When an Arizona bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints learned that a member of his ward was sexually assaulting his 5-year-old daughter, he followed church policy and called the faith’s Abuse Help Line.
The bishop later told law enforcement that church attorneys in Salt Lake City who staff the help line around the clock said that because he learned of the abuse during a counseling session the church considers a spiritual confession, he was legally bound to keep the abuse secret.
Paul Douglas Adams, a U.S. Border Patrol employee living with his wife and six children in Bisbee, Ariz., continued abusing his daughter for as many as seven more years, and went on to abuse a second daughter. He finally stopped in 2017 with no help from the church only because he was arrested.
The Associated Press obtained thousands of pages of sealed court documents that show in detail exactly how the church’s “help line” can divert abuse complaints away from law enforcement, leaving children in danger.
Takeaways from the AP’s investigation:
The clergy-penitent privilege
The seven years of secrecy in the Adams case began when church attorneys in Salt Lake City advised lay Bishop John Herrod and later Bishop Robert “Kim” Mauzy they were exempt from reporting requirements under the state’s child abuse reporting law because of the law’s so-called clergy-penitent privilege.
“You absolutely can do nothing,” Herrod said he was told during an interview with federal investigators.
Arizona’s child sex abuse reporting law, and similar laws in more than 20 states, says clergy, physicians, nurses, or anyone caring for a child who “reasonably believes” the child has been abused or neglected has a legal obligation to report the information to police or the state Department of Child Safety. But it also says that clergy who receive information about child neglect or sexual abuse during spiritual confessions “may withhold” that information from authorities if the clergy determine it is “reasonable and necessary” under church doctrine.
An Arizona attorney who is defending the bishops and the church in a lawsuit filed by three of the Adams children, told the AP that Herrod and Mauzy — and by extension the church — were acting within the law and in accordance with their “religious principles.”
“These bishops did nothing wrong. They didn’t violate the law, and therefore they can’t be held liable,” said William Maledon. He also called the Adams children’s lawsuit “a money grab.”
The help line
The AP obtained nearly 12,000 pages of sealed records from an unrelated child sex abuse lawsuit against the LDS Church in West Virginia, which show that the help line is part of a system that can easily be misused by church leaders to divert abuse accusations against members away from law enforcement and instead to church attorneys, who may bury the problem, leaving victims in harm’s way.
It was established in 1995 when legal claims of sex abuse against churches were on the rise.
Officials of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said in sworn statements included in the sealed records that the help line is staffed by social workers who destroy records of all calls at the close of each day.
When the social workers receive calls about abuse that may present a risk to the church — such as abuse committed by prominent church members, abuse perpetrated during church activities, or especially egregious instances of abuse — the calls are referred to attorneys with the Salt Lake City law firm Kirton McConkie. The church maintains that all calls referred to the attorneys are protected by attorney-client privilege, leaving no record of the accusations accessible to prosecutors or victims’ attorneys.
The lawsuit filed by the Adams children alleges: “The Mormon church implements the Helpline not for the protection and spiritual counseling of sexual abuse victims...but for (church) attorneys to snuff out complaints and protect the Mormon church from potentially costly lawsuits.”
Miranda and Matthew Whitworth adopted the Adams’ younger daughter when she was 2 years old. Miranda said when they met, the toddler wrapped her arms and legs around her head, buried her face in her neck, and refused to look up to say goodbye to her mother’s family.
“It was the craziest thing,” Miranda Whitworth said. “It was like when you see a baby monkey or baby gorilla cling to their mother, and they just won’t let go.”
The couple said they joined the lawsuit to push the church to change its policy so that any instance of child sexual abuse is immediately reported to civil authorities. “We just don’t understand why they’re paying all these lawyers to fight this,” Matthew Whitworth said. “Just change the policy.”
Nancy Salminen, a special needs teacher in public schools, adopted the older Adams daughter, MJ, after providing her with foster care when she was 12 years old. Today, MJ is a bubbly 16-year-old who plays in her high school band and proudly dons a crisp new uniform for her job as a fast-food restaurant.
“She had every excuse to fail and to just fold into herself and run away,” Salminen said. “But instead, she came back stronger than anyone I’ve ever known.”
Paul Adams died by suicide in jail before he could stand trial on federal child pornography charges and state child sex abuse charges.
Leizza Adams pleaded no contest to two counts of child abuse and served 2½ years in state prison.
Judge Wallace Hoggatt called the abuse endured by MJ and her younger sister “one of the most horrendous cases of child molestation” he had ever encountered.
Today, the lawsuit filed by the Adams children in Cochise County Superior Court, as well as a criminal investigation by the Cochise County attorney, continue to unfold.
“I just think that the Mormon church really sucks. Seriously sucks,” MJ told the AP. “They are just the worst type of people, from what I’ve experienced and what other people have experienced.”
Associated Press editor Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City and news researcher Randy Herschaft in New York contributed to this report.
To contact the AP’s investigations team, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.