Out of the shadows: House Bill 90 would require Utah religious leaders to report confessions of child sexual abuse

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Should religious leaders be required to alert law enforcement when someone confesses to abusing a child? 

That’s the issue at the center of a new bill in the Utah legislature and a recent lawsuit filed in Oregon.

During a meeting with his bishop at a Latter-day Saint ward in Stayton, Oregon, Timothy Johnson confessed that he was sexually abusing a child. That bishop told authorities who arrested Johnson and he was later convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Now his wife is suing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for $9.5 million for loss of income and emotional distress, claiming his confession should have remained confidential.

Church spokesman Eric Hawkins provided a statement reading in part: “Protecting victims and ensuring proper reporting is a top priority for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church teaches that leaders and members should fulfill all legal obligations to report abuse to civil authorities.”

The Church statement also emphasized that the Church operates a 24-hour abuse hotline to help leaders understand and meet their obligations to report abuse.

 Representative Angela Romero (D – Salt Lake City) is introducing legislation that would make reporting by clergy mandatory in the state of Utah.

“When you look at Utah and you look at our child sex abuse statistics we’re high,” Rep. Romero told ABC4 News. “1 in 5 children will be sexually abused in some form before the age of 18 and most of those children will be abused by someone they know. 90 percent is within the circle of trust.”

If Rep. Romero’s House Bill 90 becomes law a clergy member who doesn’t report abuse could be charged with a misdemeanor. 

Rep. Romero admits that it’s a tricky balancing act of protecting children while also protecting privacy plus the freedoms of speech and religion guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

“Since I announced I’ll be running this bill I’ve been contacted by priests in other states who said they support me,” she said. “I’ve been contacted by other religious leaders from different religions who say they support me.”

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