Arizona Supreme Court: Mormon leaders don't have to report confessions of abuse
Paul Adams confessed to abusing his daughter. The LDS Church kept his secret. More children were hurt as a result.
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As if we needed another reason for requiring religious leaders to be mandated reporters, the Arizona Supreme Court has ruled that the Mormon Church doesn’t have to report child sex abuse if someone admitted to it within the context of a confessional.
The case in question involved a man named Paul Adams, who confessed to Mormon Bishop John Herrod that he was molesting his five-year-old daughter. Instead of reporting him to the police, Herrod spoke with the man’s wife, Leizza Adams, and… did nothing else.
He didn’t have to because Arizona, like many other states, doesn’t require religious leaders to report instances of abuse to law enforcement if they learned about it through an act of confession. That’s not true everywhere. If a public school teacher learned that a student was being abused at home, that teacher has a legal obligation to tell the student’s counselor, who can then take appropriate action. But not pastors. Not bishops. Not priests. If someone tells them a secret, believing it will remain a secret, then the law allows those leaders to keep it a secret, even if people are getting hurt.
Because of Herrod’s faith-based negligence, Adams continued to sexually abuse his daughter. And then, when he had another child in 2015, he molested her too. And he videotaped these attacks and posted them online.
It was only when those videos came to the attention of (secular) law enforcement officials that Adams was charged with any crimes.
(Both girls and their three other siblings were thankfully adopted, albeit by different families. The wife was later “indicted on 12 criminal counts.” Adams himself was indicted on 11 counts of child sexual abuse, but hanged himself in prison in 2017 while awaiting trial.)
We often hear about the “clergy-penitent privilege” in the context of the Catholic Church, but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is just as awful. If there’s any way for the LDS Church to deal with a problem internally before it makes its way to the outside world, that’s the preference. But time and time again, they’ve failed to take care of the problems and abuse has thrived.
Last year, Adams’ children—the victims of his abuse—filed a lawsuit against the Mormon Church and several ranking members accusing them of conspiracy and negligence by not reporting Adams’ confession. A lower court judge ruled in their favor, saying his actions “demonstrate a lack of repentance and a profound disregard” for the Church’s beliefs, thereby giving up his right to have his confession remain a secret.
But the Arizona Court of Appeals overturned that decision, saying in December that the Church was under no obligation to cooperate with law enforcement on this matter. They didn’t have to turn over Adams’ disciplinary records nor did they have to answer questions from the Adams’ children’s attorneys.
Now the state’s Supreme Court has upheld that decision:
The Supreme Court affirmed the appeals court’s finding that church disciplinary records regarding Adams are confidential under Arizona law and that attorneys cannot compel church leaders to answer questions about Adams’ 2010 confession or 2013 excommunication.
Naturally, the Church celebrated that decision while insisting it takes abuse seriously, two ideas that are inherently contradictory:
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints agrees with the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision,” the church said in a statement. “We are deeply saddened by the abuse these children suffered from their father. The church has no tolerance for abuse.”
No tolerance… unless a monster tells us he’s a monster under the umbrella of religion, in which case, the victims are out of luck.
All of this just means Arizona lawmakers need to take action to remove clergy-penitent privilege from the law. Religious leaders should have no ability to keep abuse a secret just because they learned about it during an act of confession. The irony is that the Republicans who control the state legislature, despite all their grandstanding about protecting kids, will never take the steps necessary to give less power to faith-based organizations. Religious dogma always overrides the safety of children.
The reason religious institutions don’t want the exemption taken off the books is because they value their secrecy more than others’ safety. Anyone who belongs to the Catholic Church, or the LDS Church, or any other institution fighting to keep this secrecy in place is enabling the abusers.
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