Deseret News: Should clergy report sex abuse of the penitent? A look inside priest-penitent privilege

Article looks at dilemma of reporting vs. confidentiality, with insights from scholarly and legal experts and faith leaders

Bishops, priests and pastors from various faiths face the challenge of protecting children from all forms of abuse while keeping confessions from the penitent confidential. Add to that situation the desire to balance clergy-penitent privilege with the increase of mandatory reporting laws aimed at protecting children.

In a recent article, the Deseret News looks at tension between the doctrines of confession and the impulse to protect through mandatory reporting legislation — and the important legal, societal and religious questions being raised.

With cases in Arizona, Louisiana and elsewhere having raised the issue’s profile, the Deseret News has reached out to scholars, legal experts and leaders of different faiths to explore the priest-penitent privilege.

The article also highlights policies and practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Key questions addressed include:

What is clergy-penitent privilege? A look at how different faiths view the privilege and how some religious leaders see confessions as having “a sacramental seal” that goes beyond mere confidentiality.

How is the priest-penitent privilege being pierced? Beginning in 1960s, state legislatures began passing laws limiting doctor-patient and clergy-penitent privileges, and the result is that the U.S. now has a hodgepodge of laws regarding confessional privilege.

Does mandatory reporting work? Some studies on mandatory reporting laws are starting to question if mandatory reporting laws are effective, with lower percentages of abuse cases being reported in states with stringent reporting laws. Some religious leaders say removing confessional privilege would create ambiguity in protecting some parts of confessions and not others.

What have U.S. courts said about confessional privilege? A 1980 U.S. Supreme Court majority opinion said “the priest-penitent privilege recognizes the human need to disclose to a spiritual counsellor, in total and absolute confidence, what are believed to be flawed acts or thoughts and to receive priestly consolation and guidance in return.” The court may have to revisit the conflicts between clergy-penitent privilege and mandatory reporting laws.

The piece also looks at how both legislation and confessions help protect child abuse victims and help uncover abuse, with religious leaders saying confession works for the truly penitent is not a form of malign secrecy.

It also provides a state-by-state breakdown of clergy privilege, with state-specific notes:

  • Clergy have mandatory reporting obligations — seven states
  • Clergy are mandatory reporters but retain some privilege — 24 states
  • Clergy receiving penitential communications are not subject to mandatory reporting requirements — 19 states and the District of Columbia

The complete article can be found online at

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