Lawsuit alleges LDS Church, leaders knew of child sex abuse but failed to report it

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently announced policy changes in its revised, updated handbook, but a lawsuit in Arizona filed against the Church earlier this month seeks to change how its abuse helpline handles reporting of child sexual abuse.

The Arizona lawsuit contends that the sexual abuse hotline of the Church contributed to years of ongoing rape and sexual and physical abuse of three Arizona children because it instructed local Church leaders not to report it. Bishops in charge of local congregations are instructed to call the helpline for assistance in abuse cases.

A bishop is a volunteer leader appointed over a local congregation (known as a ward) with duties similar to those of a pastor, priest or rabbi. Typical length of service is five years. The Church provided a statement from lawyer Bill Maledon, representing the case in Arizona that said it offers assistance to the victims but will also “vigorously defend against this baseless lawsuit.”

The lawsuit states because two different bishops called the line and were told they didn’t need to report the crimes, “horrific abuse” continued for the oldest victim in an Arizona family that then also included a baby girl who was born after the initial abuse of the older sibling was known by Church leaders. The rapes and sex abuse were also filmed and used to create child pornography that has circulated widely, to the point that adoptive families were told the children’s “pornographic images are ‘everywhere’ on the dark web.”

The lawsuit was specifically filed against he Corporation of the President of the Church, the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church, the two former Arizona bishops, a medical business one of the bishop’s owned and other members of the small Bisbee, Arizona, congregation. It may name others in the area organization as well. The suit alleges they all knew of the abuse and their silence contributed to “horrible sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children between the ages of six weeks and 12 years old that went on for seven years.”

Bishops in the Church are instructed to call a 24-hour abuse helpline as soon as abuse is confessed or discovered. Both of the bishops said in court documents that they were advised, after calling the hotline, that there was no need to report the abuse to authorities because discovery of the abuse were privileged confessions as clergy. The lawsuit, and the lawyer who filed it, claim that a child’s safety from sex abuse, or any abuse, make it legally and morally mandatory to notify authorities.

“The law in Arizona says that anyone who has the care of a child has a duty to report. (Breaking) clergy-client confession is not against the law. It is not the state’s job to enforce church policy, we have secular law when it comes to child abuse,” Tucson lawyer Lynne Cadigan said. Child abuse reporting laws vary from state to state.

The abuse itself is not in dispute.

The alleged perpetrator, U.S. border patrol agent Paul Douglas Adams, was indicted on 27 counts of child sex crimes including rape. After confessing, he hanged himself in his jail cell on Dec. 16, 2017, before he could face prosecution for the rape and other sexual assaults that were discovered when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security used facial recognition software on a video it was sent of sex crimes against children.

“While in custody, Paul confessed to making the video, and Paul also conferred (sic) to sexually assaulting Jane Doe I and Jane Doe II over the course of their lives,” the lawsuit states. Homeland Security served a search warrant on the Adams home and “seized thousands of pieces of child pornography, many which included Plaintiff Jane Doe I and Plaintiff Jane Doe II.”

Paul Adams was charged and his wife Leizza Adams was named in some of the counts of the same indictment. After the arrest, the couple’s children were taken into Arizona state custody. Leizza Adams was sentenced to two and a half years of prison time with four years of probation after confinement for child abuse.

Three of the children, who were apparently not abused, were adopted by relatives. The three children listed in the lawsuit as Jane Doe I, Jane Doe II and John Doe were adopted to families with different last names. The suit states because of their widespread appearance in child pornography circles, the children’s faces can never be shown on social media for fear of stalking and safety. The suit specifies the abuse and pornography continued because nobody reported it.

After the lawsuit was filed a statement from the Arizona attorney representing the Church stated in part:

As clergy, the bishop was required by Arizona law to maintain the confidentiality of the father’s limited confession. Notwithstanding, the bishop took the few details he had and made efforts to protect the children, primarily through the mother. The bishop urged the family to report the abuse or give him consent to do so, but they refused. The bishop also convened a church disciplinary council and condemned the limited conduct he knew of in the strongest terms by excommunicating Mr. Adams from the Church in 2013. It was not until law enforcement made an arrest of the father that the bishop learned of the scope and magnitude of the abuse that far exceeded anything he had heard or suspected.

Excommunication means a person loses their membership with the Church and is stripped of association with it and cannot participate in religious ceremony. The lawyer’s full statement, provided by the Church, is at the end of this story.

Cadigan said it is a fallacy that clergy cannot report abuse.

“It’s a complete lie. Nothing will happen to them and there is no civil consequence. The have immunity to report this,” Cadigan said.

According to the lawsuit, Adams first confessed the sexual abuse of a female relative — Jane Doe in the suit — to his bishop in 2011 or 2012. Another daughter was born after the confession, who was also abused and even raped as an infant and recorded. Cadigan said that not only should the crimes have been reported immediately, even if there was confession privilege, but that silence was broken long before the arrest by Homeland Security.

“Numerous members of the Mormon Church who held various offices knew of Paul’s abuse of Plaintiffs, as they would be apprised at weekly meetings of various ongoing issues with members within the Bisbee Ward,” the lawsuit states.

Cadigan said any notion of secrecy was erased when Paul Adams was excommunicated and “the Defendants were aware that any alleged ‘privilege’ was waived by Paul when he disseminated the videos and pictures on the internet and shared with others.”

The first bishop was also the family physician, giving him a further responsibility to report, according to Cardigan.

“All this bishop would have had to do is get counseling for these kids and let those counselors report it. Why didn’t he do that? How could he live with himself?” Cadigan said.

The suit said the bishop closed his medical practice after his failure to report became public. Knowledge of the abuse came from other places than just confession, according to Cadigan. The suit states sex toys, lubrication and pornography were visible in the house to anyone in the home, including the visiting teacher named in the lawsuit who was there often and allegedly helped shred family documents after Paul Adams was arrested.

A financial sum sought is not specified in the lawsuit but it will seek to define monetary damages in court and Cadigan said money will be a factor if wanted changes to the helpline are made.

“The only reason these plaintiffs are bringing this action is to change the Church. They want all this information out so it doesn’t happen again. When it comes to kids you need to know just how bad it is,” she said. “It’s only when they start leaking money when they change.”

The policy change she wants is “to always report ongoing abuse immediately to the (legal) authorities.”

The suit states hotline calls go to a Salt Lake City law firm, Kirton McConkie, for legal protection. The Church handbook states of the hotline:

“Legal and clinical professionals will answer his (a bishop’s or stake president’s) questions. These professionals will also give instructions about how to: Assist victims and help protect them from further harm. Help protect potential victims. Comply with legal requirements for reporting.”

“Having a bunch of lawyers trying to decide how to deal with child sex abuse is a terrible idea,” Cadigan said. “What there should be is therapists and counselors who can report to police so it can be prosecuted like the crime it is. What the lawyers should be doing is protecting the souls of children. That should be the role of the Church.”

“The basis for suing the Church is the way they hold the hotline out as a call to help people, and essentially what it is, is a way to cover it up,” Cadigan said.

The entire statement made by attorney Bill Maledon, representing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Arizona lawsuit states:

“This tragic abuse was perpetrated by the young victims’ own father who died of suicide in jail while awaiting trial. As clergy, the bishop was required by Arizona law to maintain the confidentiality of the father’s limited confession. Notwithstanding, the bishop took the few details he had and made efforts to protect the children, primarily through the mother. The bishop urged the family to report the abuse or give him consent to do so, but they refused. The bishop also convened a church disciplinary council and condemned the limited conduct he knew of in the strongest terms by excommunicating Mr. Adams from the Church in 2013. It was not until law enforcement made an arrest of the father that the bishop learned of the scope and magnitude of the abuse that far exceeded anything he had heard or suspected. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its clergy worked to handle this matter appropriately consistent with Arizona law. It has also tried to assist the victims and remains willing to commit significant resources to aid and assist these children. The Church has no tolerance for abuse of any kind. Our hearts ache for all survivors of abuse and go out to the victims in this case. The Church will continue to offer assistance to these young victims, but the Church will also vigorously defend against this baseless lawsuit.”

There is also a criminal case pending in Cochise County, Arizona, where county attorney Brian McIntyre said the case, while slow to come to fruition, is far from over.

“No one is letting this go. The damage inflicted on these children was very significant and we intend to see it through,” McIntyre told KVOA in Arizona.

To read what the Church says about how to handle abuse on its newsroom website, click here.

The Arizona court documents can be read here.

This story may be updated as the litigation proceeds.