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Bills to mandate clergy report abuses will return to the Utah State Legislature

Posted at 3:41 PM, Nov 21, 2022

SALT LAKE CITY — Bills that remove priest-penitent privilege when it comes to disclosures of child abuse will be run in the upcoming legislative session.

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, told FOX 13 News on Monday she has drafted and numbered a bill that would require clergy to report any disclosure of abuse by a perpetrator to law enforcement to investigate. Failure to report abuse would be a misdemeanor crime under the legislation, on par with other professions that are required to report disclosures.

"My whole point about this is there shouldn't be a loophole for anyone when it comes to child sex abuse, child abuse in general," she said. "We make our law enforcement officers report, we make our teachers report."

She is not the only one. Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, is also drafting legislation to do similar.

"I think heinous abuse should be reported and also the timing, or imminent threat to an individual should be a factor in this," Rep. Lyman told FOX 13 News on Monday.

The bills are being renewed after scandals surrounding churches that have been accused of not reporting abuses disclosed to ecclesiastical leaders. Earlier this year, the Associated Press reported an investigation that alleged The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints "help lines" diverted reports of abuse away from law enforcement (the faith has disputed it).

When Rep. Romero first ran her bill two years ago, she faced heated pushback from the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City and a group called the Catholic League. She anticipates the same again.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a culturally and politically powerful presence in Utah, declined to comment to FOX 13 News on the bill.

"The LDS Church never took a position on it, but I don’t know if they were fans," Rep. Romero said, adding the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City is expected to oppose it again.

Reps. Romero and Lyman said they were willing to discuss concerns that faith groups may have about balancing mandatory reporting of abuse disclosures with religious freedoms protected under the First Amendment.

"Hopefully when it’s all said and done, we have that discussion with the LDS Church, from the Catholic diocese and we at least go into that knowing what our objective is which is taking care of people who can’t take care of or protect themselves," said Rep. Lyman.

The concept of the legislation has some tentative support from Governor Spencer Cox.

"I haven’t seen any actual legislation and details really do matter in this space. It is something that just kind of at a surface level I would be interested in and willing to sign," he told reporters when asked about it at his August news conference. "We're deeply concerned about abuse wherever it occurs. And I think we all have a duty to speak out and protect our children, our most vulnerable, and if this is something that would help that? We should all be supportive of it."

While ideologically very different, the two said they were open to working together on their bills. Sen. Keith Grover, R-Provo, is also drafting a bill that would expand background checks for clergy.

"Maybe between the three of us, we’ll get some discussion that really does need to happen," said Rep. Lyman.

Rep. Romero said she believed it's necessary to pass this legislation in the 2023 legislative session.

"We have a lot of people out there who have lost faith in a lot of institutions because they feel like they weren't believed, or nobody listened to them, or that it was covered up," she said. "We need to change that."