Effort to eliminate clergy-penitent privilege dies amid anti-Catholic fears




St. Augustine Cathedral in Tucson. Photo by Ken Lund | Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

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An effort to eliminate clergy privilege and force religious leaders to report child abuse to legal authorities was unable to get enough votes to make it out of committee Tuesday after days of backroom drama. 

Currently, only Guam, New Hampshire and West Virginia consider clergy mandated reporters and clergy-penitent privilege is waived in cases of suspected child abuse or neglect in those states. 

In Arizona (and everywhere else), clergy are not mandated reporters and suspected child abuse or neglect isn’t exempted from that, even if it is ongoing. And religious leaders cannot be forced to testify in court about abuse a parishoner confessed to committing. 

The effort has been spearheaded by Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, who introduced Senate Bill 1008 earlier this year to add clergy to the list of mandated reporters. Her proposal never was considered. 

This week, Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, introduced a strike-everything amendment to House Bill 2494 that mirrored the language of Steele’s bill and put it on his Senate Education Committee agenda Tuesday. That’s when things got complicated, Steele said.

Steele said lobbyists began coming to her and Boyer saying that Republicans on the committee were planning to “boycott” the committee if the bill remained on the agenda. 

“I was really surprised at the level of pushback that we were both getting on this bill,” Steele said, adding that the intentions of her Republican colleagues were so unclear that it got “to the point when they called me up (to testify) I was looking around wondering, ‘Are they going to walk out?’”

No one ended up walking out, and the entire committee stayed to consider the bill, which failed on a 4-4 vote. 

A difficult discussion

Steele, a survivor of sexual abuse herself, spoke to the committee about the importance of her faith and how, even though religion played a role in her abuse, it helped her through those rough times. The bill is not an attack on religion, she said. 

“I knew that religion, that my faith, that it was based on a God who loves children, who loves me, who would never allow me to be harmed if there was any other way around it. That is what got me through some really tough times,” Steele told the committee. 

“If we can stop this, if we can change this from keeping abuse a secret, then that is really important,” Steele said. 

But Steele’s insistence was not enough to persuade her colleagues after a lengthy debate and discussion, which included testimony from the mother of a child victim of the high-profile case in Bisbee which inspired Steele’s bill. 

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is being sued over its alleged involvement in covering up abuse in Bisbee, as its hotline to report abuse directed Church leaders to not go to the authorities. 

Two LDS bishops called the line to report abuse that included porographic videos of children being created to be shared online. Some of the reports of abuse were alleged to have come to light during confessions. 

“Until today, I have never spoken about this,” said Miranda Whitworth, the adoptive mother of one of the children taken from the home of Paul Douglas Adams, who was indicted on 27 counts of child sex crimes, including rape.

Whitworth described the horrors the child witnessed and endured in the home, including seeing family pets run over or mutilated as a threat to speaking up about abuse. 

“I’m tired of them being silenced, I’m tired of them being brushed under the rug and not spoken of,” an emotional Whitworth said. “Why do the children always have to suffer from the choices and decisions that adults have to make for them?”

Adams confessed to church leaders for more than seven years, but his crimes only came to law enforcement’s attention after he posted videos of his sex acts with his children on the internet. Adams later committed suicide while in custody. 

“This has been a real challenge for me,” Sen. Rick Gray, R-Sun City, said while explaining his vote against the bill. “I’m appalled at anyone that could do this to a child.”

Gray, who shared a story about the church he attends reporting a family at a church camp, said his concerns lie with how the bill could impact confessionals and the spiritual vows taken by priests and other religious leaders. 

“They’ve got a vow, and so there is a spiritual vow that they would break if they (spoke to law enforcement),” Gray said. He explained that the Catholic groups and people he spoke with said they would be fine with religious counseling sessions falling under the mandatory reporting guidelines, but not confessions, which are a Catholic sacrament. Without a protection for that, Gray said he couldn’t vote yes on the bill. 

Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, echoed Gray’s sentiments and added additional concerns that he felt the bill could lead to the government entering into the confessional. Shope, who is Catholic, said he believes the bill is targeting Catholics. 

That position was shared by Tucson Democrat Sally Ann Gonzales.

“It’s a bill that really attacks my religion,” she said.

Sen. Tyler Pace, R-Mesa, disagreed slightly with the majority of his Republican colleagues who voted no on the bill. 

“I often think in terms of, is this bill amendable or does this bill need to end in the process where this is?” Pace said. “I could get by with finding a way to amend this bill.” 

Pace, a member of the LDS church, said that he believed that there could be ways to protect religious seals of confession that exist in faiths like Catholicism and Mormonism while also protecting children from predators and abusers. 

“This is a very, very difficult, delicate balance,” Pace said, adding that the federal government should be looking into the issue. 

This is the third time Steele has introduced legislation targeting the clergy-penitent privilege, but the first time it has had a hearing and a vote. Steele said she plans to try again next session and is hopeful that she can work with her colleagues to fine tune the legislation to alleviate concerns and protect child victims of sexual violence and predation. 

“I don’t believe when I stand before God he is going to say ‘did you protect the church?,’” Boyer said while explaining his yes vote. “I think he is going to say ‘Did you protect children?’”