Religious organizations in the US defended a loophole allowing clergy not to report child abuse cases. In 2020, the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City heavily opposed House Bill 90 (HB90) in Utah.
The Catholic church argued that the “bill would violate the confidentiality of the confessional seal.” In February, the Catholic church gathered 9,000 signed letters from its parishioners and sent them to Rep. Angela Romero, the bill’s author.
Rep. Romero, a Democrat, has been working on HB90 as part of her campaign against the sexual abuse of children. The church contended that Romero’s bill would violate clergy-penitent privilege, a law in Utah that exempts clergy and priests in all religious denominations from reporting child abuse heard in a confessional setting.
The bill was eventually axed in March 2020.
This year, Jason Dearen, a national investigative reporter, and Associated Press’s investigative team member, Michael Rezendes, released their finding after examining more than 130 bills to amend child sex abuse reporting laws.
“None of them succeeded in closing the clergy loophole,” the AP investigation concluded.
For the past two decades, lawmakers like Rep. Romero passed laws to target the loopholes or amend the mandatory reporting statute without touching the clergy privilege.
According to AP, the Catholic church in Utah used its well-funded lobbying infrastructure and strong influence on some lawmakers. It also coordinated with the Mormon church and Jehovah’s Witnesses to further bolster their defense against bills like HB90.
In August this year, Rezendes reported that the Mormon bishop in Arizona had allowed the rape and abuse of MJ, a 5-year-old girl, by her father. The Mormon church’s helpline instructed the bishop, who was counseling MJ’s father, “not to call police or child welfare officials.”
The father continued sexually abusing the victim “for as many as seven more years, into her adolescence.”
In 2019, Jordan Baird, a youth pastor from Virginia, was sentenced to three years in prison. Baird abused many young girls over multiple years. Jordan Baird’s father, Pastor David Baird, told one victim’s family that the church would investigate. That victim’s family decided to call the local police department, which started investigating Baird in 2016. Text messages kept by the young victim helped convict Baird, who finally confessed at his sentence hearing.
According to AP, the legal loopholes create a wall that protects the church from victims of sexual abuse by its clergy or any influential figure.
Sen. Victoria Steele, a Democrat from Tucson, Arizona, said the church’s power over the legislature makes it difficult to share stories like that of MJ. “What this boils down to is that the church is being given permission to protect the predators, and the children be damned,” Steele said.