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Catholic Diocese of SLC opposes clergy abuse reporting bill, sponsor says pushback makes her determined to pass it

Posted at 6:07 PM, Jan 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-14 20:27:51-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City is opposing a bill that requires clergy to report disclosures of abuse to law enforcement to investigate.

In an editorial being published Wednesday in the Diocesan newspaper Intermountain Catholic and shared with FOX 13, the faith outlines its objections with House Bill 90.

"The motivation for the bill is understandable, to uncover and stop the abuse of children, but HB 90 will not have this intended effect," the Diocese wrote in the op-ed.

The Diocese said in the editorial the confession is central to the practice of the Catholic faith going back millennia, giving members the opportunity to reveal their conscience to God.

"For a Catholic priest, revealing the contents of a person’s confession is a mortal sin and grounds for automatic Excommunication. In the past, priests have been tortured and given their lives rather than break their solemn vow to protect the Seal of Confession. This isn’t just a convenient means of maintaining confidentiality, it is a sacred duty and thus critical to the free exercise of our religion. HB90 places a Catholic priest in the untenable position of violating state law and facing criminal penalties or violating Canon law and facing excommunication," the Diocese wrote.

The op-ed said a priest may already require the penitent to self-report to law enforcement. It urges its members to oppose the bill.

"HB90 is a bad law that does nothing to protect children and undermines the very real possibility that a sex offender might repent, thus allowing the priest to counsel him to seek help from police and trained personnel, making the world a bit safer for vulnerable children," the Diocese said.

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, who is sponsoring HB90, said Tuesday that she isn't targeting any one faith with her bill. Instead, she is seeking to protect children from abuse being covered up.

"Who can justify letting a perpetrator get away with sexually assaulting children?" she said.

Rep. Romero said her bill is modeled after legislation that has passed in other states, including Texas, that have sizable religious populations. Rep. Romero, who is Catholic, said she believes her bill doesn't violate religious freedom rights.

"I understand the sacraments of the Catholic Church. Again, that’s part of who I am," she said. "But at the same time, I can’t let people continuously hurt children and it doesn’t only hurt those children. It hurts our society and our communities."

FOX 13 first reported on Rep. Romero's bill last year, when she was contemplating it. Since the bill was made public last week, she has faced pushback. The Catholic League, a group that says it is dedicated to defending Catholicism, has launched an online campaign and urged its followers to contact House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, to object to the bill.

The Speaker's office said it has received hundreds of emails, mostly from people outside Utah. However, Speaker Wilson's office said in a statement he does have some concerns about "how the bill is currently drafted with the effect it may have on religious leaders across multiple faiths and how they counsel their members."

The Diocese said the Catholic League is not affiliated with it, nor did it consult with them before launching the campaign against HB90.

Rep. Romero said the Catholic League's "soft threat" only made her more determined to see her bill pass. She said she has been contacted by a number of abuse victims and some clergy members who supported her bill, believing it would protect faiths and guard against cover ups by religious institutions.

"Am I against organized religion? No. I’m Catholic. Maybe this is a little more personal for me. I’ve had victims here in Utah, people who have experienced and sexual assault and child abuse. Their perpetrators were protected by a religious institutions," she said. "I have a problem with that."

The Catholic church is not the only faith that practices a form of confession. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Baptists, Presbyterian and Lutheran faith traditions do as well.

On Tuesday, the Latter-day Saint church -- a powerful presence on Utah's Capitol Hill -- told FOX 13 it has not yet taken a position on Rep. Romero's bill.