Arizona Senate Bill To Modify Clergy-Penitent Privilege Fails

A bill requiring Arizona clergy to report child sex abuse, including abuse revealed during confession, has failed.

Sexual Abuse/Assault Legislation Update

An Arizona Senate bill surrounding clergy-specific mandatory reporting laws has failed. Senate Bill 1008 (SB 1008) would have waived clergy-penitent privilege, requiring clergy members to report child sex abuse discovered during confession.

This bill would have greatly impacted religious organizations such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Latter-day Saints) and the Catholic Church in the state of Arizona.

What Is Clergy-Penitent Privilege?

Clergy-penitent privilege allows clergy members to withhold reporting anything said during confidential communications.

For example, clergy-penitent privilege legally allows a Catholic priest to refrain from reporting crimes disclosed during confession.

In some states, it may also protect clergy members from being compelled to speak on abuse in a court of law.

Arizona is not the first state to encounter roadblocks when considering clergy abuse legislation. Recently, North Dakota lawmakers withdrew a similar bill regarding mandatory clergy reporting after the Catholic Church fought the change. Additionally, Pennsylvania lawmakers were thwarted in their attempts to pass a “look back” window for child sexual abuse victims.  

Sexual Abuse Survivor Introduces Senate Bill 1008

In January 2021, Tucson Senator Victoria Steele introduced Senate Bill 1008 (SB 1008). Steele is a survivor of sexual abuse. She said speaking on this bill reignites her own past trauma.

“This is the hardest thing in the world for me to do, to talk about this, but I have to because it is real and people need to understand. We can protect children, but not if we keep it secret.”

Senator Victoria Steele, D-TucsonAZ Mirror

Steele was reportedly worried about the bill’s ability to progress through the Senate. This is the second bill of its kind that Steele introduced to the Senate. Both bills failed. 

Steele said she introduced the second bill partially in response to a recent sex abuse case in Bisbee, Arizona.

Abuse In Bisbee, AZ Inspired Senate Bill

In 2017, Leizza and Paul Douglas Adams of Bisbee, Arizona, were indicted on 27 charges related to physical and sexual abuse against minors. The victims in this case were the couple’s three children. 

Paul Douglas Adams admitted the abuse to two bishops of the Latter-day Saints. Neither bishop reported the abuse to the authorities. Thus, Adams was able to continue abusing his children for several years without legal consequences. 

Steele’s bill sought to prevent similar scenarios from happening in the future. If SB 1008 passed, clergy members, like the bishops Adams confessed to, would have been required to report the abuse they discovered through confession. Steele’s bill could have protected future Arizona child victims from the long-term abuse Adams’ children suffered.

“I can’t imagine why anyone who is in a religion should be exempt from reporting child abuse.”

Senator Victoria Steele, D-TucsonAZ Mirror

Senate Committee Denies A Hearing For SB 1008

SB 1008 was submitted to the Health and Human Services Committee, but it will not receive a hearing. Committee head Senator Nancy Barto sent a statement to News 4 Tucson, explaining why the bill will not progress.

“I believe [the bill] would not actually solve the problem, as there is no evidence that forcing priests to disclose the contents of a confession would have prevented a case of child abuse,” Barto said.

“Furthermore, it could actually be detrimental, rather than protective of crime victims, as removing this limited exception would very likely result in perpetrators simply not bringing the matter to confession.”

The Future Of Clergy-Penitent Privilege In Arizona

Though her bills have twice failed, Senator Steele says she will not abandon her mission.

She told News 4 Tucson, “I’m not giving up, and again I am incredibly disappointed… When a child tells you that they are being abused, you have a moral and a legal responsibility to report that, to protect the children.”

Steele has received some support from figures outside of the Arizona Senate. Milwaukee priest James Connell sent Steele an email in support of the bill.

“What kind of religion wants to protect criminals over protecting children? That has just got to change and move past that. Now, if our faith is about truth and justice and love, it has to be about protecting children before we protect criminals.”

Father James Connell, Archdiocese of MilwaukeeNews 4 Tucson

If you are a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, sexual assault or a serious physical assault, you may have legal rights. Our team of attorneys is here to help you seek justice against predators and the organizations that cover up or ignore your abuse. Learn more about your legal options, the claims process and potential compensation.

Request a free, confidential abuse case evaluation by calling or sending a message through our secure contact form.

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