Investigative reporters Jason Dearen and Mike Rezendes joined forces to reveal how religious lobbying across the U.S. has protected a loophole that exempts clergy from reporting child abuse to civil authorities if the abuse is revealed in a spiritual setting. The subject had surfaced in Rezendes’ August investigation into the mishandling and coverup of child sex abuse cases by the Mormon church.

The pair began by looking at political efforts to close the loophole in Arizona and Utah, two heavily Mormon states. In each case, powerful Mormon lawmakers and the Catholic Church had successfully quashed the bills.

Clergy combo

In photo at left, MJ and her adoptive mother sit for an interview in Sierra Vista, Ariz., Oct. 27, 2021. State authorities placed MJ in foster care after learning that her father, the late Paul Adams, sexually assaulted her and posted video of the assaults on the internet. Mormon church member Adams repeatedly raped his two daughters and allegedly abused one of his four sons for years after Utah Rep. Merrill Nelson, a church lawyer, advised a Mormon bishop in Arizona not to report the abuse to civil authorities because of Arizona’s clergy privilege law, according to documents revealed in a lawsuit. Nelson is shown at right in special session at the Utah State Capitol, April 18, 2018.

AP Photos / Dario Lopez-Mills (left); Rick Bowmer

Dearen then reached out to AP’s statehouse reporters in all 33 states that have the loophole, finding similar dynamics: The Catholic and Mormon churches, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses successfully defeated more than 130 bills seeking to create or amend child sex abuse reporting laws. In Maryland, a Catholic cardinal who would later be defrocked for sexually abusing children and adult seminarians had led the campaign to preserve the loophole.

The story had an impact before it was even published. After learning of the loophole from AP reporter Wilson Ring, Vermont state Sen. Richard Sears, a Democrat, said he would introduce a bill in the next legislative session to try to close it. “I wasn’t even aware it existed,” Sears told AP.

New legislative efforts are also expected in both Utah and Arizona, where the story played widely online and was tweeted out by major newspapers and political reporters. And despite the story publishing just as Hurricane Ian was bearing down on Florida, readers responded to Rezendes and Dearen with notes of thanks.