(AP) — The Arizona Supreme Court has ruled that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can refuse to answer questions or turn over documents under a state law that exempts religious officials from having to report child sex abuse if they learn of the crime during a confessional setting.
The ruling was issued April 7 but not released to the public until Tuesday. A lawsuit filed by child sex abuse victims accuses the church, widely known as the Mormon church, two of its bishops, and other church members of conspiracy and negligence in not reporting church member Paul Adams for abusing his older daughter as early as 2010. This negligence, the lawsuit argues, allowed Adams to continuing abusing the girl for as many as seven years, a time in which he also abused the girl’s infant sister.
Lynne Cadigan, an attorney for the Adams children who filed the lawsuit, criticized the court’s ruling.
“Unfortunately, this ruling expands the clergy privilege beyond what the legislature intended by allowing churches to conceal crimes against children,” she said.
In a statement, the church concurred with the court’s action.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints agrees with the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision,” the statement said. “We are deeply saddened by the abuse these children suffered. The Church has no tolerance of abuse of any kind.”
Adams had also posted videos of himself sexually abusing his 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.
Those actions prompted Cochise County Superior Court Judge Laura Cardinal to rule on Aug. 8, 2022, that Adams had waived his right to keep his 2010 confession to Bishop John Herrod secret.
“Taken together, Adams’ overt acts demonstrate a lack of repentance and a profound disregard” for the principles of the church, Cardinal said in her ruling. “His acts can only be characterized as a waiver of the 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. An exception to that law — known as the clergy-penitent privilege — allows members of the clergy who learn of the abuse through spiritual confessions to keep the information secret.
The church has based its defense in the lawsuit on the privilege, asserting that Herrod and a second bishop who learned of Adams’ confession, Robert “Kim” Mauzy, had no legal obligation to report him for abusing his older daughter and appealed Cardinal’s ruling.
On Dec. 15, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the church, saying it did not have to turn over disciplinary records for Adams, who was excommunicated in 2013. The Appeals Court also ruled that a church official who attended a church disciplinary hearing could refuse to answer questions from the plaintiff’s attorneys during pretrial testimony, based on the clergy-penitent privilege.
Lawyers representing the Adams girls and one of their brothers took the case to the Arizona Supreme Court, where they did not prevail, according to the April ruling.
In an unusual move, Cadigan said attorneys for the three Adams children intend to file a motion asking the Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling.
An Associated Press investigation of the clergy privilege shows it exists in 33 states and that the Mormon church, often joined by the Catholic Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other faiths, have successfully lobbied against attempts to reform or eliminate it.