- An AP investigation revealed how the Mormon church facilitated silence about sex abuse.
- A father disclosed to a bishop that he sexually abused his five-year-old daughter.
- The bishop called the church’s “help line” and was told to keep the report secret.
A “help line” established by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was used to bury a report of sex abuse that continued for at least seven years, according to an investigation by The Associated Press.
The report outlined how the Mormon Abuse Help Line could divert serious accusations of abuse away from law enforcement and to church attorneys based in a Salt Lake City law firm. As the case plays out this month, it has called into question what information shared with a member of the clergy is protected.
One Arizona-based bishop, John Herrod, called the line after he learned a 5-year-old girl was sexually assaulted by her father, Paul Douglas Adams. Attorneys would tell the bishop that he was legally required to keep the abuse secret because he learned of the actions during a “spiritual confession,” according to The AP.
“They said, ‘You absolutely can do nothing,'” Herrod said in a recorded interview with law enforcement reviewed by The AP.
Church officials also claimed that Arizona’s clergy-penitent privilege required the bishops to keep the abuse confidential even though the state’s sex abuse reporting law requires the clergy to report it to authorities.
The exception to the rule is if the clergy learned of the abuse during confession. They can choose to “withhold” information if they determine it is “reasonable and necessary” under church doctrine, The AP reported.
The daughter, who is only referred to as MJ in The AP, was abused for at least seven more years. And Adams went on to abuse his second infant daughter. He also frequently posted videos of the abuse online.
The AP report relied on about 12,000 pages of sealed records in an unrelated child sex abuse lawsuit against the Mormon church in West Virginia to detail how the secretive system worked.
Employees had a list of questions to follow to determine whether a report was serious enough to be directed to a Salt Lake City law firm Kirton McConkie.
One instruction said that employees should tell bishops to encourage the victim, perpetrator, or witnesses to report the abuse. But another stated to “never advise a priesthood leader to report abuse. Counsel of this nature should come only from legal counsel,” The AP reported, citing a sample of the protocol instructions.
Records and notes of the calls were also destroyed at the end of the day, one director who works in the church’s Department of Family Services told the publication.
Three of Adams’ children filed a lawsuit against two Arizona bishops and church leaders in Salt Lake City for negligence in not reporting the abuse.
“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,” the lawsuit filed by the Adams’ children alleged, according to The AP.
An Arizona judge ruled on August 8 that the church will have to cooperate with the lawsuit after it initially refused to turn over records for Adams, and after a church official cited clergy-penitent privilege to avoid answering questions during pre-trial testimony, The AP reported.
Judge Laura Cardinal ruled that Adams waived the privilege to keep his confessions secret by posting photos of the abuse online and when he confessed to his actions to Homeland Security agents in 2017. Adams was arrested after New Zealand authorities found one of the videos online. The father died by suicide while in custody.
Lawyers defending the bishops and church told The AP that they acted in accordance with the law and “religious principles.”
The Mormon church has also said The AP story “seriously mischaracterized” the purpose of the church’s help line.
“The help line is instrumental in ensuring that all legal requirements for reporting are met. It provides a place for local leaders, who serve voluntarily, to receive direction from experts to determine who should make a report and whether they (local leaders) should play a role in that reporting,” the church wrote.
The help line was established in the mid-’90s, during a time when reports of sexual abuse cases were increasing and outcomes in lawsuits often awarded millions of dollars in damages toward victims, according to The AP.
The church has not responded to Insider’s request for comment.