Should Clergy Be Required to Report Abusers Who Confess?

August 05, 2019

Mother Jones
By Madison Pauly
Assistant Editor

Kristy Johnson was 6 years old in 1969, when her father, an educator employed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, began sexually abusing her at their home in Utah. Her mother discovered what was happening and sought help from their local Mormon bishop. But according to a civil lawsuit Johnson filed against her father last year, the bishop did not contact police, instead handling the abuse “as a matter of sin, only.”

The same thing happened each time the abuse was reported to church leaders, according to Johnson’s complaint. One bishop instructed her father to “clean up his act,” she tells me. Her father was reassigned to different towns. And the church never called the cops, the lawsuit alleges. “They didn’t want the word to get out, because of who my father was,” Johnson says. “Because it would make the church look bad. That was their main concern.”

Despite the Mormon Church’s quiet attempts to counsel her father, the violence allegedly continued for about 15 years. According to the lawsuit, the attacks escalated from fondling to beating and rape, stopping only when Johnson left home at age 21 for her church mission. Only later, once she learned her sisters had also been sexually abused, did she decide to go to the police. It was the first time she’s aware of that law enforcement had ever been contacted. Her father, Melvin Kay Johnson, was not arrested; he has since admitted to “inappropriate sexual conduct” with his daughters when they were older and settled the lawsuit against him. 

For decades, Utah has required any person with knowledge of child abuse or neglect to report it to the police. Yet built into that law, and most states’ mandatory reporting laws, is an exception: Clergy members who learn of these crimes through a private, spiritual conversation with the perpetrator are not required to notify the authorities.

Lawmakers in Utah and New York are currently pushing to eliminate the confession exception, which they say has allowed religious institutions to cover up sexual abuse by clerics and congregation members. And they’re gearing up for battles against the Catholic and Mormon churches, both of which opposed a similar proposal that has stalled in the California state Capitol.