He had gone to police in February 2018 with a confession: He spent years creating and sharing child pornography online when he was a teenager, capturing images of nude children who had been at his mother’s in-home day care.
He was a 20-year-old man by this point, and, according to court documents, he told investigators during that interview that this wasn’t the first time he had disclosed to someone that he had made child pornography.
He had told his lay leaders with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints twice about the crimes, in 2016 and in 2017. He was sent home from his mission because of it, he said, but church authorities never reported the crimes to law enforcement.
Utah law has a specific exception allowing church clergy to keep confessions confidential, and they aren’t required to report crimes to the police. Some have been critical of this exemption, and one Utah lawmaker has said she’ll try to get that law changed next year.
But in this case, the man’s crimes came to light only when he got an attorney and disclosed them himself. Details of the confession first became public this week after the Truth & Transparency Foundation, the nonprofit group behind MormonLeaks, shared related documents on its website.
Ultimately, the now-21-year-old man was prosecuted in juvenile court for the crimes, according to court records, and he admitted to six charges of distributing voyeuristic images of a child and two counts of sexual exploitation of a child.
The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify young people who are charged in juvenile court and is not identifying the 21-year-old consistent with that policy.
The man told investigators that he began exchanging child pornography with others online when he was about 14 or 15 years old, according to a search warrant affidavit. He began taking photos of visiting children as they used the bathroom, he said. By the time he was 16, he had started taking photos of the children at his mother’s in-home day care, according to the affidavit.
The man told an investigator that he stopped viewing child pornography in his late teens, but decided while on a church mission to the Dominican Republic that he needed to report what he had done. He told his mission president in late 2016, and he was immediately sent home.
He confessed to the crimes once more in June 2017, according to the affidavit, during a church disciplinary hearing. “He said the church had not made a report to law enforcement,” the investigator wrote in the affidavit.
It’s unclear what prompted the man to go to the police in 2018, and his attorney did not return a request for comment.
When asked about the case, church spokesman Eric Hawkins did not share any specific details about it. He noted that the church is “proactive in its efforts to prevent and address abuse,” and has a 24-hour help line for local leaders to use for guidance to ensure they are complying with reporting laws in their state.
“In addition to complying with reporting laws, the church can proceed with church discipline based on our doctrines and standards,” Hawkins said in a statement. “As part of that process, local leaders teach that full repentance and a return to good standing in the church requires that the individual resolve all legal obligations required for their actions (reporting to authorities and being accountable for their crimes).”
Deputy Davis County Attorney Ryan Perkins said the decision to charge the man in juvenile court was made because the man’s attorney had come to prosecutors and said he would confess only if they had agreed to keep the case in the juvenile system — which has jurisdiction over young people until age 21.
“We wouldn’t have been able to get this information any other way,” Perkins said. “So we agreed to not prosecute in the adult court.”
The man was sent to a juvenile secure care facility — the youth equivalent of jail — in September 2018. Court records do not detail how long he was at that center, but he aged out of the system and would have been released when he turned 21 a few months later that November.
Perkins said the time the defendant spent in the juvenile center was shorter than what prosecutors would have liked. He noted that because the man hadn’t completed sex offender treatment while at the facility, he is now on the sex offender registry.
“It was one of those Catch-22s,” he said, “where we wouldn’t have been able to develop that evidence and notify those victims if we didn’t make the agreement that we did.”
Though his church officials were not required by law to report his crimes to the police, that could change in the future. Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, told FOX 13 News that she will sponsor a bill next year that will change the law to require clergy to report child sex abuse to authorities. She said her bill does not target a specific religious group or institution.
“We’re still allowing people to use a religious institution to confess their sin, but yet they continue to go on and hurt other children,” she told FOX 13. "I have a problem with that.”
Editor’s note • The Salt Lake Tribune and FOX 13 are content-sharing partners.