Push to require Mormon clergy to report child sexual abuse in Utah stalls
Lindsay Lundholm looked out over hundreds of people at the Utah State Capitol last year and felt a deep sense of healing. Abuse survivors, religious leaders and major party politicians were all gathered to rally for an end to a legal loophole that exempts religious clergy from being required to report child sexual abuse once it comes to their attention.
Lundholm, one of the rally’s organizers, recalled telling the crowd how, growing up as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Idaho, she told her bishop about her painful abuse only to see it go unreported.
Unearthing the trauma wasn’t easy, but back in August she hoped reforms could be forthcoming so others would not face what she did.
“There was really a lot of momentum,” said Lundholm, now a teacher in northern Utah. “Everyone we were talking to was like, ‘This is a no brainer. This is something that needs to be changed.’”
Pressed by Lundholm and other survivors, Republicans and Democrats announced plans last year to reform laws that exempt religious clergy from reporting child sexual abuse cases revealed in conversations with parishioners. Despite initial momentum, religious groups in several states have blocked those efforts, doubling down on lobbying tactics they’ve used for years to defend exemptions.
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That’s the case in Utah, a deeply religious state where the majority of lawmakers are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known widely as the Mormon church. State law requires most professionals — therapists, doctors and teachers among them — report abuse, yet clergy are exempt from alerting authorities about abuse they learn of through confessions.
Behind-the-scenes conversations between legislative leaders in Utah and what Senate President Stuart Adams said was “a broad base of religious groups” helped thwart four separate proposals to add clergy to the list of professionals required to report child sexual abuse. None received hearings as lawmakers prepare to adjourn for the year.
“I think they have First Amendment rights and religious protections,” Adams, a Latter-day Saint himself, said, noting fears among religious leaders that clergy could be punished for breaking vows of confidentiality.
Each proposal was introduced or announced after an Associated Press investigation found that the Utah-based faith’s sexual abuse reporting hotline can be misused by its leaders to divert abuse accusations away from law enforcement and instead to church attorneys who may bury the problem, leaving victims in harm’s way.
In lawsuits detailed in the investigation, church attorneys have argued clergy-penitent privilege allows them to refuse to answer questions and turn over documents about alleged sexual abuse.
Church officials declined to comment about the stalled legislative efforts. The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City did not respond to requests for comment but campaigned against them, saying in January that priests and clergy were different from others mandated to report sexual abuse, including doctors, teachers and social workers.
“Legislation that would require a priest to (report sexual abuse) violates our right to practice our religion,” Bishop Oscar Solis, of the Salt Lake City Diocese, wrote in a Jan. 25 letter to parishioners.
Marci Hamilton, chief executive of the abuse prevention nonprofit Child USA, said churches have maintained the same playbook for decades in opposing more disclosure.
Routinely it involves a two-pronged approach, defending clergy-penitent privilege in statehouses and using it to avoid damaging disclosures in court cases, said Hamilton, also a University of Pennsylvania law professor.
“They have not veered from it. Both institutions are hoping that time will simply let everybody start trusting them again,” Hamilton said, referring to Catholics and Latter-day Saints.
But, she added, “by preventing the public — and especially the sincere believers — from getting the full story you don’t create the accountability that these organizations should be held to and the secrets continue.”
“The problem in the United States — and this is particularly acute in state like Utah — is that the lobbying power of these religious organizations is so extraordinary,” Hamilton said.
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Laws in 33 states exempt clergy — regardless of religion — from laws requiring professionals such as teachers, physicians and psychotherapists to report child sexual abuse allegations to authorities. Religious leaders have systematically fought efforts to expand the list of states. They currently oppose efforts from Vermont to Washington, where a proposal advanced through the state Senate Tuesday.
Kansas lawmakers introduced multiple proposals on penalties for not reporting suspected child sexual abuse, including one in the state Senate that would have added clergy to a list of mandatory reporters. It faced especially fierce public rebukes from Catholic leaders because it didn’t exempt confessions. No proposal received even a hearing before an initial deadline this year.
In the wake of the AP’s investigation last year, Republican state Rep. Phil Lyman and Democratic Rep. Angela Romero announced plans to reform Utah’s clergy-penitent privilege loophole. Lyman, who served six years as a Latter-day Saints’ bishop, said at the time lawmakers should want to reexamine the loophole “regardless of religious or political affiliation.”
“People should be able to go and confess their sins to their bishop without fear of being prosecuted up until when they are confessing something that has affected someone’s else life significantly,” he told the AP in August.
Lyman ultimately released a proposal that broadly affirmed clergy’s exemption from mandatory reporting. It didn’t advanced or received any hearing as lawmakers prepare to adjourn Friday. He did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Proposals from Democratic Reps. Romero and Brian King, and Sen. Stephanie Pitcher to close or narrow the loophole have also not moved forward amid opposition from religious groups.
Both Pitcher and Romero, who is Catholic, said they planned to reintroduce their proposals next year.
“With AP uncovering what they uncovered, you’d think this would be a matter of urgency for this Legislature and for Legislatures across the country. But again we are allowing these institutions to dictate what we mandate,” Romero said, referring to the Catholic Church.
Several Utah lawmakers told AP that opponents of limiting clergy-penitent privilege regarding child sexual abuse had circulated research that they claimed suggests mandatory reporting reform doesn’t result in more confirmed reports of sexual abuse and may deter perpetrators from speaking to clergy.
“What most of the research shows is that if people aren’t able to come to them for fear of being reported on, they’re not able to provide the help and support they need,” Sen. Ann Milner said.
However, conclusions drawn from the study, which the Catholic Diocese also circulated in opposition to a similar bill from Romero in three years ago, have been challenged by its authors.
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University of Michigan law professor Frank Vandervort and his co-author, Vincent Palusci, a pediatrics professor at New York University, told the AP last year the study was limited, partly because churches often wouldn’t give them access to relevant data.
“A single article should not be the basis for making policy decisions,” Vandervort said. “It may be entirely the case that there’s no connection between the changing of the laws and the number of reports.”
Lundholm said Utah lawmakers adjourning without having a “true public discussion” on any clergy-penitent privilege reform proposal provoked eerily familiar feelings for survivors. Though she never expected political change to happen overnight, she said survivors like her who had abuse go unreported — once again — feel unheard.
“Maybe the worst part is that this is something that survivors experience often, and unfortunately, it’s rare when their stories are heard,” she said.
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