Court cites clergy-penitent privilege in dismissing child sex abuse lawsuit against Mormon church

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An Arizona judge has dismissed a high-profile child sexual abuse lawsuit against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ruling that church officials who knew that a church member was sexually abusing his daughter had no duty to report the abuse to police or social service agencies because the information was received during a spiritual confession.

In a ruling on Friday, Cochise County Superior Court Judge Timothy Dickerson said the state’s clergy-penitent privilege excused two bishops and several other officials with the church, widely known as the Mormon church, from the state’s child sex abuse mandatory reporting law because Paul Adams initially disclosed during a confession that he was sexually abusing his daughter.

“Church defendants were not required under the Mandatory Reporting Statute to report the abuse of Jane Doe 1 by her father because their knowledge of the abuse came from confidential communications which fall within the clergy-penitent exception,” Dickerson wrote in his decision.

Although the church excommunicated Adams, its decision to withhold his abusive behavior from civil authorities allowed him to continue abusing his daughter for seven years, during which he began abusing a second daughter, starting when she was just 6 weeks old.

Adams recorded his abuse of his daughters on video and posted the pornographic videos on the internet. The abuse stopped only when Homeland Security agents arrested Adams in 2017 in Arizona, after authorities in New Zealand and the United States traced one of the videos to him. Adams died by suicide in custody while awaiting trial.

Lynne Cadigan, an attorney representing the Adams children who filed the 2021 lawsuit, said she will appeal the ruling. “How do you explain to young victims that a rapist’s religious beliefs are more important than their right to be free from rape?” she asked. Cadigan also said the ruling, if allowed to stand, would “completely eviscerate the state’s child protection law.”

In a prepared statement, the church said, “We are pleased with the Arizona Superior Court’s decision granting summary judgment for the Church and its clergy and dismissing the plaintiffs’ claims. Contrary to some news reports and exaggerated allegations, the court found that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its clergy handled this matter consistent with Arizona law.”

An investigation by The Associated Press last year cited the Adams case while revealing a system the Mormon church uses to protect itself from costly lawsuits by keeping instances of serious child sexual abuse secret, at times allowing the abuse to continue for years, harming or endangering children.

The investigation highlighted the use of a church Helpline used by bishops to report instances of child sex abuse to church officials in Salt Lake City. Church workers fielding the calls keep no records, or destroy them at the end of each day, according to church officials. And they refer serious instances of abuse to attorneys for the church, who rely on a second privilege, the attorney-client privilege, to continue keeping the abuse secret.

During the course of its investigation the AP revealed that a retired Utah legislator, an attorney with the law firm of Kirton McConkie, advised Bishop John Herrod not to report Adams’ abuse to civil authorities, after Herrod contacted him through the church Helpline. In the Mormon church, a bishop’s responsibilities are roughly equivalent to those of a Catholic priest, although Mormon bishops are lay people.

Church records disclosed during the lawsuit showed that attorney Merrill Nelson held multiple conversations with Herrod and a second bishop, Robert “Kim” Mauzy, over a two-year span and recommended they withhold the information from civil authorities, based on church doctrine and the clergy-penitent privilege.

The AP found that 33 states exempt clergy of any denomination from laws requiring professionals such as teachers, physicians, and psychotherapists from reporting information about child sex abuse to police or child welfare officials if the abuse was divulged during a confession.

Although child welfare advocates in some states have backed legislation to eliminate the privilege, lobbying by the Catholic Church, the Mormon church, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses has successfully persuaded lawmakers to maintain the exemption.

This loophole in mandatory child sex abuse reporting laws has resulted in an unknown number of predators being permitted to continue abusing children for years, despite having confessed the behavior to religious officials. In some cases, the privilege has been invoked to shield religious groups from civil and criminal liability after the abuse became known to civil authorities, the AP found.

Cadigan argued that the church interpreted the clergy-penitent privilege more broadly than the state legislature intended in the Adams case by applying it to others in the church, in addition to Herrod, who learned of Adams’ confession. They included Adams’ wife, Leizza, and members of the church disciplinary council that excommunicated Adams. But Dickerson ruled that those exchanges collectively amounted to “a confidential communication or a confession.”

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