Bill would eliminate clergy privilege, require reporting of child abuse




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Clergy in Arizona would be required to report suspected child abuse, even if they learn of it during a confession, under a new proposal.

The bill would eliminate the clergy-penitent privilege, closing what advocates say is a loophole that allows sexual predators to avoid being caught. 

Senate Bill 1008 adds members of clergy to the list of mandated reporters of abuse and would curtail what is known as clergy-penitent privilege. 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. 

Everywhere else, including Arizona, clergy are not mandated reporters and clergy-penitent privilege is not waived in cases of suspected child abuse or neglect. In Arizona, state law exempts a clergyman or priest from reporting abuse heard during a confession. Additionally, they cannot be forced to speak before the court over abuse they heard in confession in cases regarding child abuse of any kind. 

“I can’t imagine why anyone who is in a religion should be exempt from reporting child abuse,” the bills’s sponsor, Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, said. 

Steele, a survivor of sexual abuse herself, said that the bill is in part a response to a case that rattled the small town of Bisbee. 

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

Two 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 to the Bishops during confessions. 

“This is the hardest thing in the world for me to do, to talk about this, but I have to because it is real and people need to understand,” Steele said about how talking about issues of abuse often reignites her own past trauma. “We can protect children, but not if we keep it secret.”

Tim Lennon, President of the Arizona chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, sees the bill as a necessary step to protecting Arizona’s children. 

“There is nothing religious about covering up sexual abuse,” Lennon, a survivor himself, said. “Religion is part of our culture and our society… Having child predators exposed is not an imposition against that faith.”

Steele is worried that the bill may not move forward. An identical proposal last year never got a hearing. 

“Protecting children shouldn’t be about someone’s political party or religion,” Steele said. 

The bill has been assigned to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, but has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.