Thirty-three states exempt clergy from laws requiring professionals such as teachers and doctors to report information about alleged child abuse to police or child welfare officials if the church deems the information privileged, an Associated Press review has found.

This loophole has resulted in an unknown number of child sex abuse cases being allowed to continue for years despite the perpetrator having confessed the behavior to religious officials. In many of these cases, the privilege has been invoked to shield religious groups from civil and criminal liability after the abuse became known to civil authorities.

Over the past two decades lawmakers in these states have proposed more than 130 bills seeking to create or amend child sex abuse reporting laws, the AP review found. All either targeted the loophole and failed to close it, or amended the mandatory reporting statute without touching the clergy privilege amid intense opposition from religious groups.

Both bills addressing the clergy-penitent privilege in Missouri were referred to committee and never received hearings. The sponsor told the AP she considered it a lost cause because of behind-the-scenes pushback from Catholic members.

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