Clergy Would Have To Report Confessions Of Ongoing Child Abuse If Proposed Bill Approved

An Arizona legislator is attempting once again to change the state law that currently allows clergy members to remain silent about the ongoing physical or sexual abuse of children if they learn the information as part of a confession.

On Monday, Senator Victoria Steele introduced SB1008 which would require clergy to report confessions of ongoing abuse of children, as well as reasonable suspicions that abuse may continue or that the confessor may be a threat to other children. The same requirement would apply to a Christian Science practitioner or a priest.

The bill had its First Reading on Monday and its Second Reading on Tuesday. It has been assigned to the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services chaired by Sen. Nancy Barto.

Steele, a Democrat, told Arizona Daily Independent she introduced a similar bill last year after reading reports about the horrific sexual abuse of two Bisbee girls. The abuse was uncovered by Interpol after graphic videos of the abuse -which included a newborn- were discovered on the internet.

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Two of the family’s bishops with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints admitted to a federal agents they were aware of ongoing sexual abuse in the home but did not report it due to the confessional exception in Arizona’s mandatory reporting statute. One of the bishops was also a prominent medical doctor in Cochise County.

Despite a lack of support for her bill last year, Steele says she made it a priority to try again this session.

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“It infuriates me that anyone would ever choose to protect an abuser and not the child,” Steele told Arizona Daily Independent. “We must never tolerate the abuse of children. This is the right thing to do legally, not just morally.”

Her bill would significantly change ARS §13-3620, the Duty to Report law. Currently a member of the clergy “may withhold reporting” of a confidential communication or a confession during which child abuse is admitted if the clergy member “determines that it is reasonable and necessary within the concepts of the religion.”

The statute as written makes no distinction of whether the abuse was committed in the past or is ongoing.

Steele’s bill, however, would require clergy to comply with mandatory reporting even if the abuse was disclosed during confession provided the clergy member “determines that there is a reasonable suspicion to believe that the abuse is ongoing, will continue or may be a threat to other minors.”

SB1008 would also change how confessions about ongoing child abuse are treated during a civil action, such as a lawsuit or custody matter.

Currently the parties in a civil action are prohibited from questioning a clergy member about a confession without the consent of the person who made the confession. But the bill would remove that prohibition if “the clergyman or priest determines that the confession involves ongoing abuse.”

Attorney and victim advocate Lynne Cadigan supports Steele’s efforts, even if she doesn’t think SB1008 goes far enough.

“The legislature must make clergy mandatory reporters without exceptions,” Cadigan said. “Many other states have done away with clergy privilege; Arizona should do the same. The religious freedom to keep abuse a secret does not outweigh the right of a child to be free from rape.”

Cadigan explained that while a step forward, SB1008 could still allow clergy, church officials, and their attorneys to keep sexual abuse a secret in most instances.

“This bill allows the clergy, many of whom are laypeople, to determine if the abuse is ongoing rather than having trained investigators make that determination,” she noted. “There must be an investigation by police to determine if the abuser is still dangerous to children.”

Steele does not currently have any co-sponsors for her bill. One legislator, Don Johnsen, has already indicated he is against the bill.