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Two Utah lawmakers seek to end ‘clergy exception’ to child abuse reporting

GOP Rep. Phil Lyman and Democratic Rep. Angela Romero, have each opened bill files to end the clergy exception to reporting child abuse requirements to be considered during the Utah Legislature’s 2023 general session. Romero said the two will work together

SHARE Two Utah lawmakers seek to end ‘clergy exception’ to child abuse reporting
The Capitol is pictured in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Capitol is pictured in Salt Lake City on Jan. 14, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Two Utah lawmakers have asked legislative attorneys to draft bills seeking to end the “clergy exception” to required child abuse reporting.

Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, and Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, have each opened bill files to be considered during the Utah Legislature’s 2023 general session. In 2020, Romero introduced HB90, seeking to eliminate the clergy exception in state statute. The bill was numbered and introduced but was held in the House Rules Committee.

The two plan to work cooperatively during the next legislative session, Romero said.

“Most likely, one of us will run the bill. We agreed to support each other because we both want to get rid of the exception,” she said responding to questions by text.

Lyman said in a statement Friday that he was moved to take action in light of “recent news stories have shown example after example of failed systems that should be protecting underage, vulnerable children.”

The Associated Press published a story last week about how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints handled child sexual abuse cases in Arizona and West Virginia. The article focused on the church’s abuse help line, which provides professional legal and clinical advice on abuse cases to Latter-day Saint bishops and branch presidents, laymen who are not professionally trained clergy.

The church released a statement that took issue with the AP story, saying the news outlet “seriously mischaracterized” the purpose of the help line designed to assist local church leaders when members confess that they have perpetrated abuse.

Lyman said the long-standing clergy exception raises concerns.

“I believe lawmakers, regardless of religious or political affiliation, must revisit this critical state statute to provide much needed clarity in the law. Families and individuals devastated by physical, emotional or sexual abuse should find safety and protection in the law, not loopholes,” Lyman said.

According to the Division of Child and Family Services’ child protective services website,
“Utah law requires any person who has reason to believe that a child has been subjected to abuse, neglect, or dependency to immediately notify the nearest office of Child and Family Services, a peace officer, or a law enforcement agency. Abuse, neglect or dependency of a child can be physical, emotional or sexual.” 

State statute says that the reporting requirement “does not apply to a member of the clergy, with regard to any confession made to the member of the clergy while functioning in the ministerial capacity of the member of the clergy and without the consent of the individual making the confession, if:

  • the perpetrator made the confession directly to the member of the clergy; and
  • the member of the clergy is, under canon law or church doctrine or practice, bound to maintain the confidentiality of that confession.”

“While I understand and deeply value the confession process, providing an exception for clergy when it comes to reporting abuse creates unnecessary ambiguity for both the clergy member and for the person who is confessing. Worse yet, it can delay intervention for innocent victims. There are too many heartbreaking stories of abuse in Utah and across the nation of help that never came or came too late,” Lyman said.

The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City declined to comment until the legislation is made public.

In 2020, the Diocese called on Catholics to contact legislators and urge them to oppose HB90, which Jean Hill, the diocese’s Director of Life, Justice and Peace, wrote “forces individuals to choose between the most sacrosanct part of their religious beliefs and imprisonment — the very situation the First Amendment was meant to protect against. We must resist the intrusion of civil authorities into the sacred domain of personal conscience and religious practice.”

Romero said she intends to run a similar bill in 2023 but she and Lyman plan to meet soon to discuss their approach. “I might make some changes once I’ve consulted with experts and other states that have passed similar legislation,” she said.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the proposals.