Religious Liberty and Sex Abuse

I believe in religious liberty.  It is a Biblical concept.  Our first responsibility is to God and not to the state.  Peter and John stated it very well when called before the Jewish Sanhedrin and told to stop testifying about Jesus.  They said, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him?  You be the judge. As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”  (Acts 4:19b-20, NIV)

Religious liberty is also a constitutional guarantee enshrined in the very opening line of our Bill of Rights, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  It is the very first right mentioned in the very first amendment to our constitution.    

At the same time, I believe that the sexual abuse of children is a horrible crime.  And it would be a horrific abuse of religious liberty to protect the rights of sexual abusers.

I believe that the Arizona Supreme Court made a grave mistake this week in ruling that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) can refuse to answer questions or turn over documents about a member who confessed to the sexual abuse of his daughters.  They interpreted an Arizona law as giving priority to clergy-penitent privilege over the rights of the abused. 

Arizona law requires that clergy are required to report information about child sexual abuse—unless they hear of the crime through a spiritual confession subject to clergy-penitent privilege.  Clergy-penitent privilege allows members of the clergy (pastors, priests, bishops, etc.) who learn of a crime through the act of spiritual confessions to keep the information secret.  It is normally a good thing which encourages people to confess their sins to their church leaders so that their sins can be dealt with.  But I believe that it is being abused when it is used as an argument to protect sex abusers. 

In the specific case before the Supreme Court, the sexual abuse of a daughter continued for seven years and then involved a younger daughter.  The abuser even posted videos of his abuse on the internet and boasted of his abuse on social media—which led to his arrest with no help from the church.  The court could have logically decided that his right to clergy-penitent privilege (if it even exists in a case like this one) had been waived once he violated that privilege by boasting of it.

The court did not do so.  Instead of accepting that argument, they elevated clergy-penitent privilege to an absolute status that goes well beyond the intent of our laws and our constitution by ignoring other rights such as the rights of children.  The church can now continue to refuse to testify or turn over documents to the authorities.  (The church did ultimately conduct church discipline and excommunicate the abuser, but they have not helped the authorities in any way in prosecuting him.)

There are admittedly many highly technical legal issues involved.  I am not a constitutional lawyer; I’m a pastor who believes strongly in religious liberty.  I would quickly get in over my head if I attempted to explain all the legal jargon and constitutional issues involved in this case.

But I want to be clear about what I believe.  I believe strongly in religious liberty.  I believe strongly in clergy-penitent privilege, and I always keep confessions made to me as strictly confidential.

But I do not believe that the right to the clergy-penitent privilege extends to the protection of sexual abusers.  To use religious liberty as an excuse to protect abusers is a violation of Biblical concepts and our legal responsibilities.

The court erred.  It should be appealed to the Supreme Court, who—I believe—should clarify the laws and interpretations.  We cannot elevate clergy-penitent privilege to absolute status.  Churches, pastors, priests, bishops, and other religious figures must do everything within their power to protect children. 

The protection of children should be an absolute value that surpasses our right to religious liberty.  


  1. Margaret Carl says:

    It should go without saying that religious liberty and sexual abuse are diametrically opposed! Clergy, penitent- privilege should never be a protection for serious crimes such as child, sexual abuse, murders, etc. It should be the responsibility of any individual to report a crime such as this. In pursuit of righteous living, pastors should openly impart the truths and advance the gospel Jesus laid out for us, in his Word. In the tumultuous world we live in, pastors should feel free to preach about what God says, regarding topics, like homosexuality, gay marriage, transgenderism and other sins which have become so prevalent today. This has nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with hearing God’s word, believing it and acting in obedience to it.

  2. Erick Van Hofwegen says:

    I firmly support my pastors comments above. This is not correct for the court to allow this. It also is a very bad look for Christ like churches across America. I pray that this gets reversed at the Supreme Court level.