New charges: BYU professor engaged in ‘ecclesiastical abuse’ to sexually abuse 3 students
Emily Ashcraft, KSL.com
PROVO, Utah (KSL.com) — A former BYU associate professor charged with sexually abusing a student now faces new criminal charges after police say he engaged in “ecclesiastical abuse to accomplish his sex abuse” of two other students who have now come forward.
Michael James Clay, 47, is now charged with seven counts of forcible sexual abuse, a second-degree felony, involving three students between 2017 and 2020. He had originally faced only two counts until the charges were amended earlier this month.
The three alleged victims were associated with Clay through Brigham Young University. He was their professor, some of them helped him with research, and they all interacted with him in one-on-one interactions that mirrored therapy sessions, according to police affidavits. Court documents allege that Clay discouraged at least two of the the victims from visiting a licensed therapist.
Each alleged victim told police that Clay would use religion to manipulate them, including giving priesthood blessings to them or talking to them about their spiritual alignment, the charging documents state.
He also used his position as an associate professor and his ability to connect them to future jobs to convince them to continue visiting with him or not talk to others about their interactions, according to the charges.
After criminal charges were first filed against him in June of 2020, “several witnesses have come forward with stories of (Clay) threatening them with loss of letters of recommendation and internships if they gave him a bad student evaluation or reported any bad behavior. Another professor stressed the power (Clay) had over his students due to his sole control of the educational program he oversaw and his leverage over students who wanted internships or letters of recommendation,” court documents say.
Clay was head of the Urban and Regional Planning in the Geography Department at BYU. At the time the first charges were filed against him, a BYU spokeswoman said he had not worked at the university since mid-April 2020.
Police say one of the victims whose interactions with Clay led to the new charges disclosed personal problems to him, and then she began meeting with him in his office a few times each week.
The professor would greet the victim with hugs, which became progressively longer and eventually led to him “moving his hands down her back, and fondling her buttocks,” according to the charging documents, which also allege that he held meditation sessions where he would have the student sit on his lap, straddling him, while he sat on the floor.
The alleged victim told police that “although she did not want to participate with this touching, she was afraid of refusing” because Clay was her boss and professor, and her progress in her field of study was at his “sole discretion.”
This woman met the professor in 2017 and continued to visit him a few times each week until March 2020 when their interactions stopped due to the coronavirus, the charging documents say.
A third alleged victim is a former student who worked with Clay as an intern and an employee at his private firm in 2018 and 2019. Clay “manipulated” her into having “counseling sessions” with him, saying he had “single-handedly put together the broken pieces of many girls and that if she wanted to feel Heavenly Father’s love again, she would need to come and talk to him in his office,” BYU and Provo police wrote in the charges.
Police say she told a similar story about counseling sessions turning into physical contact, adding that Clay would hug her and then leave his hands on her buttocks.
Charging documents allege that he asked her “highly personal questions, most of which were sexual in nature,” slid his couch in front of his office door and had her straddle him, then “touched her in places that no professor ever should.” She also told police he told her to wear leggings the next time “so that they could have a better connection.”
The woman said that she was not brave enough to ask him to stop, even though she was “disgusted” by his actions, the charges state.
Investigators say Clay engaged in “ecclesiastical abuse to accomplish his sexual abuse” of the woman by frequently sending her spiritual quotes from church leaders, speaking frequently about religious matters and convincing her to “pledge obedience to him,” despite her objections, according to the charges. Clay is also accused of telling her that the three main influences in her life are her father, her Heavenly Father and her husband. But because she didn’t have a husband, “she was out of balance” and he could “partially fill that role so she could get back into balance.”
Police said Clay told the first victim that he felt inspired by God to engage in physical contact with her, and led her to believe that she could not turn him down.