Utah bill requiring clergy to report child abuse confessions draws criticism

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An organization aimed at defending and protecting the Catholic Church is speaking out against a new bill that is set to be discussed in Utah's 2020 Legislative session. (Photo: KUTV)

An organization dedicated to defending and protecting the Catholic Church is speaking out against a new bill that is set to be discussed in Utah's 2020 Legislative session.

President of the Catholic League For Religious and Civil Rights, William Donohue Ph.D., wrote a letter to Rep. Angela Romero, the sponsor of H.B. 90, to express his concern.

The new bill would remove the clergy exemption from reporting child abuse. Meaning if the bill passes, religious leaders would be required, by law, to report confessions of child abuse in Utah.

Donohue claims the bill would violate "the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the Roman Catholic Church."

"You are treading on dangerous territory," Donohue wrote.

When the government seeks to police the sacraments of the Catholic Church--or encroach on the tenets and practices of world religion--it is gearing up for a court fight.

The president asked Romero two questions: If she had any evidence of "nothing" happening after perpetrators confessed to clergy members and why she is seeking to breach the priest-penitent exemption, and not other forms of confidential confessions, such as lawyer-client privilege.

Donohue concluded the letter by saying the bill would violate the First Amendment in regards to the separation of church and state.

2News reached out to Romero for comment. The representative said in short, "the bill is not about the Catholic Church. It is about religious institutions."

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Current Utah law requires anyone who "has reason to believe that a child has been subjected to abuse of neglect... shall immediately report the alleged abuse or neglect to the nearest peace office, law enforcement agency of office of the division."

But, 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."

However, if the clergy receives information about abuse from a person other than the individual who made the confession, they are required to report that.

The exemption was created to prevent priests, bishops and other religious leaders from being required to report confessions obtained in confidence.

However, Romero wants to change that.

The bill states it would get rid of the "provision that exempt, under certain circumstances, a member of the clergy from being required to report child abuse and neglect."

So, "any individual" of any religion in Utah "who has reason to believe that a child was subjected to abuse or neglect" would be required to report it.

Last year, California state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) introduced a similar bill to end the "penitential communication" exemption to child abuse reporting.

The bill was later withdrawn after receiving criticism from the Catholic Church, according to The Sacramento Bee.