A Utah bill that would remove reporting exemptions for clergy or other religious leaders who learn of child abuse during a confessional is facing opposition, both within and outside the state.
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, is sponsoring House Bill 90 in the 2020 legislative session. If passed it would delete provisions to the state’s mandatory reporting laws that exempt “a member of the clergy from being required to report child abuse and neglect.”
While Utah Code mandates that anyone who has reason to believe that a child has been abused “shall immediately report the alleged abuse or neglect” to law enforcement, an exemption is carved out for religious leaders, who cannot report the abuse “without the consent of the individual making the confession.” The exemption exists to maintain the confidentiality agreement religious leaders are bound to under church doctrine or practice.
The New York City-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights came out in opposition to Romero’s bill, arguing that it violates religious liberties and would require priests to break the seal of confession.
In a letter to Romero dated Monday, Catholic League President Bill Donahue wrote that the lawmaker is “treading on dangerous territory” by seeking for the government “to police the sacraments of the Catholic Church.”
“The First Amendment secures religious liberty,” Donahue wrote, “and that entails separation of church and state.”
The Catholic League urged those subscribed to its email list to contact House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and voice opposition to Romero’s bill.
“If Romero hears from you, she may not want to tell her colleagues of all the correspondence she is receiving, but if the Speaker hears from you, it is not likely that your voice will be ignored,” the group wrote.
On Tuesday, the Catholic League issued a press release that included comments Wilson sent to those who emailed him.
“I have serious concerns about this bill and the effects it could have on religious leaders as well as their ability to counsel members of their congregation,” Wilson wrote, according to the Catholic League. “I do not support this bill in its current form and — unless significant changes are made to ensure the protection of religious liberties — I will be voting against this bill.”
Wilson’s office said he would not be commenting on Romero’s bill at the moment beyond what was said in the email.
In an interview, Donahue called the bill “outrageous from a First Amendment (and) religious liberties standpoint” and said most Catholic priests would go to jail before breaking the confessional seal.
He said the Catholic League would be prepared to go to court if Romero’s bill was signed into law, adding that the group opposed a similar bill in California that was put on hold in July 2019.
“The whole idea of the confessional would implode” if clergy reporting exemptions were removed, said Donahue. “No one’s going to go to confession if they think that what they say to the priest in his confidence could wind up on the front page the next day.”
If a priest or religious leader learns of abuse during a confession, they should encourage the confessor to report it to law enforcement themselves, the president of the Catholic League said.
On Twitter, Romero called Donahue’s letter a “soft threat” and an “intimidation tactic.”
“My bill is not about the Catholic Church,” Romero tweeted. “It’s about holding people who violate children criminally responsible.”
Romero said in a text message that she still plans on moving forward with her bill.
Neither the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City nor The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have taken a position on the bill.