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JASON DEAREN and MICHAEL REZENDES
It was a frigid Sunday evening at the Catholic Newman Center in Salt Lake City when the priest warned parishioners who had gathered after Mass that their right to private confessions was in jeopardy.
A new law would break that sacred bond, the priest said, and directed the parishioners to sign a one-page form letter on their way out. “I/We Oppose HB90,” began the letter, stacked next to pre-addressed envelopes. “HB90 is an improper interference of the government into the practice of religion in Utah.”
In the following days of February 2020, Utah’s Catholic diocese, which oversees dozens of churches, says it collected some 9,000 signed letters from parishioners and sent them to state Rep. Angela Romero, a Democrat who had been working on the bill as part of her campaign against child sexual abuse. HB90 targeted Utah’s “clergy-penitent privilege,” a law similar to those in many states that exempts clergy of all denominations from the requirement to report child abuse if they learn about the crime in a confessional setting.
Utah’s Catholic leaders had mobilized against HB90 arguing that it threatened the sacred privacy of confessions. More importantly, it met with disapproval from some members in the powerful Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known as the Mormon church, whose followers comprise the vast majority of the state Legislature. HB90 was dead on arrival.
In 33 states, clergy are exempt from any laws requiring professionals such as teachers, physicians and psychotherapists to report information about alleged child sexual abuse to police or child welfare officials if the church deems the information privileged.
This loophole has resulted in an unknown number of predators being allowed to continue abusing children for years despite having confessed the behavior to religious officials. In many of these cases, the privilege has been invoked to shield religious groups from civil and criminal liability after the abuse became known to civil authorities.
Over the past two decades state lawmakers like Romero have proposed more than 130 bills seeking to create or amend child sex abuse reporting laws, an Associated Press review found. All either targeted the loophole and failed to close it, or amended the mandatory reporting statute without touching the clergy privilege amid intense opposition from religious groups. The AP found that the Roman Catholic Church has used its well-funded lobbying infrastructure and deep influence among lawmakers in some states to protect the privilege, and that influential members of the Mormon church and Jehovah’s Witnesses have also worked in statehouses and courts to preserve it in areas where their membership is high.
In Maryland a successful campaign to defeat a proposal that would have closed the clergy-penitent loophole was led by a Catholic cardinal who would later be defrocked for sexually abusing children and adult seminarians.
In other states, such as California, Missouri and New Mexico, vociferous public and backroom opposition to bills aimed at closing the loophole from the Catholic and Mormon churches successfully derailed legislative reform efforts.
“They believe they’re on a divine mission that justifies keeping the name and the reputation of their institution pristine,” said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, speaking of several religious groups. “So the leadership has a strong disincentive to involve the authorities, police or child protection people.”
LOOPHOLE PROTECTS CHURCHES FROM SURVIVORS AND PROSECUTORS
Last month, an AP investigation found that a Mormon bishop in Arizona, at the direction of church leaders, failed to report a church member who had confessed that he sexually abused his 5-year-old daughter. The AP found that Rep. Merrill Nelson, a church lawyer and Utah Republican lawmaker, had advised the bishop not to report the abuse to civil authorities because of Arizona’s clergy privilege law, according to documents revealed in a lawsuit. That failure to report allowed the church member, the late Paul Adams, to repeatedly rape his two daughters and allegedly abuse one his four sons for many years.
In response to the case, state Sen. Victoria Steele, a Democrat from Tucson, on three occasions proposed legislation to close the clergy reporting loophole in Arizona. Steele told the AP that key Mormon lawmakers including a former Republican state senator and judiciary committee chairmen thwarted her efforts before her proposals could be presented to the full Legislature.
“It’s difficult for me to tell this story without talking about the Mormons and their power in the Legislature,” Steele said. “What this boils down to is that the church is being given permission to protect the predators and the children be damned. … They are trying with all of their might to make sure this bill does not see the light of day.”
Latter-day Saints and Catholics hold a number of influential positions as leaders and committee chairmen in the Arizona Legislature, including the speaker of the House, and have been known to advance or block legislation in line with the church’s priorities and values.
In one high-profile example, two Republican legislators took a stand in 2019, refusing to vote for a budget until lawmakers passed a measure allowing past victims of child sexual abuse to sue churches or youth groups that turned a blind eye to the abuse. Legislative business ground to a halt for weeks amid fierce opposition from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Roman Catholic Church and insurers along with their allies in the Legislature, which finally approved the measure.
The Adams case is not the only example of the privilege being invoked in cases where a clergy member’s failure to report led to prolonged abuse. In Montana, for example, a woman who was abused by a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the mid-2000s won a $35 million jury verdict against the church for failing to report her abuse. But in 2020 the state Supreme Court reversed the judgment, ruling that church leaders were under no obligation to report, citing the state’s clergy-penitent privilege.
The privilege can also be used to protect religious organizations from criminal liability. In 2013, a former Boise, Idaho, police officer turned himself in for abusing children, something he had reported to 15 members of the Mormon church, none of whom notified authorities. But prosecutors declined to file charges against the church because of Idaho’s clergy-penitent privilege law.
The Mormon church said in a written statement to the AP that a member who confesses child sex abuse “has come seeking an opportunity to reconcile with God and to seek forgiveness for their actions. … That confession is considered sacred, and in most states, is regarded as a protected religious conversation owned by the confessor.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not immediately return a request for comment about its campaigns against state bills seeking to do away with the clergy-penitent privilege.
But supporters of the clergy privilege say abolishing it will not make children safer. Some go so far as to say that the ability of abusers to report privately to clergy encourages them to confess and often leads to stopping the abuse.
“It’s considered essential to the exercise of religion to have a priest-penitent privilege that will allow people to to approach their clergy for the purpose of unburdening themselves, their mind, their soul … to seek peace and consolation with God as well as with their fellow beings,” Utah state Rep. Nelson told the AP. “Without that assurance of secrecy, troubled people will not confide in their clergy.”
Jean Hill, the government liaison for Utah’s Catholic Diocese who helped organize opposition to Romero’s bill, pointed to a single research paper to argue that laws that target privileged, confessional conversations in the context of child abuse have not increased reporting in those communities.
“When you take away every opportunity for people to get help, they go underground and the abuse continues,” Hill said.
But the authors of the study Hill cited, published in 2014, have cautioned about reaching such conclusions based on their research.
Frank Vandervort, a law professor at the University of Michigan, and his co-author, Vincent Palusci, a pediatrics professor at New York University, told the AP that the study was limited, partly because churches often wouldn’t give them access to data on clergy reporting.
“A single article should not be the basis for making policy decisions,” said Vandervort, lead author of the study. “It may be entirely the case that there’s no connection between the changing of the laws and the number of reports.”