Utah, Arizona dismiss bar complaints against LDS Church lawyer who gave advice on when to report sex abuse

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Church Office Building, located at 50 E. North Temple St, Salt Lake City, is home to the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In a case that highlighted when lay clergy within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might report sex abuse, the agencies that regulate attorneys in Utah, Arizona and California have dismissed complaints a prosecutor filed against a lawyer representing the Utah-based faith.

Arizona’s was the last bar association to dismiss the complaint filed against Joseph Osmond, a lawyer with the Salt Lake City firm of Kirton McConkie. In an April 29 letter, a senior counsel for the State Bar of Arizona wrote that the case had been investigated and staff determined “no probable cause exists for the filing of a formal complaint."

“The charges have, therefore, been dismissed.”

The letter was addressed to the complainant, James Schoppmann, chief deputy of the Mohave County Attorney’s Office in Kingman, Ariz. Schoppmann, who shared the letter and similar notices from the Utah and California bars with The Salt Lake Tribune, had complained that Osmond gave legal advice in a state where he was not licensed to practice, and that advice caused a case of child sexual abuse to go unreported for a time.

Court documents allege a now-teen was sexually abused from 2006 through April 2016. In January 2018, a grand jury in Mohave County indicted one of the teen’s parents on four felony counts related to abuse. Then, in April 2018, another grand jury indicted the second parent on one felony count of child abuse and two felony counts of failure to report child abuse.

The Tribune generally does not identify victims of sex abuse and sometimes withholds the names of suspects to avoid indirectly identifying victims.

Schoppmann, in an interview this week, maintained the system the LDS Church put in place to educate its leaders on when to report child abuse — a system Osmond explained in a presentation to victim advocates — extended the suffering of a victim in his county.

“It failed this victim,” Schoppmann said. “It really did.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Church Office Building, located at 50 E N Temple St, Salt Lake City, is home to the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Osmond and Kirton McConkie argued he did nothing wrong. Bill Maledon, a Phoenix attorney who represented Osmond in the bar complaints, wrote in an email to The Tribune: “All of the Bar complaints filed by Mr. Schoppmann were dismissed because they were without merit — as each of the State Bars clearly determined.”

Lee Wright, president of Kirton McConkie, issued a stronger defense.

“The State Bar Associations of Utah and Arizona saw the deep flaws in these allegations,” Wright said in a statement. “Joseph is a well-respected attorney and trusted shareholder of our firm. He has devoted his professional life in and outside of the practice of law to the protection of children.

“Any suggestion that the firm, its clients, or Joseph would endanger children or engage in unethical or illegal behavior is false and offensive.”

Documents don’t make clear the date on which any LDS Church authority learned of the abuse. Schoppmann said the teen and the family have long lived in Mohave County but used to attend a Latter-day Saint ward, or congregation, just across the state line in California.

Exhibits in the bar complaint say that when the teen’s family moved into a new ward in Kingman, Osmond contacted the bishop there, Randall Gremlich.

Osmond informed Gremlich there was a legal issue with the teen’s family, the exhibit says.

Gremlich later told staffers from the Mohave County Attorney’s Office that Osmond, a former Utah Highway Patrol trooper, instructed Gremlich to call him if anyone had any questions about the issues with the teen. Gremlich also said Osmond sent him the text of two letters written on church letterhead.

One letter encouraged the teenager to tell a professional counselor or law enforcement what happened.

“In fact, I would be happy to make a report to the authorities if you direct me to do so,” Gremlich wrote. “I am bound, however, by church doctrine and by the law of the land to honor your request for confidentiality.”

Schoppmann’s bar complaint asserts there was a second letter, which the teen and the mother signed at Osmond’s request, that affirmed neither the mother or child wanted Gremlich to report the matter to law enforcement.

The Arizona bar complaint contains slides from a presentation Osmond and another attorney, also believed to be from Kirton McConkie, gave to victims’ rights advocates May 10, 2018, in Prescott.

The slides say clergy in Arizona are required to report child abuse to police or child welfare agents unless they discover it through, according to the statute, “confidential communication or a confession.”

The slides, most of them sporting the Kirton McConkie logo, say a Latter-day Saint bishop or stake (regional) president should urge members to report abuse. Another slide had a U.S. map where states are color-coded by whether their laws require clergy to report child abuse.

Utah does not require clergy to report child abuse if the information comes in a confession from the perpetrator. However, the Utah statute mandates clergy to report if the information comes from any other source.

What was not optional, according to the slides, was reporting a suspected offender to Latter-day Saint leaders.

“A disciplinary council must be held,” reads one slide, “when evidence suggests that a member may have committed child abuse or certain other transgressions.”

Such church councils can impose penalties — up to excommunication — on members.

Osmond is licensed to practice in Utah but not Arizona or California, records show. Schoppmann’s complaint to the Arizona bar in May 2018 accused Osmond, and perhaps other attorneys from Kirton McConkie, of the unauthorized practice of law and said their actions put other abuse victims at risk.

(Courtesy photo) Lance B. Wickman

The complaint also discusses Lance Wickman, now an emeritus LDS general authority and the church’s general counsel. Schoppmann accused Wickman of knowing about Osmond and others practicing in the Grand Canyon State without a license.

The Utah State Bar dismissed any complaints about Wickman in June 2018 — a month after Schoppmann’s complaint. The complaint against Osmond was dismissed the next month.

The Utah bar said Osmond was consulted initially about whether to report the abuse, and then “the matter was immediately passed onto local counsel.” Schoppmann said he was offended by the word “immediately.” He pointed to documents showing it was months before the Kingman bishop spoke to an Arizona lawyer.

In that time, the victim continued to suffer from depression and had thoughts of suicide, Schoppmann said.

“There may have been better results if Arizona attorneys were involved,” he said this week.

Schoppmann acknowledges his complaint to the California bar was the weakest of the three because it was unclear what advice Osmond gave in that state. Schoppmann remains upset at the dismissals in Utah and Arizona.

The dismissal letter from the Arizona bar says it reminded Osmond of the “jurisdictional limitations of his Utah license.” Schoppmann said that reminder amounts to “finger wagging.”

Despite any caveats in Arizona’s reporting law, Schoppmann wants Latter-day Saint clergy to tell law enforcement every time they find child abuse.

“This [child sex abuse] case is the reason,” Schoppmann said, “that any church should look and say, ‘What advice are we getting from our attorney, what advice are we giving to victims and is that really what we want and does that really protect the victim?’”

The parent indicted for abusing the child was sentenced in October to 15 years in prison. The parent who failed to report the abuse is serving 250 days in Mohave County jail followed by three years of probation.