Should clergy in Utah be required to report confessed child abuse? Catholic Church opposes proposed bill

Stock image of man in prayer with rosary beads | Image from Image by Myriam Zilles from Pixabay, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — In the 2019 fiscal year, the Utah Division of Child and Family Services received 42,428 reports of child abuse or neglect, according to their annual report. Of that number, 21,401 were accepted for formal assessment by Child Protective Services and 10,828 confirmed child victims were found.

All of those numbers were up from 2018, according to the same report.

Kristy Pike, director of the Washington County Children’s Justice Center, said that rising numbers are not necessarily a bad thing. In most instances, that means better reporting of child abuse and neglect, she said.

But what if there were a way to help even more children? One lawmaker hopes to do just that by making amendments to Utah’s child abuse reporting laws, eliminating exemptions for clergy including priests, rabbis and other religious leaders from reporting child abuse.

Designated HB90, sponsored by Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, the bill would require clergy in a confessional situation to be mandatory reporters of abuse and neglect, Romero said.

Rep. Angela Romero’s professional headshot, location and date not specified | Photo from Romero’s profile page of the Utah House of Representatives, St. George News

A mandatory reporter is an individual who is required by law to report any admission of abuse to law enforcement or other authorities.

Romero’s bill focuses particularly on when a perpetrator openly admits to an ecclesiastical leader that they are harming a child, Romero said.

In any other situation where a confession of child abuse or neglect is made to a person in a position of trust, that person has to report. Failing to report could be considered criminal.

But in Utah, in a confessional situation where the confessor does not give explicit permission to the clergy to report a situation, that clergy has ecclesiastical privilege and is exempt, Pike said.

Currently, there are only six states in the United States that have laws requiring clergy to report child abuse and neglect. Those states include New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas and West Virginia. If Romero’s bill passes, Utah could become the seventh.

Romero said all the bill is asking clergy to do is follow the guidelines of other professions including therapists, teachers and doctors in reporting confessed abuse and neglect of a child.

Better reporting means that organizations like the children’s justice center, law enforcement and Child Protective Services are able to help more children get the services they need both immediately and to help mitigate some of the long term effects of that trauma.

And the effects are more far-reaching and less obvious than one might think, Pike said. Children who have been victims of abuse can show increased tendencies for depression and suicide later in life, but they have also been shown to have increased risk for some cancers, heart disease and diabetes, she said.

Though Pike said she couldn’t comment specifically on the bill, she did say that increased reporting and early intervention are important to helping children heal from abuse and neglect.

Romero’s bill is currently in the House Rules Committee, but it has seen some pushback from religious leaders who believe the bill would violate their first amendment right to freely practice their religion, Romero said.

Jean Hill, spokesperson for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, said in a statement that, if passed, the bill would make it a crime for priests to maintain the Seal of Confession, a central practice of their religion.

Locally, Father David Bittmenn of the Saint George Catholic Church said confession is a sacrament of the church and a vital element of the sacrament of confession is that what is confessed remains secret.

Bittmenn said that, in general, the Catholic Church is in favor of reporting child abuse, with the only exception being when that abuse is disclosed within the secrecy of a confessional.

“This secrecy (seal of confession) has been and continues to be considered absolute,” Bittmenn said in an email.

The statement from the Salt Lake Diocese further said:

For a Catholic priest, revealing the contents of a person’s confession is a mortal sin and grounds for automatic excommunication. In the past, priests have been tortured and given their lives rather than break their solemn vow to protect the Seal of Confession. This isn’t just a convenient means of maintaining confidentiality, it is a sacred duty and thus critical to the free exercise of our religion. HB90 places a Catholic priest in the untenable position of violating state law and facing criminal penalties, or violating Canon law and facing excommunication.

Romero, however, disagrees. In preparation to run the bill, Romero had a legal analysis done based on the likelihood the legislation would be found unconstitutional.

“They feel that the state would prevail … because we’re not telling people they can’t practice their religion, it’s just a particular situation within that religious institution,” Romero said.

In addition to their opposition based on freedom of religion, the Catholic Diocese believes the bill would discourage perpetrators from coming to confession if they know that clergy has to report.

However, Romero believes the focus should not be on the perpetrator, but the child.

“I am more concerned about protecting children,” Romero said. “Everyone, when I talk about this bill, focuses on the religious institution and the perpetrator, but they’re not thinking about the child that has been violated and making sure that child gets the help they need.”

But the Catholic Diocese said the bill would have the opposite effect and would put vulnerable children in an even more vulnerable position by eliminating the “very real possibility” an offender would repent and be counseled to self-report or seek help from police or trained personnel.

This file photo from 2019 shows a cross and a fountain at the Saint George Catholic Church at the end of the “Way of the Cross,” St. George, Utah, April 19, 2019 | Photo by Mikayla Shoup, St. George News

In an email to St. George News, Hill said they also believe it would discourage children from disclosing their own abuse.

“We have great concern that victims, who far too often think they are to blame for the abuse, will not go to confession, where a priest could explain that they have not done something wrong, out of fear that they will be the ones reported to law enforcement,” Hill said.

The Diocese of Salt Lake City is encouraging all Utah Catholics to call their representatives and urge them to oppose the bill that would force clergy to violate their religious practice or face imprisonment.

While the bill awaits its fate in the House Rules Committee, Romero pointed to a poll conducted by the Salt Lake Tribune which showed that a majority of Utahns, including Catholics and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, support some form of legislation that would require clergy in a confessional situation to report abuse.

“A majority of Utahns support this,” Romero said.

However, Romero said many of her fellow legislators are not fully comfortable with the bill as it is written, so she is working on the language of the bill to see if a compromise can be made.

“Ultimately, my goal with this bill is to make sure we’re protecting children,” Romero said.

Those who have witnessed or been made aware of child abuse or neglect can call their local law enforcement agencies or the Utah Division of Child and Family Services by calling 1-855-323-3237.

For a complete list of contacts for Southern Utah representatives and senators, click here.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2020 Utah Legislature here.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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