ST. GEORGE — Once again a bill regarding clergy reporting suspected cases of child abuse has been introduced to the Utah Legislature.

Rep. Brian S. King, D-Salt Lake City | Profile photo courtesy Utah House of Representatives, St. George News

Unlike previous bills that have sought to require clergy to report confessions of child abuse despite clergy-penitent privilege, the clergy child abuse reporting requirements bill, designated HB 131 in the 2024 legislation and sponsored by Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, seeks to spread awareness among religious leaders that there are no legal restrictions related to reporting cases of child abuse and neglect that are divulged during a confession.

“If you feel you should be reporting this, you can go ahead and do that,” King told St. George News. “People need to be educated about this.”

Moreover, King said he would likely amend the bill to add protections against potential lawsuits being filed against a reporting clergy member, as that was a concern raised by certain members of the religious community.

Utah is one of 33 states where clergy are exempt from any laws requiring professionals such as teachers, physicians and psychotherapists to report information about alleged child sexual abuse to police or child welfare officials if the church deems the information privileged.

Still, while there are no legal prohibitions against clergy-reported abuse and they could potentially be shielded from lawsuits under HB 131, King said it wouldn’t impact how church may respond to the breach of clergy-penitent privilege.

“If you’re a Catholic priest, you may be defrocked for example,” King said.

In this file photo, the angel Moroni statue atop the Salt Lake Temple is silhouetted against a cloud-covered sky, at Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah, Feb. 6, 2013 | Photo by Rick Bowmer, The Associated Press, St. George News

The Roman Catholic Church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are the two primary religious entities in the state that have objected to similar bills in the past that could have done away with the clergy-penitent privilege. The LDS church itself is based in Utah and is a dominant faith among state residents. A majority of the state’s legislators are also members of the church.

As the LDS faith holds a large amount of social and political influence within the state and among lawmakers, its public stance on a particular bill can aid in its passing or bury it.

According to The Associated Press, this is what happened to 2020’s HB 90 authored by Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City. It would have deleted the clergy-penitent privilege from state law and made clergy report incidents of child abuse revealed during an otherwise confidential confession.

Romero and others have pushed for a change in the law as it is seen as a loophole that has allowed individuals to continue abusing children for years despite having confessed the behavior to religious officials. In many of these cases, the privilege has been invoked to shield religious groups from civil and criminal liability after the abuse became known to civil authorities.

“There is a tension between protecting the children and protecting the institution,” King said.

This file photo shows Utah Senate President Stuart Adams giving his opening speech kicking off the state’s 2024 legislative session in Salt Lake City, Jan. 16, 2024 | AP Photo by Hannah Schoenbaum, St. George News

The Catholic and LDS churches opposed HB 90 and similar bills that came before and after. In all, over 130 such bills have been proposed over the last 20 years, according to The AP.

The AP also illuminated the issue in 2022 following an investigation into the actions of an LDS bishop in Arizona who was reportedly told by church officials not to report a case of child abuse that had been confessed to him.

The incident eventually led to a lawsuit against the LDS church and additional efforts to see the law changed in Utah during the 2023 legislative session.

In the wake of the AP’s 2022 investigation, Republican state Rep. Phil Lyman and Democratic Rep. Angela Romero announced plans to reform Utah’s clergy-penitent privilege loophole. Lyman, who served six years as an LDS bishop, said at the time lawmakers should want to reexamine the loophole “regardless of religious or political affiliation.”

“People should be able to go and confess their sins to their bishop without fear of being prosecuted up until when they are confessing something that has affected someone’s else life significantly,” he said.

Lyman ultimately released a proposal that broadly affirmed the clergy’s exemption from mandatory reporting. It did not advance in the Legislature.

In this file photo, Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, is shown on the floor at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City on Jan. 28, 2019 | Photo by Rick Bowmer, The Associated Press, St. George News

Related bills were also proposed by King and fellow Democrat state Sen. Stephanie Pitcher that year. Each proposal stalled in the Legislature due to opposition from religious groups.

King’s current bill is sitting in the House’s rules committee, which determines if bills introduced to the Legislature will proceed to their respective legislative committees for debate. It is not common for particular bills to be held up in the rules committee and fail to advance.

“I don’t know if it will see the light of day,” King said.

While current law continues to protect clergy-penitent privilege, clergy are nonetheless required to report cases of suspected abuse that come to them “from any source other than confession of the perpetrator.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2024 Utah Legislature by clicking here.

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