Lawsuits expose how and why the leadership of the Mormon Church allowed a child to be sexually abused for 7 years. And that is far from the only case.
Lawsuits expose Mormon Church cover-up of child sex abuse
In a lengthy exposé, the Associated Press uncovered how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) systematically protects child sex abusers in its membership and protects itself from liability.
The article focuses on the case of a little girl called MJ from Bisbee, AZ. When MJ was just 5, her father Paul Douglas Adams, admitted to Bishop John Herrod in a counseling session to abusing MJ, filming the abuse, and sharing the videos online. Neither Herrod nor any member of the church reported the abuse. Instead, Adams, with either the consent or the resignation of his wife Leizza, continued abusing MJ and at least two of her five younger siblings for 7 years after he admitted the abuse to his bishop. All the while, Adams continued posting videos of the acts online.
It was only in 2016, when authorities in New Zealand arrested a man on child pornography charges and found a 9-minute video of Adams and MJ that any investigation took place. The Department of Homeland Security managed to identify Adams using face-recognition. They then promptly arrested Adams, a Border Patrol agent. Adams committed suicide before going to trial. Leizza pleaded no contest to two counts of child abuse and received a 2-year sentence.
How and why did the church allow this to happen?
MJ, now 16, lives with an adoptive family. Attorneys working on the behalf of MJ and two of her younger siblings are suing the Mormon Church for their callous mishandling of the case.
The details of MJ’s story are horrific, and unfortunately, it is not an isolated case. Lawyers in Idaho and West Virginia have filed suits alleging that it was churchwide practice not to report cases of child sex abuse, even when they became known to clergy.
When Bishop John Herrod heard Adam’s chilling admission, he called the church’s “help line”. The help line gives bishops a 24/7 hotline to lawyers representing the Mormon Church. The lawyers instructed Herrod not to contact police or child welfare. Herrod was told that if he contacted authorities, he or the church might be sued for violating Arizona’s client-penitent privilege law (which isn’t true).
Instead, they kept the matter within the church. Herrod later told Bishop Robert Mauzy who took over his post about the ongoing abuse in the Adams household. Mauzy also kept quiet. Visiting teachers from the church also reported seeing suspicious items and hearing disturbing statements in the Adams home. The bishops also told those teachers to keep quiet.
Conspiracy of silence
William Maledon, the attorney representing the bishops and the church in the Adams children lawsuit, dismissively referred to the suit as “a money grab. “These bishops did nothing wrong,” Maledon says. “They didn’t violate the law, and therefore they can’t be held liable”.
Cochise County Attorney Brian McIntyre disagrees. The revelations that the church and its leadership conspired to cover up years of abuse in the Adams household moved McIntyre to open a criminal probe of the church. “Who’s really responsible for Herrod not disclosing?” McIntyre says. “Is it Herrod,” who claims to have followed the church’s legal advice, “Or is it the people who gave him that advice?”.
While church policy handbooks claim a zero-tolerance policy on abuse, in practice, the reality is very different. Workers on the help line that Bishop Herrod consulted have strict instructions not to tell the bishop to report abuse. Instead, they tell the bishop to urge the perpetrator himself or others who know of the abuse to contact authorities. Accounts differ on what advice the bishops in Bisbee gave to Paul or Leizza Adams, or to other members of the church who knew something was very wrong in the Adams household.
Who is the “help line” mean to help?
The Mormon Church created this so-called help line in the mid-90s. At the time, there were many child sex abuse suits resulting in huge settlements. Since the Mormon Church is largely self-insured, its finances are very vulnerable to such suits. So they created the help line as an extra defense against liability. Help line workers destroy all records of calls to the help line at the end of every day. And the church regards communications between the help line’s lawyers and bishops as privileged.
In a deposition, a help line lawyer said he’s always ready to deal with sex abuse complaints, “wherever I am. The call comes to my cell phone”. He then admitted that he did not refer calls to a social worker and wouldn’t know how to do so.
The help line is not even administered by the church’s Family Services department. Instead, it is part of the Risk Management department. Risk Management Director Paul Rytting alluded to another reason that clergy don’t report child sex abuse cases to police. Rytting says that if members believed their files could be seen by police or a court, “their willingness to confess and repent and for their souls to be saved would be seriously compromised”. In other words, in the eyes of the church, the penitence and spiritual well-being of the perpetrator takes precedence over the physical and emotional well-being of victims.
Life after abuse
After Paul and Leizza Adams’ arrest, three of their children went to live with Leizza’s family. The other three, including MJ, were adopted separately by three local families. It was only at Leizza’s sentencing hearing that the new parents of MJ and her little sister learned the extent of abuse they suffered.
But even before that time, it was obvious they’d been through something horrific. MJ’s sister, just 2 when she was adopted, was terrified of men, and wouldn’t tolerate anything wrapped round her wrist. Since then, her new parents say she’s come a long way, but still has a ways to go.
MJ wants to take an active role in advocating for herself and her younger siblings. Her adoptive mother says, “She had every excuse to fail and to just fold into herself and run away. But instead, she came back stronger than anyone I’ve ever known”.
The children’s adoptive parents say the lawsuit isn’t about a payday. They just want the church to commit to protecting children in their flock by referring abuse cases to authorities. The adoptive father of MJ’s little sister says, “We just don’t understand why they’re paying all these lawyers to fight this. Just change the policy”.
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