Every Utah adult is required under state law to report confessions of child abuse to law enforcement — unless that adult is a religious leader who learned about the abuse during a confidential confessional.
A state lawmaker wants everyone, regardless of their religious title, to be legally obligated to report child abuse to authorities. So she sponsored a bill that would amend the law to require just that.
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, introduced House Bill 90 in the 2020 legislative session. The bill would delete “provisions that exempt, under certain circumstances, a member of the clergy from being required to report child abuse and neglect,” according to its text.
“For me, this is really about protecting children,” Romero said, who proposed the bill after years of discussion with other legislators and child abuse victim advocates. “Children are some of our most vulnerable members of society” and, as a lawmaker, Romero wants vulnerable groups to feel safe.
Utah Code mandates that anyone who “has reason to believe that a child has been subjected to abuse or neglect … shall immediately report the alleged abuse or neglect to the nearest peace office, law enforcement agency, or office of the division.”
However, this “does not apply to a member of the clergy, with regard to any confession made to the clergy while functioning in the ministerial capacity … without the consent of the individual making the confession” if the member of the clergy is bound by a confidentiality agreement.
The exemption exists to prevent priests, bishops and other religious leaders from being required to report information they obtained in confidence.
Romero said it is in “the best interest of all Utahns” that religious leaders, whether in the Roman Catholic Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or any other faith, be legally obligated to report sexual, physical and mental abuse of children.
“It’s just the right thing to do,” the state representative said.
Romero said Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, will be sponsoring the bill in the state Senate.
A California lawmaker introduced a similar bill in 2019 but withdrew it after facing opposition from the Catholic Church, the Sacramento Bee reported, which argued that mandatory reporting would require clergy to break the Catholic seal of confession and potentially be excommunicated.
Other states, like Texas, have mandatory reporting laws that apply to clergy members, bishops, attorneys and other individuals whose communications would otherwise be considered privileged, according to Southern Methodist University.
The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City hasn’t taken a position on the bill, said Jean Hill, the government liaison for the diocese. Hill said she is analyzing the legal and constitutional ramifications of the proposed legislation.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has also yet to take a stance on Romero’s bill. “The Church will need time to review the bill and its implications before taking a position,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
Judy Larson, head of the Utah branch of the Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), supports mandatory reporting requirements for all religious leaders — both as a SNAP representative and a survivor of child sexual abuse herself.
Larson said she was raped multiple times by a priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit when she was 10. She reported the abuse to police decades later in 2016 but, due to the state’s statute of limitations, could not seek legal recourse.
The Archdiocese of Detroit reviewed the allegations of Larson and others and found them credible, she said.
“If you know that a child has been harmed, then you need to report it,” Larson said.