Lack of LDS Church transparency in child sex abuse cases stuns AP reporter

“The entire operation of the help line,” says Pulitzer-winning journalist Michael Rezendes, “...is enveloped in secrecy.”

(Steven Senne | AP) In this Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, file photo, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Michael Rezendes, left, stands for a photograph with actor Mark Ruffalo, who plays Rezendes in the film "Spotlight." Rezendes, now with The Associated Press, recently reported on how sex abuse allegations were handled in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Earlier this month, an Associated Press investigation of several child sex abuse cases, including a particularly horrific one in Arizona, revealed that the much-debated “help line” supplied by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for its lay leaders failed to protect the victims.

The expose brought responses of dismay, disgust and anger from insiders and outsiders alike — and the reverberations are still being felt.

On The Salt Lake Tribune’s latest “Mormon Land” podcast, AP journalist Michael Rezendes — who previously earned a Pulitzer Prize with The Boston Globe for uncovering the Catholic Church’s pattern of covering up clergy sex abuse as part of the team dramatized in the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight” — talked about the story, how he came upon it, how he reported it and how it compares to his previous reporting on this sensitive subject.

Here are excerpts:

How did you land on this story?

I generally read stories about the Mormon church whenever I came across them in the newspapers, primarily because of my interest in the Catholic Church. I got interested in the story when I read a small piece about the [abuse] case in West Virginia [against the LDS Church], and it referred to these sealed records. And there were people quoted as kind of summarizing or trying to describe what was in the sealed records. And my thought was, why don’t we get the records, you know, see what they really say? … I was making a lot of calls, just as I normally would. And in the course of making those calls, I ran into someone who gave me the records.

How does that relate to the Arizona case?

I did have a source in Arizona who told me about this case just as something very remarkable was developing. And, gosh, you know, I’ve been doing these institutional child sex abuse stories on and off for 20 years and this seemed exceptional in a variety of ways — the degree of the abuse was so shocking and unfathomable that I guess it grabbed my interest for that reason initially. But as I did more reporting, I found a lot of people who wanted to help out. I was able to get a lot of the crucial records in that case as well.

Do you think that this is a pattern for the LDS Church?

I don’t think I ever said it was a pattern. But, you know, because of the Arizona case and the West Virginia case and some others that had been filed, I thought it was interesting and important to describe what I learned because the entire operation of the help line and the reporting of child sex abuse cases to the church is enveloped in secrecy. It struck me that we have no idea how many reports are being made and how many of those reports are referred to law enforcement. I would assume that quite a few are. And how many are not? There’s just no transparency whatsoever. So, I thought that the thing to do is just to describe the process. And the process is that all the records of calls that are made to the help line are destroyed at the end of each day. When there’s a serious case, someone answering the help line refers it to an attorney with the law firm Kirton McConkie. Those conversations, the church insists, are all covered by the attorney-client privilege. When you have a disciplinary proceeding, those records are also confidential. It just seems like it’s kind of a lockbox when it comes to allegations of child sex abuse in the Mormon church. And I thought, you know, this is a box that in the interest of the safety of children really needs to be pried open. And that was really the purpose of the story.

Isn’t destroying records a problem if lawsuits are filed?

It’s troubling, to say the least. I didn’t really get into this in the story, but I found many instances where people associated with the church or members of the church were shredding documents or destroying documents relating to child sex abuse. For instance, Leizza Adams, who was Paul Adams’ wife, after federal agents raided their home and seized electronic devices with thousands of pornographic photographs and nearly a thousand videos, many of them featuring the Adams children, after all that, according to her own testimony, she began shredding documents — anything with her husband’s name on it. And she had the assistance of a visiting teacher from the Mormon church. I interviewed the older daughter MJ multiple times and she told me that she participated in the shredding of the documents. The kids just thought it was like a party. They were just having fun, you know, shredding documents.

(Elise Amendola | AP) Michael Rezendes poses for a photograph in the AP bureau in Boston on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019. Rezendes recently reported on the handling of child sex abuse cases in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

How did this case involving the LDS Church compare to what the Spotlight team exposed about the priest abuse scandal in and around Boston?

Well, I mean, the Catholic Church does not destroy its records. And so, we were able to get thousands and thousands of pages of internal records ... which showed that there was a systemic problem, at that point, at least within the Boston Archdiocese. We were not able to show that this was a systemic problem churchwide, although it’s clear now that this is a global phenomenon within the Catholic Church.

Did you come upon any instances in which the church’s help line actually helped the victims?

I’m sure there are many such instances. I don’t have any specifics, but when I interviewed Bill Maledon, the Arizona attorney who’s representing the Mormon church in the Adams case, he told me that there were hundreds of cases where the calls to the help line had been referred to law enforcement. I found that interesting. And I tried to get him to put that information on the record, but the church considers all that confidential.

What surprised you the most in your reporting?

Well, I guess what surprised me the most and continues to surprise me to this day is that two bishops and attorneys for the church in Salt Lake City could allow abuse of this nature to go unreported for so long. I don’t know, as a human being, I find that difficult to understand. Now, what the church says is that [the bishop] only learned it on one occasion and didn’t know the abuse was ongoing. However, the bishop was seeing Paul Adams for counseling, so he was coming in on a regular basis for counseling. At one point the bishop called in Paul Adams and his wife and made him tell her about the abuse so she would know what was going on if she didn’t already, so that she could make some attempt to help protect their children. And at one point, he said, one of the purposes was to see whether the abuse had stopped.

Do you think that this bishop knew the extent of it?

Well, yes, of course. And, you know, there are two indications [of that]. [The bishop] was also Leizza Adams’ personal physician. And he told the federal agents that in his view, she met the definition of, as he put it, “battered woman syndrome.” And when they discussed the older daughter, the victim of Adams’ abuse, [the bishop] said, without any prompting from the federal agents, something to the effect of, “I don’t think she’ll ever be the same again.” So, it’s pretty clear he had some idea that Leizza Adams was not capable of protecting her children and that the older daughter had been severely damaged by it, and yet he did nothing, really.

What is the status of the lawsuit from the three children?

The case will continue. The church has filed a motion to have it dismissed. And in this motion, the church argues that everything the church says of the case, and, I’m quoting from the motion, “hinges entirely on the clergy-penitent privilege.” But there is an argument about that. The clergy-penitent privilege may not apply because Paul had posted the videos on the internet and he bragged about his abuse on social media. And he, after all, confessed his abuse to federal agents. So, the seal of confidentiality was breached by Paul Adams, the person who made the confession.

What has been the response to the article?

I have been deluged, frankly, with email and Twitter direct messages and every other form of communication, mostly from Mormons and former Mormons alike. And it seems that everybody has a tale about child sex abuse not being reported in the Mormon church. Maybe 10% of the communications I received have come from supporters of the church. But, you know, even the people who say that they believe in the church, they believe in church doctrine, a lot of those people have also said something could be done to make this a better process, one that does more to protect children in the church.

To hear the full podcast, go to sltrib.com/podcasts/mormonland. To read a full transcript and receive other exclusive “Mormon Land” content, go to Patreon.com/mormonland.