See Something, Say Something

Salt Lake City Weekly [Salt Lake City UT]

October 5, 2022

By Michael S. Robinson Sr.

Taking a Gander: Let’s Just Throw the Children Under the Bus

The name Paul Adams is one that will not soon be forgotten. Years ago, the Bisbee, Arizona man confessed to his Mormon bishop that he had been abusing his 5-year-old daughter. As required by church policy, his bishop called a church helpline that had been established for that very purpose.

A recent Associated Press report showed that the bishop was advised by church lawyer, state Rep. Merrill Nelson, not to report the abuse and to keep it strictly confidential.

Because a penitent’s confessions are considered privileged under a special clergy exemption law, the helpline’s advice to the bishop may have, indeed, been correct, but only from a legal standpoint. There’s no decent person alive that can say the advice was morally right.

Not surprisingly, Adam’s abuse of that daughter continued for seven more years. During that time, he reportedly raped her and another daughter, and sexually abused one of his sons. Adams later committed suicide while awaiting a criminal trial—no thanks to the church—but only after Australian authorities found videos widely distributed on the internet of him abusing his kids.

Despite the horrific consequences of cases like these, there is still a strong belief among religious leaders that any penitent’s confession to clergy should be considered sacrosanct.

While there are more than a few people fighting to remove the penitent-clergy loophole, churches have vigorously fought changes in the reporting requirements. At the present time, there are only six states—NH, NC, OK, RI, TX and WV—that require clergy to report a penitent’s confession of any form of child abuse. Does that mean that Utah and the other remaining states don’t care about their children?

Religions have been highly vocal about the subject, admonishing their members to resist all attempts to legislate reporting laws for the clergy. Not surprisingly, a Catholic cardinal in Maryland fiercely defended the “clergy loophole.” He was later convicted of abuse. Catholic clergy have even circulated petitions, signed by thousands, demanding the secrecy of penitent-clergy confessions.

Calling it a government assault on religious freedoms, Latter-day Saint legislators have also strongly opposed any changes in the reporting laws. But the reality is that the present non-reporting policy gives perpetrators a free pass to continue abusing—it might as well throw the children under the bus.

Catholics and Mormons have considered a penitent’s admissions to be something sacred. So, despite all the mandatory reporting laws applying to virtually everyone else, churches have continued to be the protectors of their members’ secrets. Legislators in other states—ones that have a significant population of Catholics and Mormons—have complained that the powerful church lobbies have prevented the passage of laws that would protect children.

Mormon President Russell Nelson has addressed the AP report as a “mischaracterization” of the church’s response to the Paul Adams case, noting that the “helpline” is there to make sure bishops strictly follow legal requirements. Nelson opened his recent general conference remarks with a solid condemnation of all abuse, noting how crimes against children are the vilest of crimes and how perpetrators should face both church and criminal consequences.

He asserted that the LDS Church has systems and policies in place to protect children: “For decades now, the Church has taken extensive measures to protect—in particular—children from abuse,” he said. “There are many aids on the Church website. I invite you to study them. These guidelines are in place to protect the innocent. I urge each of us to be alert to anyone who might be in danger of being abused and to act promptly to protect them. The Savior will not tolerate abuse, and as His disciples, neither can we.”

Hollow words. The reality is that Nelson is against mandatory reporting of child sex crimes discovered during confidential meetings with members. It seems that he’s more interested in protecting the reputation of the church than in protecting the innocence of children.

As a “prophet of God,” he, of all people, should understand that protection of the young is the moral imperative. There is no other righteous choice.

“Suffer the little children to come unto me.” That statement, credited to Jesus Christ, amplifies the responsibility of the shepherd in protecting the tenderest of souls. Children are innocent, vulnerable, and precious.

You’d think that it would be a slam-dunk. It’s not. Instead of embracing the worth of a child and honoring our protective roles in sheltering the young, churches have abdicated their responsibility to the child.

Fortunately, the matter is not dead. Two state representatives—one a Catholic Democrat and the other a Mormon Republican—are fighting to end the penitent-clergy reporting exemption. Rep. Phil Lyman and Angela Romero are both introducing bills to end the clergy loophole.

I don’t know about you, but I think a god—any god—might be pretty pissed, and for good reason, that the lambs are being sacrificed while legal barriers deprive them of both a voice and justice.

Whatever notions the world has about rights, and no matter what kind of constitution supports the free operation of religions in our societies, there’s simply no excuse for operating churches as safe-havens for sexual abusers.

No law can be just or right if it fails to stop the abuse of children. That said, churches must reconsider whether a legal right to conceal confessions should be allowed to further endanger the health, welfare and emotional well-being of the young.

Whether it’s Pres. Russell Nelson or the Pope, the reporting of crimes against children is an absolute. The penitent-clergy loophole must be closed.

The author is a retired novelist, columnist, and former Vietnam-era Army assistant public information officer. He resides in Riverton with his wife, Carol, and the beloved ashes of their mongrel dog.