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In 2010, a father told his bishop that he was raping his five-year-old daughter. The perpetrator, who was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, was in a counseling session at the time. The bishop called the designated church helpline to report child abuse but was told not to do anything about it. Two years later, when this bishop resigned, and a new one took his place, he was given the same advice. Three years after this, in 2015, the perpetrator had another daughter—he started raping her when she was just six weeks old. The abuse of both of the perpetrator’s daughters continued until 2017 when the perpetrator was arrested after posting a video of him sexually abusing his children online. The whole time, the Mormon Church did nothing.

After the perpetrator was arrested, three of his children sued the Mormon Church for conspiracy and negligence due to the role they played in allowing the abuse to continue for seven years by not reporting it. The church defended itself by claiming that the disclosure was covered under an exception to the law mandating the reporting of child sex abuse: “clergy-penitent privilege”. The Arizona Supreme Court, accepting this argument, ruled in favor of the Mormon Church. However, if this law and the circumstances surrounding this case are examined more closely, the church’s wrongdoing is apparent.

Arizona’s mandatory reporting law requires that any person who believes a minor has been the victim of “physical injury, abuse, child abuse, a reportable offense, or neglect” must immediately report this information to the Department of Child Safety or local law enforcement. The law also states that a member of the clergy, along with a handful of other religious officials, may choose not to report the communication if it was a confidential communication or confession that was received while the person was acting in their role in the church. However, importantly, this only applies if the person “determines that it is reasonable and necessary within the concepts of the religion” to keep this information confidential.

In this case, the second element of this exception was clearly not fulfilled. It is nearly impossible to believe that the Mormon Church would determine it was “reasonable and necessary” to keep the confession the perpetrator made of raping his five-year-old daughter confidential due to the church’s beliefs. In a handbook distributed to church leaders in 2010, the same year that the first confession occurred, the Mormon Church stated that “the first responsibility of the church in abuse cases is to help those who have been abused and protect those who may be vulnerable to future abuse.” This was not a choice by the church to keep a disclosure confidential because it was necessary due to their religious beliefs—it was a choice by the church to cover up a horrible crime that was continually occurring to avoid having to deal with the fallout.

The Mormon Church had multiple opportunities to address the sexual abuse they knew was occurring in their community. When the bishop, who the perpetrator confessed to, learned of the crime that was occurring, he called the church’s helpline. This helpline was implemented in 1995 through the church’s Office of Risk Management—a department whose role is to protect the church from injury and liability. Before the implementation of the helpline, church leaders were just told to comply with local reporting laws. However, since its implementation, bishops have been required to report sex abuse to the helpline rather than law enforcement. On this line, callers usually speak with an attorney for the church. In the case at hand, the clergy sexual abuse lawyer told the bishop that the information he had received about the rape of a child was covered under the clergy-penitent privilege exception to the mandatory reporting law and that he must not take any action. According to this bishop, the attorney said, “You absolutely can do nothing.” 

When this bishop was moved out of his position, he told his replacement about the sexual abuse in this case. Once again, the new bishop was told by church officials that he should not report this information to law enforcement. Instead, he was instructed to hold a confidential disciplinary hearing for the perpetrator, after which the perpetrator was excommunicated from the Mormon Church. Despite this, no action was taken to stop the perpetrator from abusing his daughter. Therefore, when the perpetrator had another daughter in 2015 and began sexually abusing her as well, nothing happened. The church’s silence allowed him to continually abuse his children for seven years until his arrest in 2017.

This is not the first time something like this has happened with the Mormon Church. For example, in 2018, a lawsuit was filed against the church, alleging that they knew about the child sexual abuse convictions and allegations against a man in the church but did nothing to address it. Continually, the Mormon Church appears to cover up reports of child sexual abuse. Because Mormon Church sexual abuse, especially against children, relies on secrecy, a failure to report allows the abuser to continue perpetuating harm. The oldest daughter of the perpetrator in the Arizona case explained the role of the Mormon Church in her abuse, saying, “They just let it keep happening. They just said, ‘Hey, let’s excommunicate her father.’ It didn’t stop. ‘Let’s have them do therapy.’ It didn’t stop. ‘Hey, let’s forgive and forget, and all this will go away.’ It didn’t go away.”

At Crew Janci LLP, we are committed to helping survivors of sexual abuse find healing, help, and justice. We understand the courage it takes for victims to come forward, and we strive to provide the support and legal expertise they need during their journey toward healing. If you or someone you love has been a victim of clergy abuse, please contact us today. We are here to help.

 

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Risa Saulino

Risa is a rising senior at the University of California, San Diego, majoring in Political Science – Public Law and minoring in Law and Society. Risa has always been passionate about advocating for others. She spent her sophomore and junior years working at UC San Diego’s Cross-Cultural Center, educating the UCSD community about social justice issues, and this past spring, she interned at Rising for Justice in Washington, D.C., providing legal assistance to low-income D.C. residents. Risa is grateful for the opportunity to work with Crew Janci and help advocate for justice for their clients. In her free time, Risa enjoys baking, playing piano, and spending time outdoors.