SALT LAKE CITY — Survivors and faith leaders rallied Friday at the Utah State Capitol to demand change to a state law that exempts religious leaders from requirements that they report child sexual abuse brought to their attention in spiritual confessions.
“If we as a people, as churches and as a state are failing to protect our children, then we are failing,” Lindsey Lundholm, the rally’s organizer, told an audience of more than 100 in Salt Lake City that included survivors of abuse applauding while tears streamed down their faces.
Lundholm spoke about her own experience of abuse as a young girl in Idaho while she was part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She said that she was a young girl who belonged to the Mormon faith.
Lundholm’s story was one of many shared on the steps of the Capitol, which stands on a hill above the church headquarters and its Salt Lake Temple. Other women also shared their stories and read aloud written accounts collected for the demonstration, using them to demand lawmakers require clergy report abuse when it’s confessed to them.
The rally comes two weeks after an Associated Press investigation found the church’s abuse reporting system can be misused by church leaders to divert abuse accusations away from law enforcement and instead to church attorneys who may bury the problem, leaving victims in harm’s way.
Based on records sealed and cases in Arizona, West Virginia, and West Virginia court proceedings, the AP story revealed a number of concerns raised by victims about the helpline. These concerns include the fact that church officials used exemptions from mandatory reporting laws (so-called clergy penitent privilege) to excuse not reporting abuse to them of children under 5 years.
The church has repeatedly criticized the article since its publication. In a statement this week, its representatives said the help line “has everything to do with protecting children and has nothing to do with cover-up,” but did not dispute any of the story’s facts.
Utah is just one of over 20 states that has similar laws. This law provides reporting exceptions for clergy who have received information on child neglect and sexual abuse in spiritual confessions. Exemptions are not available to therapists, doctors, or anyone else who is known to offer confidential counselling.
Arizona church lawyers are trying to take advantage of clergy-penitent privilege in order to restrict what officials can answer about in lawsuits that allege they conspired to hide child sex abuse. This week, a judge ordered that all church officials must answer questions.
Utah Gov. Utah Governor However, such legislation could be challenged in Utah where the church enjoys significant cultural and political influence and counts approximately two-thirds (or more) of Utah’s residents as members. The clergy is largely staffed by volunteers.
Rep. Angela Romero is a Democrat whose attempts to eliminate the exemption stalled at 2020. She stated Friday that she remains committed to changing law.
“I’m tired of making excuses for perpetrators,” she said, noting that her push had recently won support from Latter-day Saint Republicans.
In addition to Romero and survivors, Friday’s rally also included a rabbi and former Latter-day Saints bishop. Stuart Smith, the bishop said that clergy might benefit from clear reporting guidelines for abuse.
“Such a requirement, codified in state law, may have the additional benefit of allowing the helpline for bishops now operated by the LDS church to better perform its stated purpose — which is to provide expertise and resources to help the victims of abuse,” he said.
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