Utah bill would let churches apologize for abuse without admitting guilt

SALT LAKE CITY - A bill being drafted in the Utah State Legislature would allow churches and other nonprofit organizations to apologize for abuse, but not admit culpability.

The forthcoming bill, sponsored by Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, is an effort to provide abuse victims with some measure of comfort.

"We want to empower these organizations to reach out and minister and help and support victims in their most dire time of need," he said in an interview with KSTU.

Rep. Ivory said an apology wouldn't mean an admission of liability in a civil lawsuit, nor would it block any litigation.

"They’re able to reach out, to apologize, to minister, to aid the victims without that being considered any type of basis of liability to such organizations," he said. "Now it doesn’t mean that if there’s some liability, if they’re culpable for something, that’s a separate question."

Often, abuse victims have said that when they report crimes involving clergy they are met with a wall of silence from the institution. Rep. Ivory said he hoped the bill would allow for a measure of empathy in a litigious society.

"It really helps to reach out to the victims. No matter what’s going on, the victim shouldn’t bear that cost," he said.

The bill is being considered in the Utah State Legislature at a time when both The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City have faced abuse scandals within their faiths.

The LDS Church is currently being sued by McKenna Denson, who alleges she was raped while at the faith's Missionary Training Center. Her attorney, Craig Vernon, said there is some logic to the bill.

"Legislation aimed at protecting institutions from legal liability for harboring sexual predators instead of protecting children and vulnerable adults may send the wrong message to survivors," he told KSTU in a text message. "With that said, an apology can be critical in the healing process. Legislation that does not strip away any rights from survivors but gives institutions comfort that an apology won’t be construed as an admission is something that may make sense as long as survivor groups are involved in the discussion. I believe for most survivors, an apology must be accompanied by action, otherwise it rings hollow."

The Survivor's Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said some abuse victims might want an apology from an institution, but the head of Utah's branch preferred to see more action taken against abusive organizations.

"There are going to be survivors who would welcome an apology," said Judy Larson. "For them, I think this would be a good move."

Larson praised Rep. Ivory for his legislation that has consistently looked out for the victims and survivors of abuse. But she questioned whether any organization would actually step up and apologize if they were allowed to do so under the law.

"Rather than an apology for what happened to them, I believe that survivors would be more interested in hearing what concrete actions the institutions are taking to prevent this from happening to other children," Larson said.

The LDS Church told KSTU it has yet to review the legislation. The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City also declined to comment until it had reviewed a draft of the bill.

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