An Arizona judge overseeing a high-profile lawsuit accusing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of conspiring to cover-up child sex abuse has ruled that the church may not refuse to answer questions or turn over documents under the state’s “clergy-penitent privilege.”
Clergy in Arizona, as in many other states, are required to report information about child sexual abuse or neglect to law enforcement or child welfare authorities. But an exception to that law — the privilege — allows members of the clergy who learn of the abuse through spiritual confessions to keep the information secret.
Judge Laura Cardinal ruled on Aug. 8 that the late Paul Adams waived his right to keep his confessions secret when he posted videos of himself sexually abusing his two daughters on the Internet, boasted of the abuse on social media, and confessed to federal law enforcement agents, who arrested him in 2017 with no help from the church.
“Taken together, Adams’ overt acts demonstrate a lack of repentance and a profound disregard” for the principles of the church, widely known as the Mormon church, Cardinal said in her ruling. “His acts can only be characterized as a waiver of the clergy-penitent privilege.”
The lawsuit accuses two Arizona bishops and church leaders in Salt Lake City of negligence in not reporting the abuse and allowing Adams to continue abusing his older daughter for as many as seven years, a time in which he also abused the girl’s infant sister.
Cardinal issued her order, which the church is expected to appeal, after attorneys for three victims objected when the church refused to turn over disciplinary records for Adams, who was excommunicated in 2013. The victims’ attorneys also objected when a church official cited the privilege when refusing to answer questions during pre-trial testimony.
“The judge’s order applies to the church’s secret records and to what happened at the secret ex-communication hearing,” said Lynne Cadigan, an attorney for the three children who filed suit.
Cardinal’s order will require church official Richard Fife, a clerk who took notes during the excommunication hearing, to answer questions from the attorneys representing the Adams children. It will also require church officials to turn over records of the disciplinary council meeting.
The church has filed a legal motion asking Cardinal to delay implementing her order until it contests her findings with the Arizona Court of Appeals. Without the delay, church lawyers said, information it considers confidential under the clergy-penitent privilege would be released to attorneys for the Adams children and, potentially, the public.
“The privileged information will have been disclosed and it would be impossible to ’un-ring the bell,” the church said.
Church officials did not return calls from the AP seeking additional comment on the ruling.
In a motion filed earlier this year asking Cardinal to dismiss the case, the church said its defense “hinges entirely” on whether bishops John Herrod and Robert “Kim” Mauzy were required to report Adams’ “confidential confessions” to civil authorities, or were excused from reporting requirements under the privilege.
The lawsuit was filed by three of the six children of Paul and Leizza Adams, and was featured in a recent investigation by the Associated Press. The AP found that a church “abuse help line” used by Herrod and Mauzy to contact church attorneys is part of a system that can easily be misused by church leaders to divert abuse accusations away from law enforcement and instead to church attorneys who may bury the problem, leaving victims in harm’s way.
The “help line,” AP’s investigation found, is housed within the church’s risk management department, where church officials work to protect the church from financial losses and lawsuits that could mar the church’s reputation.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement late Wednesday that said, “The AP story has significant flaws in its facts and timeline, which lead to erroneous conclusions.”
The statement, which did not dispute any facts in the story, said the help-line “has everything to do with protecting children and has nothing to do with cover-up.”
The investigation was based in part on nearly 12,000 pages of sealed documents from an unrelated West Virginia child sex abuse lawsuit against the church, which provided the most detailed and comprehensive look yet at the so-called help line, which has been criticized by Mormon abuse victims and their attorneys for being inadequate to quickly stop abuse and protect victims.
The sealed records, including sworn statements by high church officials, revealed that all records of calls to the help line are destroyed at the end of each day. They also showed that Mormon church officials consider all calls referred to attorneys with the firm Kirton McConkie, which represents the church, to be confidential under the attorney-client privilege.
During an interview last month, William Maledon, an Arizona lawyer who represents the church in the lawsuit, said the fact that Adams posted videos of his abuse of both daughters on the Internet and boasted about the abuse on social media would have no bearing on the case because neither Herrod nor Mauzy knew that Adams posted the pornographic material.
“The bishops didn’t know anything about that,” Maledon said, adding that Herrod and Mauzy said as much in sworn declarations submitted in the case.
But Cochise County Attorney Brian McIntyre, who has opened a criminal investigation into the church, told the AP months ago that he believes Adams waived any confidentiality rights under the clergy-penitent privilege by posting his abuse and discussing it online.
Adams “disclosed his actual crime to thousands of people on the Internet,” McIntyre said, “so there’s an implied waiver there.”
To contact the AP’s investigations team, email email@example.com.
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.