Child abuse: Churches defend secrecy of confession

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On a chilly Sunday afternoon at Salt Lake City's Newman Catholic Center, a priest warned parishioners that confessional secrecy was in jeopardy.

A new law would end that sacred bond, said the priest, who asked the faithful to sign a letter as they left the temple. “I/We oppose HB90,” the letter said. "HB90 is inappropriate government interference in the practice of religion in Utah."

In a few days of that month of February 2020, the Catholic diocese of Utah, which oversees dozens of churches, says it gathered some 9,000 signed letters and sent them to state representative Angela Romero, a Democrat who was preparing a bill about the sexual abuse of minors. They said that HB90 targeted the "privilege of communications between clergy and penitents." It was a law similar to those in place in many states that exempt priests from reporting child abuse if they find out about it during confession.

Catholic leaders in Utah rallied against HB90, saying it endangered the sacred privacy of confessions. The bill was also opposed by some members of the powerful Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Saints, known as the Mormon Church, to which most state legislators belong. HB90 had no chance of passing.

In 33 states, clergy, like teachers, doctors and psychotherapists, are exempt from reporting suspected child sexual abuse if the church believes it is inside information.

This allowed an unknown number of predators to continue to abuse children after confessing their behavior to religious authorities. In many of these cases, secrecy of confession is invoked to protect religious organizations from civil and criminal lawsuits if civil authorities become aware of the abuse.

In the past two decades, state legislators like Romero have proposed more than 130 bills seeking to create or amend laws related to child sexual abuse reporting, according to an Associated Press study. No proposal prospered or changes were made that did not affect the privileges of the clergy, who firmly resisted these initiatives. The AP found that the Roman Catholic Church used its contacts and influence with legislators in some states to protect its privileges and that influential members of the Mormon Church and Jehovah's Witnesses also joined that cause.

In Maryland, a successful campaign was mounted to frustrate a project that would have ended the relationship of privilege between clergy and penitent. It was headed by a Catholic cardinal who would later be expelled from the priesthood for sexually abusing minors and adult seminarians.

In other states, including California, Missouri, and New Mexico, intense opposition to these measures from the Catholic and Mormon churches also thwarted the reforms.

“They believe they have a divine mission, which justifies keeping the name and reputation of their institutions clean,” David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center, said, referring to several religious organizations.


The AP investigation found last month that an Arizona Mormon bishop, acting on instructions from that church's leaders, refrained from denouncing a member of the congregation who had confessed to sexually abusing his five-year-old daughter. The AP found that Representative Merrill Nelson, a church attorney and Republican lawmaker from Utah, had recommended the bishop not go to civil authorities because Arizona clergy were protected by laws regulating their relationship with penitents, according to documents. judicial.

This allowed church member Paul Adams, now deceased, to continue raping his two daughters and abusing one of his four sons for years.

State Sen. Victoria Steele, a Democrat from Tucson, says that in response to this case, she three times introduced bills removing privilege around clergy-penitent relationships and that Mormon lawmakers prevented it from being considered by the legislature.

“The church is being allowed to protect predators without caring about the kids. They use everything in their power to prevent this project from being considered,” Steele complained.

There are more cases like Adams, in which clergy privileges are invoked when reluctance to report abuse allows abuse to continue.

In Montana, for example, a woman who was abused by a Jehovah's Witness member in the mid-2000s managed to get a jury to award $35 million in damages because the church refused to report her abuse. . In 2020, however, the Supreme Court reversed course and said that church leaders had no obligation to make the complaint because they were protected by the privilege of clergy-penitent relations.

That privilege can be used to shield religious organizations from criminal liability. In 2013, a former Boise, Idaho police officer turned himself in to authorities and confessed to abusing minors. He said he had told 15 members of the Mormon church, none of whom went to the authorities. Prosecutors, however, decided not to file charges against the church because Idaho laws protect the clergy-penitent relationship.

The Mormon church said in a written statement sent to the AP that a member who confesses to sexually abusing minors “comes looking for an opportunity to be reconciled with God and asks forgiveness for his actions. That confession is considered sacred and, in most states, is viewed as protected religious conversation.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops did not immediately respond to requests for comment on its campaigns against bills seeking to eliminate the clergy-penitent communications privilege.

There are those who say that abolishing that privilege will not help children and that when the abuser is able to speak privately with the clergy, and confesses, it often causes him to stop the abuse.

“It is considered essential for the exercise of religion that there be a clergy-penitent privilege that allows people to approach priests to relieve their burden, to appease their minds, their souls… to seek peace and consolation with God and with their neighbor,” said Nelson, the Utah state representative. "Without the guarantee of secrecy, troubled people will not trust the clergy."

Efforts to eliminate clergy privilege in relation to confessions prospered in a handful of states, including North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas, and West Virginia. Documents and interviews with legislators in the 33 states where that privilege remains in effect indicate that fierce opposition from powerful religious organizations often thwarts such initiatives.

The promoters of these projects, on the other hand, are sometimes the targets of intimidation. Romero, the California state representative, says she received threatening calls and emails.

He also said that very Catholic relatives withdrew the word from him. “They said that I was attacking the Catholic Church and that I wanted to end confession, one of our sacraments.”

In 2003, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington said that if a bill ending clergy-penitent privilege were passed, "I will instruct every priest in the Archdiocese of Washington serving in Maryland to ignore it."

"I am willing to appeal to civil disobedience and go to jail," he said.

The project was diluted and was not considered.

The clergy-penitent privilege remains in force in Maryland, and McCarrick was expelled from the priesthood for sex crimes.

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