EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of the article reported Clay pleaded guilty to charges, when instead he pleaded no contest. We apologize for the error.
PROVO, Utah (ABC4) — The former BYU professor charged with sexual battery of his student interns and employees accepted a plea deal.
Michael James Clay, 49, was initially charged with seven counts of forcible sexual abuse, all 2nd-degree felonies, to which he pleaded not guilty. The charges were amended to three counts of sexual battery, all class A misdemeanors, to which he pleaded no contest.
Previous to his charges, Clay was a geography department professor at BYU. In June 2020, Clay was accused of sexually abusing one of his former students. Two other students later came forward with similar allegations.
According to the court documents, Clay had sole control over the geography department and was able to hire students to perform research using university funds. Clay also hired students through his private firm, the document states.
“[Clay] used his position as a university professor, employer, and priesthood holder in the LDS Church to control and manipulate young women,” the court document states.
In approximately January 2017, a BYU student was working for Clay and performing research for him both at BYU and at his private firm. According to court documents, she told Clay she was experiencing personal problems and began to meet with him in his office. She said the visits became more regular often two to three times per week until they stopped in March 2020 due to covid.
When the student first started going to Clay’s office, she said he would greet her with a hug. She said the hugs got progressively longer, making her uncomfortable. Eventually, the hugs turned into him holding her moving his hands down her back and holding her butt.
Clay told the student that they needed to meditate to help her with her anxiety. He would reportedly talk to her about her sex life and tell her that meditation was important for a healthy sex life. During the meetings, Clay would have the student sit on his lap straddling him for around 20 minutes.
According to court documents, the student told Clay she was considering getting a therapist instead. Clay allegedly told her she could do that if she wanted to tell her feelings to someone who didn’t care about her, or she could continue meeting with him because he actually understood and cared for her.
The student told officials that while she did not want to participate in the touching, she was afraid of refusing to do what Clay wanted. She said not only was Clay her boss at the university and at his private firm, but her progress in her field of study was at his sole discretion. Reportedly, Clay would often remind her of that fact, and give her priesthood blessings to try to manipulate her into feeling a certain way.
Between Jan. 1, 2018, and Dec. 31, 2019, another female student was an intern and employee at his private firm. As with the first victim, Clay allegedly manipulated her into having counseling sessions with him. Clay reportedly told her that he had single-handedly put together the broken pieces of many girls, and if she wanted to feel Heavenly Father’s love, she would need to talk to him.
The student said that their counseling sessions quickly turned into talking almost exclusively about sexual things and then into physical contact. Clay also engaged in ecclesiastical abuse to accomplish his abuse of the student, the court record states.
He would allegedly frequently tell her she was out of spiritual alignment and held a “tea ceremony” to help her. During the ceremony, he allegedly asked her to pledge her obedience to him. The victim said she eventually agreed, but later that day told him she would no longer be able to attend their weekly meetings over the summer. Clay reportedly said if she wasn’t going to commit to something, he no longer needed her to come to internship meetings.
In early 2020, Clay reportedly began meeting with a third BYU student and told her that he was very powerful in her field of study, and may be able to give her an internship if she trusted him. She said she expressed to Clay that she was having some emotional difficulties, and Clay told her he could make her negative feelings go away. They met in his office around 20 times, the student reported.
Clay allegedly told the student his office was a safe place and not to tell anyone what went on there. He told her he could be her emotional and physical support. They would communicate via text messages, and Clay allegedly told her to delete the messages and wanted to check her phone to make sure she deleted them.
Sometime between mid-January 2020 and February 2020, Clay drove the student up the canyon, and after walking outside they got in the backseat of his car. Clay then allegedly touched her inappropriately and asked if it was okay with her. She said okay because she said she felt like she had to say yes.
On one occasion, Clay told the student he felt inspired by God to engage in physical contact. She said she believed him at the time. On Feb. 19 or 20, they met in his office where Clay then allegedly touched her inappropriately. The student told Clay “That’s enough” and “I’m good” several times before he finally stopped. According to charging documents, Clay said she needed to practice and reportedly told her it would help her.
According to court records, Clay told the student she needed to change her body chemistry and practice in order to be a good wife. At one point, the student said she was thinking about meeting with a psychiatrist, but Clay told her that meeting with him was more effective.
In March 2020, due to the pandemic, Clay allegedly stopped meeting with at least one of the victims. It was shortly after this that they came forward with their allegations.
Clay’s sentencing is scheduled for June 26 at the 4th District Court in Provo, Utah.