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Clergy members’ ability to report child abuse ‘is a gift,’ rabbi says at House hearing

The bill has gained public support after years of failing in the Legislature

By Alixel Cabrera - Utah News Dispatch | Feb 12, 2024

Spenser Heaps, Utah News Dispatch

The Capitol rotunda is pictured on the first day of the legislative session in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.

Utah hasn’t been successful in regulating an exception that allows clergy members to promise secrecy for anything they learn during confession, even suspected child abuse. But, a bill trying to give them the option to report as well as liability protection if they do now has the support of legislators and a lack of opposition from predominant faiths in the state.

HB432, titled Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Amendments, would allow clergy members to “report ongoing abuse or neglect even if the perpetrator made a confession,” if they choose, a practice that some faiths are starting to allow, but others strictly forbid. The bill specifies that clergy members should have reason to believe that the abuse is ongoing at the time of the confession before reporting it.

The House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to recommend the bill for the full House consideration.

The aim is to find a balance between ensuring religious freedom and offering a system that protects kids from abuse, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Anthony Loubet, R-Kearns, told the committee on Friday.

“(The bill) acknowledges that the duty to protect the child may outweigh the confidentiality traditionally associated with confessions,” Loubet said. “By allowing reporting in such circumstances, we aim to create a safer environment for our children, free from the shadows of abuse and neglect.”

The legislation also provides an incentive for those who want to report the abuse, but worry about lawsuits, by granting civil and criminal liability protection.

The bill is narrow, including only ongoing child abuse and neglect, Loubet said, because under the Utah Rules of Evidence, the only way a clergy member is able to testify as a witness is if the confessant agrees to it. But, being able to report ongoing cases provides information for law enforcement to launch an investigation.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City have said they would not oppose the bill as it’s currently written.

“I think there have been times in my years here on the hill that we haven’t had the courage, frankly, as a body to pass some things aired towards protecting minors and children,” Rep. Rex Shipp, R-Cedar City, said during the hearing. “And I think we need to step up as legislators to protect these kids in any way that we can.”

‘A gift’

Many spoke about the bill during the public comment hearing, with some law enforcement officers, victims and advocates describing how the change in policy could help stop child abuse.

Rabbi Avremi Zippel, who is part of the Utah Crime Victims Council and a clergy member, called the bill “a really powerful message that is sent to the clergy” and said that many of his counterparts support the bill.

“For clergy, so often, we make it an attempt in our regular day-to-day lives to portray God. And sadly, from time to time, the impetus is born for us to play God, to think that we are the All Knowing, we understand every dynamic, we can understand who is right and who is wrong, who is capable of such behaviors and who is incapable of such behaviors,” he said. “The ability for clergy to also have the ability to avail themselves of the protections of reporting to kick those situations to an objective outsider is a gift.”

Some lawyers raised concerns about the bill, and while stating that everyone shares the goal to protect children, they said the bill could have unintended consequences.

Steve Burton, from the Utah Defense Attorney Association, said the legislation could prevent people who may be committing abuse at a lower level from seeking help from their church leaders, if there’s a possibility of facing criminal charges.

“These are tough decisions,” he said. “If there is no avenue for somebody to seek for help, there’s an increased likelihood that that behavior will go deeper underground, and may never be reported and may never come to light.”

He said maybe the bill should be updated to state that clergy members should believe that the abuse will continue if they don’t report it before contacting authorities.

However, the potential law received overwhelming support from the public who showed up to speak to the committee.

Kim Brannon, a Bluffdale resident, said that now that she’s in her 50s, the sexual abuse she suffered when she was 16 still impacts many aspects of her life.

“My perpetrator went to their religious leader to confess. This religious leader was a good man with positive intent, but was not equipped to help an abuser or to get them to stop,” she said. “My abuse was never reported to any legal authority. Everything was in place to protect my perpetrator and I was left at 16 years old to deal with this on my own.”

Rob Scott, sergeant with the Unified Police Department Special Victims Unit, said that time is of the essence when investigating child abuse crimes. Reporting the abuse may stop it and it may save lives, he said.

“As we’ve also seen in many of our cases, our subjects do not just abuse one individual, it is abuse of many individuals,” Scott said. “And our suspects do not just stop, they continue until they’re actually stopped or an investigation begins.”

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.


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