Editor’s note: this article contains references to sexual battery. Reader discretion is advised.
A former BYU professor pleaded no contest to three counts of sexual battery, a class A misdemeanor, on May 9.
Michael James Clay, 48, of Springville, Utah, was accused of inappropriately touching three women who were BYU students while working as a professor in BYU’s Department of Geography.
In entering a no contest plea, Clay gave up the presumption of innocence. He also gave up his right to appeal his conviction, according to court documents.
Additionally, Clay’s acceptance of the allegations brought against him ensures the victims will not need to testify in court.
Prosecutors agreed to reduce the charges from felonies to misdemeanors in exchange for his plea.
The plea bargain entered into by Clay includes 24 months of private probation, 50 hours of community service, enrollment in a sexual boundaries course and no contact with victims.
Clay may still be required to make restitution to any and all victims of his crimes, “including any restitution that may be owed on charges that are dismissed as part of a plea agreement,” according to the plea document.
In his plea statement, Clay said, “I intentionally touched the buttocks of three adult women. It was under circumstances I should have known it would cause affront or alarm.”
Randy Spencer, who represented the victims, said they consented to the plea bargain in order to avoid the stress and anxiety of a trial, but they were not happy that the charges were reduced to misdemeanors.
“My clients hope that Michael Clay’s conviction for three sexual battery counts is sufficient to put other people and employers on notice to not allow Mr. Clay to be in a situation where he can victimize vulnerable young women as he did in this matter,” Spencer said.
The first woman to come forward with charges against Clay did so in April 2020. Two additional women subsequently came forward.
BYU police said Clay initiated private, informal therapy sessions with female students. According to charging documents, he used ecclesiastical manipulation to accomplish his sexual abuse.
Court reports state that Clay gave one victim a priesthood blessing. On a separate occasion, he told that same victim “he had prayed about her and felt inspired from God to engage in physical contact.”
Clay rubbed the buttocks of the student victim at least twice between January 15, 2020 and February 20, 2020, according to a probable cause statement submitted by Jeffrey W. Long of the BYU Police Department on June 25, 2020.
Clay also explicitly asserted his academic authority in conversations with the victim. He was in charge of the victim’s program of study and had the ability to hire interns and teaching assistants within the department.
When the victim suggested she might seek professional counseling independent of Clay, he said his methods were more effective.
The victim expressed discomfort at Clay’s sexual advances. Clay told the victim she “needed to practice and try to connect more.” He asserted that his sexual abuse acted as therapy for past issues.
4th District Judge Sean Petersen will sentence Clay on June 26, 2023. The judge is not compelled to accept the plea bargain’s proposed sentence, though it is typical.