Ex-BYU professor pleads no contest to sexual battery of 3 students

A former BYU professor has pleaded no contest to three reduced misdemeanor counts of sexual battery accusing him of inappropriately touching three female students. Prosecutors have agreed to recommend that he be sentenced to probation.

A former BYU professor has pleaded no contest to three reduced misdemeanor counts of sexual battery accusing him of inappropriately touching three female students. Prosecutors have agreed to recommend that he be sentenced to probation. (Brigham Young University)

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PROVO — A former BYU professor has pleaded no contest to reduced charges of sexual battery, a class A misdemeanor, accusing him of inappropriately touching three female students.

Charging documents accused Michael James Clay, 48, of Springville, of engaging in "ecclesiastical abuse to accomplish his sex abuse." Police said Clay told one victim he had prayed about her and felt inspired by God to engage in physical contact with her, and led her to believe that she could not turn him down.

In a statement supporting his plea, he said, "I intentionally touched the buttocks of three adult women. ... I should have known it would cause affront or alarm."

Clay was initially charged with two counts of forcible sexual abuse, a second-degree felony. After two more students came forward, he was later charged with four additional counts of forcible sexual abuse, a second-degree felony. Those charges were dismissed as part of a plea bargain in exchange for his guilty pleas to the misdemeanor charges.

Prosecutors with the Utah County Attorney's Office also agreed to recommend that a judge sentence him to two years of probation.

Each of these students interacted with Clay in one-on-one interactions that mirrored therapy sessions, according to court documents. Each victim told police Clay used religion to manipulate them by giving priesthood blessings or talking to them about spiritual alignment.

He also used his position as an associate professor and his ability to connect them to future jobs to convince them to continue visiting with him or not talk to others about their interactions, according to the charges.

A prepared statement from Clay's attorneys, Cara Tangaro and Scott Williams, indicated Clay wanted to put the matter behind him.

"When a person is assailed by allegations of sexual harassment, especially in the present social circumstance, and suffers the resources of the government on the side of the accuser, the accused may choose to plead no contest to misdemeanors and move his life forward. That is the path that Mr. Clay has chosen," the statement says.

Under Utah law, a no contest plea means the person can still receive the same punishments they would have under a guilty plea, but they do not have to admit to the crimes or seek a not-guilty verdict from a jury. A judge has the ability to accept or reject a no contest plea.

In a preliminary hearing held on June 6, 2022, officers testified about statements they received from three different women.

BYU Police Lt. Jeff Long testified that the first of the women to file a report against Clay did so in April 2020. He said the woman was an immigrant and was trying to get into the urban development program. Clay was head of that program at the time of the incidents. Clay stopped working for BYU before the charges were filed later that month.

Long said Clay admitted to him that he had skin-on-skin contact with the woman during a hug that was an "inadvertent touch" because the woman had a shirt with a high midriff. During the interview, Clay also confirmed he took the woman up Provo Canyon in a vehicle and said there may have been an accidental touch; the woman had claimed she leaned forward from the back seat to adjust the heater and Clay "rubbed her buttocks," Long said.

The lieutenant also said Clay confirmed that there was one point when the woman was sitting on his lap, but Clay denied the "dry humping" that the woman reported. Clay confirmed to the officer that he had given the woman money to purchase clothing, and she pulled up her shirt to expose the bottom of a bra she had purchased. Long said the woman reported he had asked her to pull up her shirt to expose the bra.

Initially, Long said he did not pass the information along to the Utah County Attorney's Office for potential criminal charges since it seemed that each instance was consensual, but later he received an email from an attorney for the woman who argued Clay was acting in the role of clergy or a counselor. Long said that was a catalyst in sending the case to prosecutors.

At that same preliminary hearing, Provo police detective Scott Nielsen testified about two other alleged victims — women who came forward after the charges related to the first woman were filed. He said another woman reported Clay touching her buttocks or tailbone during conversations about chakra.

Clay had been scheduled for a jury trial this week.

The Utah County Attorney's Office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday about the reduced charges and the plea bargain.

Clay is scheduled to be sentenced June 26 by 4th District Judge Sean Petersen. Under misdemeanor charges, Clay cannot be sent to prison but each class A misdemeanor carries a maximum potential sentence of one year in jail. However, the plea agreement Clay signed indicates that prosecutors and his attorneys will recommend that he serve no jail time but be sentenced to serve 24 months of probation, complete 50 hours of community service, be required to take a sexual boundaries course and have no contact with the victims.

Judges often follow such recommendations, but they are not obligated to follow them.


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Emily Ashcraft joined KSL.com as a reporter in 2021. She covers courts and legal affairs, as well as health, faith and religion news.


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