Judge dismisses lawsuit against church in Arizona sex abuse case, citing clergy-penitent exception

Deseret News [Salt Lake City, UT]

November 8, 2023

By Hanna Seariac

Bill Maledon, the church’s attorney who handled the case, stated ‘the abuse of a child or any other individual is inexcusable’

An Arizona judge has granted a motion by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for summary judgment and dismissed a negligence complaint against the church in a child sex abuse case.

The lawsuit, filed in 2021, accused the church and local church leaders of negligence and civil conspiracy in relation to a child sexual abuse case involving a father abusing his two daughters over several years.

In the ruling issued Friday, the Cochise County Superior Court found that “Church Defendants were not required under the Mandatory Reporting Statue to report the abuse of Jane Doe I by her father because their knowledge of the abuse came from confidential communications which fall within the clergy-penitent exception in the Mandatory Reporting Statute.”Report ad

In Arizona law, as in 24 other states, the clergy-penitent exception extends clergy members the privilege of keeping confessions confidential to encourage the penitent to come forward and seek help, end the sinful behavior, and help any who are wronged by that behavior. It is considered a sacrament in some faiths.

The suit was related to a child sexual abuse case involving Paul Adams, who sexually abused his two daughters and distributed child pornography of these acts. In 2011, Adams told his Latter-day Saint bishop of “a single past incident of abuse of one child” and the bishop encouraged Adams and his wife Leizza to report the abuse. Both refused to do so. Adams was excommunicated in 2013, according to church officials, and Leizza Adams “later served time in prison for her role.”

In 2017, church leaders “learned from media reports the extent of the abuse, that the abuse continued and that it involved a second victim born after Paul’s excommunication,” the statement said, as reported in a Deseret News story in August 2022

After Adams was arrested and charged with 11 counts of child sexual abuse in 2017, he died by suicide in jail.

Bill Maledon, the church’s attorney who handled the case, said in a statement to the Deseret News, “We are pleased with the Arizona Superior Court’s decision granting summary judgment for the Church and its clergy and dismissing the plantiffs’ claims. Contrary to some news reports and exaggerated allegations, the court found that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its clergy handled this matter consistent with Arizona law.”

“The abuse of a child or any other individual is inexcusable. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes this, teaches this, and dedicates tremendous resources and efforts to prevent, report and address abuse. We have deep concern for these children and all victims of abuse,” the statement continued.RELATED

The attorney for the Adams children who filed the 2021 complaint, Lynne Cadigan, told The Associated Press that she will appeal the ruling.

In a previous statement, responding to allegations in the Arizona case, the church repeated its condemnation of abuse.

For generations, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have spoken in the strongest of terms about the evils of abuse and the need to care for those who are victims or survivors of abuse. From the thundering rebuke of former President Gordon B. Hinckley to the recent words of healing offered by Elder Patrick Kearon of the Presidency of the Seventy, our feelings are clear. We echo those sentiments and teachings today. Our hearts are broken as we learn of any abuse. It cannot be tolerated. It cannot be excused. The Savior Jesus Christ wants us all to do better and be better.

Church leaders and members are instructed in the church’s General Handbook that their responsibilities related to abuse are as follows:

Assure that child sexual abuse is stopped;

Help victims receive care, including from professional counselors; and

Comply with whatever reporting is required by law.

For a complete look at the origins of clergy-penitent privilege and current law, see the Deseret News article by Tad Walch here.