A year ago, an Associated Press investigation revealed how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints failed to report a case of known child sexual abuse in Arizona to law enforcement which enabled the abuse to continue for seven years. To date, church leadership has scrupulously defended its decision, without any acknowledgment or efforts to remedy its failures to protect these defenseless children, while simultaneously suing its insurance carrier(s) for not paying settlements in other child sex abuse cases.
Although the AP and church dispute certain aspects about this case, they do agree on many facts. Mainly, that in 2010 and 2013 two Latter-day Saint bishops learned through Paul Adams’ confession that he had been sexually abusing his daughter. Following church protocol, the bishops first called the church’s abuse help line alerting church attorneys, who told them not to report the abuse to the authorities. Adams was eventually excommunicated from the church for his crimes but the incessant abuse continued until his arrest in 2017. From 2010 through 2017, the only people outside the Adams family who knew about Paul Adams’ crimes were Latter-day Saint bishops and church attorneys.
A glaring hole throughout this process is that the victims were never part of the church’s decision-making process. Adams talked to a bishop, who talked to an attorney who made a decision to keep the abuse secret — twice. In doing so, the church became complicit and shares responsibility for the prolonged abuse and suffering. The church’s silence deprived these children of an advocate and a voice against their abuser. Reporting abuse initiates healing for victims, which only happens when the abuse stops and the victims are heard. Not reporting delays healing and benefits only the perpetrators and their enablers.
I know because 35 years ago, I was one of four boys sexually assaulted by my Latter-day Saint bishop. When church leaders learned of the abuse, they initially defended the bishop and did nothing. When we filed a police report, many church leaders and members ostracized my family for reporting the crime — generating a belief that I did something wrong and I carried tremendous shame for having let my secret out. Subsequently, I did not feel safe to think, talk or process my abuse for decades.
Safety for children after abuse is felt when words from the adults in charge align with their actions. For thousands of victims, the church’s proclamation that, “[Abuse] cannot be tolerated. It cannot be excused,” is not consistent with numerous decisions to keep abuse hidden even 28 years after the help line was established.
However, Latter-day Saint leaders continue to defend the help line in court and publicly. They contend that not reporting abuse simply follows the law relying on the controversial statute governing clergy-penitent privilege. Arizona law clearly mandates that clergy immediately report cases of known or suspected child abuse to authorities. But the church relies heavily on the privilege statute, which states that clergy “may withhold” information received during confessions only if they determine it is “reasonable and necessary” under church doctrine. By choosing this path, the church contradicts its own statements, protocols, teachings and doctrines regarding child abuse, and ignores its moral and ethical responsibilities to victims.
After the AP’s investigation ran, the church issued a news release declaring, “Our hearts are broken as we learn of any abuse. The Savior Jesus Christ wants us all to do better and be better.” Although the church is not directly culpable for the abuse occurring, they failed to acknowledge that a system created to immediately aid victims of abuse has instead led to more suffering and stymied healing for countless children.
I trust that when the church puts more effort into understanding victims and less resources into defending faulty protocols, reporting of abuse will improve. We need church leaders to better comprehend that most abused children will experience effects of complex post-traumatic stress disorder throughout their lives, that childhood abuse alters brain and psychological development, hampers victims’ ability to forge healthy personal relationships, and increases their long-term risk of chronic disease, addiction, depression, anxiety and suicide. I believe that if the church focused on this, rather than institutional preservation, its approach would change. We need Latter-day Saint leaders to appreciate all the reasons why our hearts break when we learn of abuse inside the church. Most of all, I want their actions to perfectly align with their words: that abuse is never tolerated or excused in this church — ever.
I once received excellent advice from a local church leader after making a series of bad decisions. “You need to be rigorously honest, despite the consequences.” That tough but loving advice was a major catalyst in my repentance process and helped mend relationships that suffered from my actions.
If Latter-day Saint leaders sincerely wish to “do better” as Jesus Christ wants, they can start by listening to and understanding victims. Then rigorously report their cases of abuse, despite the consequences, so that healing may begin. Until then, it seems that the church is perfectly content to continue abiding by the lesser laws of man and not the higher law it preaches.
Robbie Parker is a neonatal physician assistant and co-founder of the Emilie Parker Art Connection, a nonprofit connecting children suffering from trauma, abuse and neglect with the power of art therapy.