Takeaways from the AP’s investigation into the LDS Church’s handling of sex abuse cases

New questions surround the faith’s help line for local lay leaders.

Hailey, Idaho • Paul Rytting had been director of the Risk Management Division at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for around 15 years when a 31-year-old church member told him that her father, a former bishop, had sexually abused her when she was a child.

Rytting flew from church headquarters in Salt Lake City to Hailey, Idaho, to meet with Chelsea Goodrich and her mother, Lorraine, to discuss what he said was a “tragic and horrendous” story.

By that time, Chelsea’s father, John Goodrich, had made a religious confession to a bishop with the church with details of his relationship with his daughter. Following church policy, Bishop Michael Miller had called a church help line, established to take calls from bishops and other lay leaders about sexual abuse, and John Goodrich was quickly excommunicated.

After the excommunication, Chelsea and Lorraine reported Chelsea’s claims of abuse to Mountain Home, Idaho, police. They backed up their accusations with recordings of conversations with John Goodrich in which he admitted to climbing into bed with his daughter when he was sexually aroused, though he insisted there was no direct sexual contact. Nevertheless, Mountain Home police arrested him and charged him with a variety of sex crimes.

At their meeting with Rytting, Chelsea and her mother had one overarching question: Would the church allow Miller to testify at John Goodrich’s criminal trial?

Over the next four months, during multiple conversations, Rytting told Chelsea, Lorraine and Eric Alberdi, a fellow church member acting as Chelsea’s advocate, that a state law known as the clergy-penitent privilege prevented Miller from testifying without the consent of the alleged perpetrator, John Goodrich. Without Miller’s testimony, prosecutors dropped their case.

Next, Rytting offered Chelsea and her mother $300,000 on the condition that they agree to not use Chelsea’s story as the basis for a lawsuit against the church — and to never acknowledge the existence of this nondisclosure agreement.

Today, Goodrich, who did not respond to questions from The Associated Press, remains a free man practicing dentistry, with access to children.

The church, in comments to the AP, said, “the abuse of a child or any other individual is inexcusable.” The church also noted that Miller would not be able to testify without the permission of Goodrich and that the confidentiality agreement with Chelsea and Lorraine did not preclude Chelsea from telling her story.

All the conversations with Rytting, Chelsea, Lorraine, and Alberdi were recorded, and provided by Alberdi to the AP.

Takeaways from the AP’s investigation:

The clergy-penitent privilege

An earlier investigation by the AP revealed that more than half the states maintain the clergy-penitent privilege, which provides a loophole for clergy who are otherwise required to report child sex abuse to police or welfare officials. As a result, some child predators who reveal their crimes to clergy in a confessional setting and do not turn themselves in to police are allowed to remain free, able to continue abusing children while presenting a danger to others.

Although child welfare advocates have attempted to change or eliminate the privilege, the AP found that lobbying by religious institutions — including the Catholic Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses — have persuaded state legislators throughout the country to maintain the loophole. Indeed, the AP cataloged more than 100 attempts to amend or eliminate the privilege, all of which failed.

Nondisclosure agreements

Nondisclosure agreements, also known as confidentiality agreements, have been used frequently by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other organizations, including the Catholic Church, as well as individuals, to keep sex abuse allegations secret. Twenty-one years ago, the Catholic Church approved a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in which it pledged to eliminate the use of confidentiality agreements to settle child sex abuse claims, except in cases in which the victims requested anonymity — a recognition of the role NDAs play in the cover-up of child sexual abuse. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not have a similar policy.

The help line

The earlier AP investigation found that the help line plays a central role in the cover-up of child sex abuse in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, even as the Utah-based faith asserts its purpose is to provide bishops with guidance about sexual abuse reporting requirements. Initiated in 1995, when financial claims for sexual abuse against religious institutions were on the rise, the help line fields calls from bishops about child sexual abuse and directs the most serious cases to attorneys with the Salt Lake City firm Kirton McConkie, which represents the church.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The law offices of Kirton McConkie in Salt Lake City in 2021. The firm often represents the church.

According to the church, all information about child sexual abuse passed from church members to their bishops is confidential under the clergy-penitent privilege, and all information passed from the help line to church attorneys is confidential under the attorney-client privilege. Meanwhile, Rytting and other church officials have said in sworn testimony that the help line either keeps no records or destroys all records at the end of each day.

Or does it? During his conversations with Chelsea and Lorraine, Rytting said he could find out whether John Goodrich had previously “repented” for his relationship with Chelsea by checking help line records, seeming to contradict his sworn testimony in another child sex abuse case against the church.

In its comments to the AP, the church declined to answer questions about the apparent contradiction.

Michael Rezendes reported from New York.