Arizona Supreme Court upholds clergy confessional privilege in child abuse case

The LDS Church's Mormon Temple in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, is seen Jan. 27, 2012.
The LDS Church's Mormon Temple in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, is seen Jan. 27, 2012. | Reuters/Jim Urquhart

Arizona's highest court has upheld a law allowing religious bodies to refuse to hand over documents or answer questions in child abuse cases if the crime was learned in a confessional setting.

A group of child abuse victims sued the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, two Mormon bishops and other church members, accusing them of conspiracy and negligence for not reporting abuse committed by a church member named Paul Adams.

Adams, who had committed suicide after being arrested in 2017, sexually abused his children for several years, going as far as posting videos of his disturbing actions online.

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In an April 7 ruling publicly released Tuesday, the Arizona Supreme Court sided with the LDS Church, arguing that the refusal to report abuse by Adams was covered by confessional privilege, reports The Associated Press.

Lynne Cadigan, an attorney for the Adams children, said in a statement shared with AP that the decision goes beyond the intentions of state law.  

"Unfortunately, this ruling expands the clergy privilege beyond what the legislature intended by allowing churches to conceal crimes against children," stated Cadigan.

In a brief statement share with the LDS-owned Deseret News, the LDS Church agreed with the Arizona Supreme Court ruling but assured the church is "deeply saddened by the abuse these children suffered from their father. The church has no tolerance for abuse."

Last year, the Adams children sued the LDS Church, bishops John Herrod and Robert "Kim" Mauzy and others, arguing that they unlawfully refused to report the sexual abuse by Adams.

"The failure to prevent or report abuse was part of the policy of the defendants, which was to block public disclosure to avoid scandals, to avoid the disclosure of their tolerance of child sexual molestation and assault, to preserve a false appearance of propriety, and to avoid investigation and action by public authority, including law enforcement," alleged the lawsuit.

"Plaintiffs are informed and believe that such actions were motivated by a desire to protect the reputation of the defendants."

The LDS Church argued that church leaders were unaware of the extent of the abuse and that they had encouraged Adams' wife, Leizza, to report the abuse, which she refused to do.

"In 2013, Adams was excommunicated for his behavior and lost his membership in the Church," the religious organization maintained in a statement. "Prior to and after his limited confession, Paul rarely attended Church or talked to leaders."

"It wasn't until 2017, nearly four years later, that Church leaders learned from media reports the extent of the abuse, that the abuse had continued and that it involved a second victim born after Paul's excommunication."  

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