If there had been a Mormon bishop in the cult classic The Princess Bride, I’m fairly sure this piece of dialogue would have been in the movie. Inigo Montoya to LDS bishop: “Confidentiality. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” We should also consider the view of Benjamin Franklin, who famously said, “Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead.”

This is suddenly a topic in the news in part because of this story in the Salt Lake Tribune: “BYU requires new hires to waive their right to clergy confidentiality.” (I linked to the msn.com version of the article so everyone can access it.) Just on the headline alone, we can discern three things about the LDS view of clergy confidentiality: (1) The LDS Church affirms there is such a right. (2) The Church believes the person conferring and communicating with their bishop or stake president holds that right and must give permission if it is to be waived. And (3) whatever the value of such a right to the person communicating with the bishop, it is significantly outweighed by the Church’s interest in learning about anything a BYU faculty or staff member might have disclosed to an LDS bishop during their conversations that relate to that faculty or staff member’s “worthiness” to hold a temple recommend and to work at BYU. So if you work for BYU, your temple recommend doubles as a work permit.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these three claims.

The Church Affirms Clergy Confidentiality. What Does That Mean?

I could write fifty paragraphs on this, but I’ll try to keep it to a dozen or so. First let’s see what the LDS General Handbook currently says about confidentiality. Here is from section 31.4:

Do not share confidential information with anyone—including your spouse or other Church leaders—unless the member gives permission. Continue to keep such matters confidential even after you are released. Breaking confidences can harm a member’s faith, trust, and testimony. Members are more likely to seek help from Church leaders if they know that what they share will be kept confidential.

That sounds good, except it is widely known that bishops sometimes do share information learned in discussions with individual ward members with the stake president or the bishop’s counselors or the bishop’s wife or the whole Ward Council. How often does this occur? Do one in three bishops do this? One in ten? I would probably summarize this rule as follows: “Information of a personal nature that you disclose to your bishop will probably be kept confidential. If your bishop shares this information with others, he might ask your permission first.”

What the Church calls clergy confidentiality is similar in some ways to the priest-penitent privilege. This refers to circumstances under which a priest — construed broadly as any church official who confers privately in a pastoral mode with members — would be barred from testifying in court about information shared by a member in a private priest-penitent conversation. The particulars of this privilege (how broad it is, who holds the privilege, and so forth) is a matter of state law and varies by state. In the LDS scenario, the privilege would not be limited to a conversation in the bishop’s office, as the Handbook in section 31.1.4 tells the bishop, “If meeting at the meetinghouse makes the member uncomfortable, decide together on a different place to meet.” Here is a key observation to take away from this section: The LDS obligation to keep clergy-obtained information confidential (an LDS policy) is considerably broader than the priest-penitent privilege (defined by state statute).

Let’s summarize. The best way for an LDS member to keep confidential information confidential is to not disclose it to the bishop. The second-best way to keep confidential information confidential is to not give the bishop permission to share it with anyone else.

Three quick detours before getting to the second point. First, as far as I can tell, this discussion of clergy confidentiality has nothing to do with the LDS bishop’s hotline. The Handbook seems quite clear that if the member does not give permission, then no confidential information should be shared. The person on the other end of the hotline wouldn’t (well, shouldn’t) have anything to add to that directive. That’s not a matter of state law, it’s a straightforward LDS policy. If the member doesn’t give permission, a bishop must not share confidential information with anyone, period. Well, almost period.

Second, there are state mandatory reporting laws concerning cases of abuse. Like the priest-penitent privilege, the particulars of state mandatory reporting laws vary by state. Obviously, there may be a conflict between clergy confidentiality (the LDS policy) or a priest-penitent privilege (defined by a state statute) and a state’s mandatory reporting law, which statute might or might not include an exemption from that duty to report for a member of the clergy. My understanding is that’s the specific and rather narrow purpose of the LDS bishop’s hotline: to help an LDS bishop navigate the tricky state law questions of a bishop’s obligation to report information about a case of abuse (mandatory reporting), state law questions about a bishop’s duty to not report (under a state law exemption or a state’s priest-penitent privilege), and the middle ground where a bishop is neither required to report nor barred from reporting. I would wager that every single bishop who encounters a report of abuse is happy to have the help line to get some guidance for how to proceed. I only hope that the guidance given over the help line accurately reflects the relevant state law for each particular case. In situations where state law provides a bishop some discretion on how to proceed, I hope the person on the other end of the help line provides sound ethical guidance to the bishop. In most cases, I would think the bishop himself has a better moral compass than the person on the other end of the hotline.

Here’s what the Handbook states about abuse at section 31.1.8, and you can certainly go read the referenced sections for additional information:

Abuse cannot be tolerated in any form. Take reports of abuse seriously. If you become aware that someone has been abused, report the abuse to civil authorities and counsel with the bishop. Guidelines for reporting and responding to abuse are provided in 38.6.2.

For information about what bishops and stake presidents should do when they become aware of abuse, see

Third detour: the term “confidential information” is never defined in the LDS policy. Given how broad the LDS concept of worthiness is, the term “confidential information” is probably best construed as potentially anything you tell your bishop.

The Person, Not the Bishop or the Church, Holds That Right

This one is short and simple. The Church requires faculty and staff to sign away their right to clergy confidentiality (which is different from waiving one’s legal right to the priest-penitent privilege if granted by state law) because it holds that the person, not the bishop and not the Church, holds that right to confidentiality. I guess the point to glean from this is no member should, in an offhand or casual way, give a bishop any impression that they give permission to the bishop to share confidential information unless they truly and objectively do want the bishop to share that information. It’s not like there’s a form to sign. If a bishop says, “I’ll bet the stake president would have some helpful guidance on this difficult issue,” and you respond, “Yes, the stake president is a wise man” — whoops, you probably just forfeited confidentiality without knowing you did so. You should probably respond to any such offhand remark by the bishop with “this is a confidential conversation and should not be shared with anyone, period.” Or, “I’m sure you will seek my formal and express permission to share confidential information with anyone else, including the stake president.”

If You Are BYU Faculty or Staff, All Bets Are Off

I don’t know if the third point is a real change in procedure for BYU. Bishops and stake presidents already sign some sort of ecclesiastical endorsement form for LDS students, faculty, and staff. I can’t find the actual form online (it seems to be an online procedure now, there may not be a printed form anymore) so they are already conditioned to provide information about faculty and staff to BYU. If someone from BYU calls a bishop or stake president to follow up on something checked or detailed in that form, I’m fairly sure most bishops or stake president share additional information without giving much thought to the general LDS confidentiality policy. If the Church, including BYU and bishops, were serious about clergy confidentiality, there wouldn’t be an ecclesiastical endorsement in the first place.

Here is what the Salt Lake Tribune article reports about the new procedure (ellipsis in original):

[W]ording has been added to the agreement candidates must sign, authorizing the Ecclesiastical Clearance Office at church headquarters to “contact” their lay leaders to determine their “worthiness” for employment at BYU. Candidates must agree that their bishops can disclose “matters that priesthood leaders would otherwise keep confidential … to the extent the confidential matters relate to the standards of employment.

I think this new procedure accomplishes two fairly narrow steps. First, it makes all BYU faculty and staff fully aware that, being associated with BYU, they have no clergy confidentiality. If they are considering confessing something to the bishop, they might as well just do it on Facebook (slight exaggeration). Second, it gives BYU leverage over those few bishops who, when contacted by BYU for further information on a faculty or staff member, would decline to provide additional information on the grounds that it is confidential. A bishop who doesn’t want to share information on a ward member who has ties to BYU will have to come up with another excuse. “I don’t recall that conversation” or “I forget the details” might work.

A final observation. It would appear the Church, at the end of the day, doesn’t really place much weight or importance on clergy confidentiality and on clergy pastoral counseling in general. If they’re willing to jettison that right for BYU faculty and staff, that just shows that it’s not really that important in the first place. BYU faculty and staff, it seems, should rely on general guidance in the scriptures, on their own conscience (aka the light of Christ), and on professional counseling if needed or desired. The Church, in a strange way, seems to be acknowledging that the pastoral role of LDS bishops for BYU faculty and staff just isn’t that important. Which suggests that, in fact, the LDS leadership view is that the pastoral role of LDS bishops for any member of the Church just isn’t that important.


A few disclaimers. First, one never really knows whether a media story gets all the details right. I doubt the Church, if contacted by a reporter asking details about how the BYU faculty and staff vetting and endorsement system is supposed to work and how it *actually* works, is going to provide much information. “That’s for us to know and for you to not find out” is probably the gist of the official response.

Second, how the procedures are supposed to work as spelled out in this or that policy, and how the system *actually* works, are two different things. Given the anti-intellectual bias of LDS leadership in general, there are probably LDS bishops who think anyone with a PhD shouldn’t be teaching LDS youth, including BYU students. Maybe the Church should just get out of the university education business entirely.

I don’t have any great prompts for this discussion. The likely consequences of the new procedures may be fairly minimal. A few potential LDS applicants who are otherwise “worthy” in the LDS sense may nevertheless decline to proceed with their faculty or staff application. A few current faculty and staff may decide to pursue other employment opportunities. It’s not clear whether the long-term impact on students at BYU will be positive (protect students from those faculty wolves in sheep’s clothing who would otherwise impart uncorrelated information to them) or negative (prevent students from exposure to faculty who would expand their minds by imparting uncorrelated information to them).