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SALT LAKE CITY — About 300 people gathered Friday evening at the Utah Capitol to call for the state to change a law that allows members of the clergy to be exempt from reporting child abuse if they learn about it during confessionals.
Many of the attendees wore the color teal, which organizers said was to support sexual abuse survivors, and some carried signs with slogans such as: "Protect children, make reporting mandatory," "And none will molest them," "Report then repent," and "Choose what is right, let the consequence follow."
At one point, a group began softly singing the hymn "Do What is Right" as they stood on the Capitol steps.
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said Friday that she's known situations "even in my own family" where people cited reasons for not reporting child abuse such as "not wanting to break up a home."
She said trauma gets carried on "from generation, to generation, to generation" as a result of abuse.
"I want to make the conversation about healing and about dealing with trauma, but I also want to hold people accountable," she said. "This is not a Democrat or Republican issue."
Romero is one of two lawmakers proposing legislation that would remove Utah's exemption, after a recent Associated Press article about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and child sex abuse cases in Arizona and West Virginia.
Utah law requires anyone who learns of or suspects child abuse to report it to law enforcement, with few exceptions including clergy.
According to state law, anyone who "has reason to believe that a child is, or has been, the subject of abuse or neglect, or observes a child being subjected to conditions or circumstances that would reasonably result in abuse or neglect, the individual shall immediately report the suspected abuse or neglect to the division or to the nearest peace officer or law enforcement agency."
Clergy members, however, are exempt from that requirement "with regard to any confession made to the member of the clergy while functioning in the ministerial capacity of the member of the clergy and without the consent of the individual making the confession" if the person made the confession directly to the clergy member, and if the clergy member is "under canon law or church doctrine or practice, bound to maintain the confidentiality of that confession," according to state code.
But when a clergy member receives information about abuse or neglect from any other source, they are required to report it — even if they also received the information from a perpetrator's confession.
Romero previously proposed a bill in 2020 to remove that clergy exemption. The bill, however, did not receive a committee hearing during that legislative session. It also drew opposition from the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City and House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville.
"I have serious concerns about this bill and the effects it could have on religious leaders as well as their ability to counsel members of their congregation," Wilson said in 2020. Wilson's spokeswoman declined comment on the issue on his behalf this week.
'Solemn vow' to protect the seal of confession
Jean Hill, spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese, declined to speak about proposed legislation yet because bill language has not been released. But she pointed to the diocese's statement against Romero's 2020 bill.
In that previous statement, Hill contended the bill would "interrupt that sacred moment" of confession "in a manner that could permanently destroy the relationship between our priests and ourselves in the confessional, without furthering the stated goal of the legislation."
"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," Hill said in a statement at the time.
She noted that a priest who hears someone confess of a criminal wrongdoing "may require the penitent to self-report to law enforcement, seek counseling, offer to talk with the person outside of the confessional and accompany him or her in the act of self-reporting," or require a similar act to complete penance.
Latter-day Saint leaders responded to the AP report in two statements this week and last week, emphasizing that the abuse of a child or any other person is "inexcusable."
"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes this, teaches this and dedicates tremendous resources and efforts to prevent, report and address abuse. Our hearts break for these children and all victims of abuse," church officials said, adding that church leaders for generations "have spoken in the strongest of terms about the evils of abuse and the need to care for those who are victims or survivors of abuse."
The AP story focused on the church's abuse help line. The help line provides professional legal and clinical advice on abuse cases to Latter-day Saint bishops and branch presidents, laymen who are not professionally trained clergy. Bishops and branch presidents are instructed to call the help line when any type of abuse arises.
The church on Wednesday detailed what it called "gross" and "egregious errors" in the Aug. 4 Associated Press story. It also criticized the AP story for drawing "erroneous conclusions." It said the help line is set up to protect child victims and that the story's suggestion that the help line is used to cover up abuse is false.
"Those who serve on the help line are parents and grandparents themselves and include former government child abuse investigators and child abuse prosecutors. Some are even themselves survivors of abuse. The notion that there would be any incentive on their part to cover up child abuse is absurd," the church said.
Romero and Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, are pushing to change the law, to require all clergy members to report child abuse they learn about in confession. Romero said she does not yet know what the bill language will look like.
"As a father, grandfather, and lawmaker, I have been keenly interested in Utah's child protection laws and have been actively reviewing those laws over the last several months," Lyman said in a statement.
He said he understands and "deeply value(s)" the process of confession to clergy, but said the exception for reporting abuse "creates unnecessary ambiguity for both the clergy member and for the person who is confessing."
Speaking during Friday's rally, Rabbi Avremi Zippel said he feels "fortunate" to know those in Salt Lake's clergy community. He urged them, regardless of religion, to work to protect children.
"There is nothing as sacred as the safety of a child," he said, adding his support to the proposed legislation.
Stuart Smith, who attended Friday's rally, said he believes the legislation would make the job of clergy members "easier." He said he believes confession between a "sinner" and clergy should be kept "confidential," but added that full repentance requires acknowledging and confessing, as well as the person who has sinned "accepting the consequence of those actions."
Gov. Spencer Cox said during a news conference on Thursday that while he hasn't seen any official legislation yet, "and details really do matter in this space," he would support the idea at a "surface level" and "be interested and willing to sign."
The governor said he's deeply concerned about abuse wherever it occurs and emphasized that "we all have a duty" to speak out and protect children.
"And if this is something that would help that, we should all be supportive of it," Cox said.