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AZ judge tosses out child abuse lawsuit against Mormon Church, citing "clergy-penitent" rule
The bishop who heard the confession wasn't obligated to inform police about it. The abuse continued for years.
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In 2010, an Arizona man named Paul Adams confessed to his Mormon Bishop John Herrod that he was molesting his five-year-old daughter.
Herrod called the Mormon Church’s “help line” and was directed to basically keep that information to himself. Don’t tell the police. Don’t tell local child welfare officials. Nothing.
So Herrod did as ordered. Another bishop was informed about the situation, as was Adams’ wife, but that was it.
You can guess what happened next:
… [Adams] continued to molest his daughter, and later, after her birth in 2015, his infant daughter. He made videos of the encounters and posted them on pornographic websites, which were eventually discovered by Interpol, reported to his employer, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and led to criminal charges.
Both girls and their three other siblings were eventually adopted, albeit by (separate) 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.
It was just a tragic situation in every way.
A few years ago, three of the Adams children sued the Mormon Church and its officials for allowing the abuse to occur with their knowledge. Attorney Lynne Cadigan began her legal complaint summing up years of disturbing behavior:
“This case involves horrible sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children between the ages of six (6) weeks and twelve (12) years old that went on for seven (7) years. The biological father of these victims made videos of his rapes and now these videos are everywhere on the world wide web. The perpetrator admitted his abuse and crimes to his Mormon Church, and received counseling for his crimes. The Mormon Church leaders knew about the abuse and yet no one reported these crimes to the authorities. The Mormon Church leaders gave guidance and care to these children for seven (7) years, sat next to them in Church and allowed these vicious crimes to continue.”
But now, in a depressing update to an already devastating story, that case has been tossed out of court.
Last Friday, Cochise County Superior Court Judge Timothy Dickerson ruled that the Church and its leaders were exempt from being sued over these matters because of what’s known as the “clergy-penitent privilege.”
To put that another way: Because Adams’ crime was told to the bishop through the act of confession, the Mormon Church was under no obligation to report his actions to anybody. They were allowed to keep it a secret.
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.”
Leave it to the Mormon Church to do a victory lap after adding more suffering to the lives of child sex abuse victims…
As awful as this news is, it was largely predictable.
This whole story has actually become Exhibit A when it comes to how the Mormon Church covers up this sort of abuse. 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 their preference. But time and time again, they’ve failed to take care of the problems and abuse has thrived.
The reason this is allowed is 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 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.
Even when legislation was proposed to remove that exemption from the law, the Mormon Church and its minions fought it.
To force a clergy member to report a confidential communication “changes the whole nature of the confessional,” said state Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, and a member of the Mormon Church. Earlier this year, he declined to give a hearing to a bill that sought to further narrow the clergy exemption.
The bill, well-intentioned as it might have been, would disrupt centuries of church dogma, said Farnsworth, who as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee has the authority to decide which bills to consider.
Merrill Nelson, another lawyer for the Mormon Church, was the person who told Herrod not to report Adams’ crimes to law enforcement. He was also a Utah legislator for a decade before finally stepping down earlier this year. Utah has a similar law protecting confessions.
The reason religious institutions don’t want the exemption taken off the books is because they value their secrecy more than others’ safety. Their religious dogma is more important than another child getting sexually abused. They believe confessions are a sacrament and anything less than complete confidentiality would be an obstacle to the practice of their faith.
More simply, they just don’t give a shit about abuse victims. The rule turns religious leaders into moral monsters, preventing them from helping those who need it.
The Associated Press’ Michael Rezendes and Jason Dearen put this week’s dismissal in context:
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.
That religious “glaring loophole” has been a blessing for abusers everywhere. They get to pretend they’re getting right with God, all while continuing their predatory ways. Even though the lawsuit here argued that the clergy-penitent privilege shouldn’t have applied to certain members who were involved in these discussions, the judge said the entire situation fell under the umbrella of confession, so the Church and its leaders couldn’t be held responsible for not disclosing the details.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)