Recent legislative efforts have made progress on improving the rights of church sex abuse survivors, but a major loophole in the laws surrounding this terrible crime is keeping perpetrators safe.
New Associated Press investigations into the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also called LDS or the Mormon church, have revealed that church leaders liberally apply “clergy-penitent privilege” to protect bishops who sexually abuse the children under their care.
This law, found in 33 states (including Louisiana), exempts church bishops and other religious leaders from reporting incidents of child sex abuse revealed to them in private confessional settings.
Every state has a set of mandatory reporting laws, requiring people in certain professions to report any suspicions of child sex abuse. These typically include coaches, teachers, police officers, healthcare professionals, and anyone with regular contact with children.
Like attorney-client privilege, any information disclosed in a private confession cannot be used in court unless the perpetrator gives permission.
As a result, clergy who prey on children and reveal their crimes during confession are legally free to continue their abuse.
Although perpetrators are rarely criminally charged, an experienced Louisiana clergy sex abuse attorney can help victims seek justice through a civil lawsuit and obtain compensation for their ordeal, even if it happened decades ago.
Loophole For Clergy Abuse
A woman named Chelsea Goodrich, 31, recently revealed to AP that her father, former Mormon bishop John Goodrich, sexually abused her when she was a child – and that the church went to great lengths to cover it up.
In 2016, Chelsea and her mother gave the police recordings in which Goodrich admitted climbing into bed with his daughter while aroused. He was subsequently arrested and charged with multiple sex crimes.
Goodrich had already been excommunicated from the church after confessing his acts to Bishop Michael Miller, who called a church helpline established specifically for reporting sex abuse incidents.
But because of clergy-penitent privilege, Miller could not legally testify in Goodrich’s criminal trial, forcing prosecutors to drop the charges. Goodrich is still practicing dentistry with access to children.
Mormon Church Director of Risk Management Paul Rytting, on recorded audio obtained by the AP, then offered Chelsea and her mother $300,000 for promising not to file a lawsuit.
More than 130 legislative attempts have been made to change or eliminate clergy-penitent privilege. All have failed.
The country’s most influential religious institutions – the Mormon Church, the Catholic Church, and Jehovah’s Witnesses – have successfully convinced lawmakers nationwide to uphold the loophole again and again. Notably, many high-ranking members of these churches are also state legislators.
According to the Mormon church, serious abuse cases reported on the helpline are directed to the law firm that represents the church in Salt Lake City. The investigation found that the church relies heavily on that helpline to cover up the abuse.
Rytting has said in sworn testimony that the helpline keeps no records or destroys them daily. But he is also recorded telling Chelsea Goodrich that he could find out whether her father had “repented” for his interactions with her by checking helpline records.
Clergy-Penitent Privilege in the Catholic Church
The Mormon church isn’t the only religious conglomerate to utilize this loophole.
The Catholic Church was rocked by a sweeping 2002 Boston Globe investigation that revealed decades of widespread child sex abuse in archdioceses across the country, including New Orleans.
A report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that 4,300 U.S. Catholic clergy had been accused of abuse by more than 10,000 people during a 52-year period.
Less than 400 were convicted.
The Catholic church created a charter, called the Dallas Charter, as a place for American bishops to report evidence of abuse. But most of the accused were simply removed from the priesthood and transitioned into civilian positions, many of which involve close contact with children.
A 2018 grand jury report from Philadelphia named more than 300 Catholic priests there who had been accused of abusing over 1,000 children in 70 years. It wasn’t until then Catholic dioceses began releasing the names of the accused.
The Archdiocese of New Orleans’ list currently has more than 75 names, making the institution the largest known employer of pedophiles in the city’s history.
Unfortunately, many of the accused have passed away, taking the chance for justice away from Louisiana clergy abuse victims.
How a Sex Abuse Attorney Can Help
Catholic leaders are currently pushing back against efforts to remove clergy-penitent privilege from several states. The Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware, said that breaking the confessional seal of protection would “incur an automatic excommunication that could only be pardoned by the pope himself.”
“It is almost as though it is a pass for priests,” said Michael McDonnell, a spokesperson for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “We hope politicians in every state would be encouraged to produce some legislation that would further safeguard children from any unnecessary damage.”
Until efforts to change the legislation are successful, child sex abuse survivors’ best chances at justice and compensation for their traumatic injuries are to find a clergy sex abuse lawyer to assist with a civil lawsuit.
Many clergy abuse survivors never report what happened to them, fearing retribution or shame. But if you have experienced sexual abuse at the hands of a trusted religious figure, you deserve justice – and there is a path forward.
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