When an Arizona bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as a Mormon church, learned that a member of his ward had sexually assaulted his 5-year-old daughter, he followed church policy and called the Mormon Abuse Helpline. The bishop later told law enforcement that lawyers for the church’s 24-hour helpline in Salt Lake City said that because he learned of the abuse during a counseling session the church considers a spiritual confession, he was legally required to keep secret abuse.
Paul Douglas Adams, a US Border Patrol agent who lives with his wife and six children in Bisbee, Arizona, continued to abuse his daughter for seven more years and went on to abuse a second daughter. He finally stopped in 2017 without help from the church only because he was arrested.
The Associated Press has obtained thousands of pages of sealed court documents detailing exactly how the church’s “help line” can divert abuse allegations from law enforcement, leaving children at risk.
Evidence from the AP survey:
THE CLERGY-MENU PRIVILEGE
The seven years of secrecy in the Adams case began when church lawyers in Salt Lake City informed Bishop John Herrod and later Bishop Robert “Kim” Mauzy that they were exempt from reporting requirements under the state’s child abuse reporting law because of so-called clergy of the law. -repentant privilege.
“There’s absolutely nothing you can do,” Herod said he was told during an interview with federal investigators.
Arizona’s child sexual abuse reporting law, and similar laws in more than 20 states, say clergy, doctors, 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 the police or the 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 deem it “reasonable and necessary” according to church doctrine.
An Arizona lawyer defending the bishops and the church in a lawsuit filed by three of Adams’ children told the AP that Herrod and Mauzy — and by extension the church — were acting within the law and in accordance with “religious the authorities. ”
“These bishops did nothing wrong. They did not break the law and therefore cannot be held responsible,” said William Maledon. He also called the Adams children’s lawsuit a “money grab.”
THE HELP LINE
The Associated Press obtained nearly 12,000 pages of sealed records from an unrelated child sex abuse lawsuit against the Mormon church in West Virginia that show the helpline is part of a scheme that can be easily used by church leaders to deflect accusations against of the church. members away from law enforcement and instead to church lawyers, who may bury the problem, leaving victims at risk.
It was founded in 1995 when sexual abuse legal claims against churches were mounting.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officials said in affidavits included in the sealed records that the helpline is staffed by social workers who destroy records of all calls at the end of each day.
When social workers receive calls about abuse that may pose a risk to the church—such as abuse committed by prominent church members, abuse committed during church activities, or particularly egregious incidents of abuse—the calls are referred to Salt Lake City attorneys Kirton McConkie Law Firm. The church maintains that all calls referred to the attorneys are protected by attorney-client privilege, leaving no record of the charges accessible to prosecutors or victims’ attorneys.
The lawsuit filed by Adams’ children claims: “The Mormon Church operates the Helpline not for the protection and spiritual counseling of victims of sexual abuse…but for (church) attorneys to defuse allegations and protect Mormon Church from potentially costly lawsuits. “
Miranda and Matthew Whitworth adopted Adams’ youngest daughter when she was just 2 years old. Miranda said that when they met, the little girl wrapped her arms and legs around her head, buried her face in her neck and refused to raise her head to say goodbye to her mother’s family.
“It was the craziest thing,” Miranda Whitworth said. “It was like watching a baby monkey or a baby gorilla cling to their mother and they just won’t let go.”
The couple said they joined the lawsuit to pressure the church to change its policy so that any cases of child sexual abuse are 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 Adams’ oldest daughter, MJ, after she was placed in 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 wears a spotless uniform to her fast-food job.
“She had every excuse to fail and just pack herself in and run away,” Salminen said. “But instead, she came back stronger than anyone I’ve ever met.”
Paul Adams killed himself in prison before he could stand trial on federal child pornography charges and state child sexual abuse charges.
Leizza Adams pleaded no contest to two counts of child abuse and served two and a half years in state prison.
Judge Wallace Hoggatt called the abuse suffered by MJ and her younger sister “one of the most horrific cases of child abuse” he had ever come across.
Today, the lawsuit filed by Adams’ children in Cochise County Superior Court, as well as a criminal investigation by the Cochise County District Attorney, continue to unfold.
“I just think the Mormon church is really crap. Serious crap,” MJ told the AP. “They’re just the worst kind of people, from what I’ve experienced and what other people have experienced.”
Associated Press editor Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City and news reporter Randy Herschaft in New York contributed to this report.
To contact the AP investigative team, email email@example.com.
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