The line between confidential confessional and aiding a victim can be a thin one to tread for clergy, especially after they hear about abused or neglected children. To define it better, the Children’s Justice Center held a training meeting for local religious leaders Thursday.
Utah code states that anyone with reason to suspect child abuse or neglect is required to notify police or other authorities. However, clergymen and priests are exempt from this even if they gained knowledge of the maltreatment by the perpetrator in a setting of religious confession.
Yet, the code states, if the clergyman or priest hears of the abuse or neglect from the victim or another person, they are required to contact authorities.
If the misconduct is told by both the perpetrator and another person, the leader is required to pass on the information as well, the code states.
The “ifs” and “thens” can seem anything but black and white, and cannot provide for every eventuality, said Judge Mark May of Tooele Juvenile Court, who was tasked with explaining the law to attendees.
“You have to use discretion,” he said. “The reality is the code cannot type out or spell out every type of abuse that could happen.”
The protection is given on confessions to preserve the confidentiality of the practice, and thus not alienate or scare away those seeking to right wrongs religiously, said May. But not following the second part of the statute technically makes a religious leader vulnerable to prosecution. Such legal occurrences are rare, he said, but trials and verdicts socially, or through the media, are fairly common if a situation ends badly.
“I’m not here to make anyone paranoid,” he said, noting that all prosecutors he has spoken to about the subject have told him they did not want to press charges against priests. “These cases are not often prosecuted, but you don’t want KSL showing up at your door.”
Det. Curtis Allen of the Tooele County Sheriff’s Office said cases where police have questioned religious leaders are fairly uncommon. After receiving any report, whether from a religious leader or not, authorities conduct their own investigation, he said. The only time clergy may be questioned is if a victim told that leader about the abuse, to corroborate accounts.
Another danger for religious leaders, especially in the case of sexual abuse, is dealing with the confessor, said Vince Barborca. A convicted sex offender, Barborca has since worked as a counselor for sex offenders and has co-written a book on counseling that population. Understanding the thought process of sexual abusers can help clergy devise the best route of treatment and counseling to suggest to the confessor. “I hope by sharing my story with you, it will help reduce victimization,” he said. “If the next victim can be prevented, that’s positive.”
In 1988, Barborca said he came forward to his LDS bishop and confessed to pornography addiction and other related habits. He also confessed to sexually abusing one of his daughters. From the counseling he got after the confession, he restrained from abuse for three years. But after that period he fell back into old habits, which continued until he again confessed, turned himself into police, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
There, he said, not only did he receive counseling, but he was able to develop more coping strategies for anxiety and frustration. His previous coping strategies had consisted of little more than pornography and sexual acts. Developing new coping strategies proved to be key in lasting recovery, he said.
The thought process of someone committing sexual abuse is one of self-punishment tempered with a desire to appear normal, even if they want to stop and correct their behavior, said Barborca. Someone in that situation may not be totally forthcoming about the frequency and severity of events, he added, so clergymen should ask questions to make sure they get the full story.
“I’m pleading with you — when a Vince comes into your office, he really does want to change, but he doesn’t know how,” Barborca said. “If he knew how miraculous the world of recovery was, he would put on his track shoes and print — well, maybe not sprint to the front door of the prison, but he’d sprint to get some real help. I’m begging you to challenge him. I’m not saying report when you shouldn’t; I’m just begging you to hone your skills.”