SALT LAKE CITY — Survivors and religious leaders gathered Friday at the Utah State Capitol to demand a change to a state law that exempts religious leaders from the requirement to report child sexual abuse that is brought to their attention in religious confessions.
“If we as a people, as churches and as a country fail to protect our children, then we fail,” Lindsey Lundholm, the rally’s organizer, told an audience of more than 100 in Salt Lake City that included tearful cheering survivors of abuse. streamed down their faces.
Lundholm spoke about his first-hand experience of abuse growing up in Idaho as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As a young girl and a member of the faith commonly known as the Mormon Church, she said she told a local bishop about her abuse, and instead of reporting it to law enforcement, the bishop instructed her abuser to seek God’s forgiveness.
Lundholm’s story was one of many shared on the steps of the Capitol, which sits on a hill above the church’s headquarters and its Salt Lake Temple. Other women also shared their stories and read aloud written accounts collected for the demonstration, using them to urge lawmakers to require clergy to report abuse when it is acknowledged.
The rally comes two weeks after the Associated Press an investigation found that the church’s abuse reporting system can be misused by church leaders to divert allegations of abuse away from law enforcement and instead to church attorneys, who can bury the problem, leaving victims in harm’s way.
The AP story, based on sealed records and lawsuits filed in Arizona and West Virginia, revealed numerous concerns victims have raised about the hotline. They include how church officials have cited exceptions to mandatory reporting laws, the so-called clergy-penance privilege, as an excuse not to report abuse brought to their attention of children as young as 5 years old.
After its publication, the church criticized the story as erroneous. In a statement this week, her representatives said the helpline “has everything to do with protecting children and nothing to do with a cover-up,” but did not dispute any of the facts in the story.
Utah is among more than 20 states with similar laws that grant reporting exemptions to clergy who receive information about child neglect or sexual abuse during religious services. Exceptions do not apply to therapists, doctors or other adults who are known to offer confidential advice.
In Arizona, church lawyers are trying to use clergy and penance privilege to limit what its officials have to answer questions about in a lawsuit that accuses them of conspiring to cover up child sex abuse. Judge rules this week that church officials had to answer questions.
Utah Governor Spencer Cox and legislators from various faiths and on both sides of the aisle recently came out in support of changing the state law exempting clergy from mandatory reporting. But such a law could face an uphill battle in Utah, where the church has significant cultural and political influence, counts about two-thirds of residents as members and relies on volunteers to serve as clergy.
Congresswoman Angela Romero, a Democrat whose efforts to eliminate the exemption stalled in 2020, said Friday she remains committed to changing the law.
“I’m tired of making excuses for perpetrators,” she said, noting that her push has recently won support from Latter-day Saint Republicans.
In addition to Romero and the survivors, Friday’s rally included a rabbi and former Latter-day Saint bishop. Stuart Smith, the bishop, said the clergy could benefit from clear guidelines for reporting abuse.
“Such a requirement, codified in state law, may have the added benefit of allowing the Bishop Helpline now operated by the LDS Church to better fulfill its stated purpose – which is to provide expertise and resources to help to victims of abuse,” he said.
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