow clergy to report child abuse
Utah bill would allow clergy to report abuse or neglect

Utah law requires clergy and all other adults to report child abuse and neglect to child welfare services or police. But similar to clergy-penitent laws in most U.S. states, Utah’s law exempts clergy from reporting information about abuse obtained through private confessions.

As the Deseret News has reported, several Christian faiths consider “sealed” confessional conversations a sacrament so important that a priest or pastor who reveals anything about a confession is removed or excommunicated.

Loubet’s bill does not categorize clergy members as “mandatory reporters,” because this designation could force some religious officials, such as Catholic priests and others, to choose between obeying the law and remaining in good standing with their faith.

Instead, the bill clarifies that clergy may report private communications without penalty and extends to clergy members the same protections that exist for mandatory reporters against civil and criminal liability so that fear of a lawsuit coming from confessants is no longer an obstacle. During the floor debate on Friday, Loubet characterized these protections as new incentives to report.

The bill would not change the state’s rules of evidence which prohibit clergy from serving as witnesses in a trial for a crime they learned about during a confession unless the confessant wants them to. But the bill would allow police to begin investigations more quickly into ongoing cases of abuse reported by clergy, Loubet said.

Faith leaders in Utah have not opposed the bill, in large part because it does not require clergy to report.

Efforts to end the state’s clergy exception were proposed in 2020 and 2023 by House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City. Neither made it out of the House Rules Committee. Legislative leadership said it didn’t want to force clergy members to choose between abiding by their faith and honoring the law.

In 2023, former House Speaker Brad Wilson also came out in opposition to Romero’s proposal, saying he would vote against the bill “unless significant changes are made to ensure the protection of religious liberties.”

Romero defended her bill at the time, saying it did not target religious practice, but rather aimed at protecting victims of sexual abuse.