Proposed legislation revises requirements for clergy reporting on child abuse

The Utah State Capitol Building is located in in Salt Lake City. The 2023 Utah legislative session began Jan. 17 and will continue until March 3. (Photo courtesy of Porter Chelson)

Three bills advocating for change to Utah clergy child abuse reporting requirements are making their way through the current legislative session.

The bills include HB212, HB115 and SB 72. HB212, sponsored by state representative Brian King, was introduced to the House on Jan. 17 as Clergy Child Abuse Reporting Requirements.

The bill is meant to clarify the current option clergy members already have to report abuse revealed to them in confidential meetings.

“HB212 will make explicit what the statute already is,” King said, “which establishes a priest-penitent privilege that says you can’t require or mandate priests or clergy to report child abuse when that information comes from the perpetrators.”

The bill says one may, if they feel like they need or want to, report abuse to law enforcement, King said.

HB212 is largely trying to make sure clergy know there is no legal prohibition on reporting abuse to law enforcement and they may choose to report to protect a child’s welfare, according to King.

While legislators cannot speak to possible prohibitions within religious institutions, they want clergy to know there is no law that prohibits them from reporting.

Salt Lake County Representative Stephanie Pitcher is sponsoring a similar bill in the Senate. SB72 would modify the clergy exemption clause, requiring clergy to report child abuse if they have reason to believe the abuse is ongoing or is likely to occur again.

Sponsored by Salt Lake County Representative Angela Romero, HB115 would eliminate the clergy-penitent privilege altogether and require clergy to be mandatory reporters. Representative Romero introduced a similar bill in the 2020 legislative session that was held in the House Rules Committee.

Many Utah organizations dedicated to the prevention of child abuse are in favor of the more comprehensive HB115, believing it to be the most effective piece of legislation for protecting children.

Deondra Brown worked for the Utah attorney general’s office before accepting her new position with Prevent Child Abuse Utah as the Utah Family Strengthening Network project manager. As a survivor of child abuse herself, Brown is committed to advocating for legislation that will support the interest of children.

“I think that Representative Romero’s bill is the most comprehensive and will likely protect the most children from abuse. However, I also know the ins and outs of the system and know oftentimes the most comprehensive version of a bill is not the one that makes it across the finish line,” Brown said. “I will be watching each bill very carefully and throwing my support behind the legislators as an advocate for children.”

The legislation comes after the publication of an AP news article last August detailing the abuse of two young children at the hands of their father. The article made waves within the community of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the perpetrator was a member of the Church and had confessed his crimes to a local bishop, who allegedly did not report the abuse to law enforcement.

As of 2021, 56% of the state of Utah identified as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In a 2014 survey, 53% of adults in Utah said they attended religious services at least once a week. Participation in religious activities and weekly church attendance plays a significant role in the lives of more than half of all Utahns, making these bills particularly pertinent to the Utah community.

While clergy in Utah are exempted from reporting child abuse revealed to them, Brown wants to make sure each non-clergy adult in Utah knows they are, by law, mandated reporters with a responsibility to report abuse. Many clergy members, although not required, are already choosing to report abuse, according to Brown.

The Utah Legislature is currently meeting in the Utah capitol building. HB115, HB212 and SB72 in this legislative session would modify clergy reporting requirements for child abuse. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Bethany Crisp, the outreach coordinator for the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, also said HB115 is most likely to be the strongest force for children’s safety. Crisp helps maintain UCASA’s statewide abuse helpline which receives many calls from both minors and adults who are unsure about what the state’s abuse reporting requirements are.

Crisp said the helpline also receives calls from people who have previously reported cases of abuse to an adult or religious leader in hopes they would report it to law enforcement and have been disappointed when no effort to report was made.

Some legislators and community members are worried that this law will add another burden or confusion for clergy members, she said.

Crisp has received many calls from clergy members who want to report abuse and are unsure how to go about it. She believes designating clergy members as mandatory reporters will clarify any confusion they currently experience under the existing law and will be a “gamechanger” in protecting children.

“While we work with other groups that are vulnerable, children are especially vulnerable. This is why these laws exist and why we need to focus on the language in these laws. We need to focus on making sure that these laws are the best they can be to protect children,” Crisp said.

Preston Crawley
This photo shows a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse. Proposed bill HB115 would require clergy members, including Latter-day Saint bishops, to be mandatory reporters of child abuse. (Photo courtesy of Preston Crawley)

Rabbi Avremi Zippel leads a synagogue in Salt Lake City and is a survivor of sexual abuse himself. Now an advocate for sexual abuse survivors, Zippel is hopeful these bills will find success in this legislative session. Mandated reporting, Zippel said, is incredibly simple.

“There are a lot of children that don’t feel safe in their own homes and environments. Mandated reporting is about creating a world where we have the ability to count on one another;” Zippel said. “To live in a society where we can depend on our fellow citizens, on our neighbors, on professionals, whoever it is that interfaces with children, to be their advocates, to be their voices, to be their supporters and to help craft a world where those children are safe.”

Mandating all adults to report suspicions and instances of child abuse, including clergy members, is one way to clear the “clouds of subjectivity” that often make people hesitant to report, Zippel said. Reaching out to unbiased, outside professionals who can see a situation objectively is a way members of the community can protect children, he said.

As of 2019, six states had adopted legislation similar to HB115, opting to extinguish the clergy-penitent privilege in the case of child abuse. While many advocates and abuse prevention and support organizations are hoping for the passing of the comprehensive HB115, they believe even the passing of HB212 or Senator Pitcher’s SB72 would make a difference in the lives of Utah children. Both Representative King’s HB212 and Representative Romero’s HB115 are currently being introduced in the House Rules Committee.

Advocates for bills HB212, HB115 and SB72 encourage individuals to contact their representatives and voice their support. Brown’s hope for these bills is that representatives from both sides of the political aisle can come together in favor of the protection of children.

“In our efforts to have these discussions about the clergy privilege exemption, we need to remember there are children’s lives at stake,” Brown said. “I know how it feels to go throughout your childhood and life with this huge trauma that you have to deal with day in and day out. We need to … just keep the kids at the forefront and always make protecting them our number one goal.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing child abuse or neglect, please call the Utah Department of Health and Human Services 24/7 hotline at 1-855-323-3237.

The Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault also has a 24-hour sexual violence crisis helpline in both English and Spanish. Individuals may reach out to them for support, resources and information. The English helpline can be reached at 801-736-4356 and the Spanish helpline at 801-924-0860.

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