In a disturbing Associated Press expose, a Mormon bishop in Arizona, alarmed that a church member confessed to raping his own young daughter, contacted the church’s 24-hour hotline and 7 days a week. The bishop told federal investigators that the advice he received from church attorneys was that he “could do absolutely nothing” and that he was prohibited by state law from reporting the police abuse.
This advice was false and its consequences indescribable. The girl’s abuse, which her father admitted to having started when she was 5, continued for another seven years. He also started abusing a second daughter when she was not even 2 months old – and posted videos of her crimes online. He eventually committed suicide after being arrested by federal agents, who received no help from the church.
The AP investigation, based in part on sealed records, found that the LDS hotline, established more than 25 years ago amid fears that churches face growing liability risks due to heavy jury awards, can be and has been used, with unknown frequency, as a black box in which reports of sexual abuse have been hidden. A protocol distributed by the church to some hotline staff advised them to encourage victims or perpetrators to report abuse to authorities, but “never” to offer such advice to church officials who may to call. Only church attorneys could issue such instructions, according to protocol. And while a church attorney told the AP that “hundreds of reports” of abuse had been forwarded by church officials or attorneys to authorities in Arizona, it’s unclear. how many calls to the hotline reporting abuse have been not referred to the police or child protection authorities.
In its response, the church insisted it viewed the abuses as inexcusable, encouraged reporting them to civil authorities, and attacked what it called the “oversimplified and incomplete” characterization of the church’s procedures. church by the AP – without providing details. He also said abusers face discipline within the Mormon Church. Yet an affidavit from a senior church official, obtained by the AP, stressed that the church’s disciplinary proceedings are subject to “the greatest possible confidentiality” so as not to compromise the “will of confess and repent” of the aggressors.
In nearly 30 states, clergy are required to report plausible cases of child abuse to police or state social workers. But the Arizona law, like others, also provides a loophole, similar to solicitor-client privilege, that allows clergy to withhold information gleaned from spiritual confessions if deemed “reasonable and necessary” according to the doctrine of the Church. This gaping – and unwarranted – exception would have been used to justify covering up the girl’s rape by her father in Arizona.
Rather than duck and cover, the Church would be wise to seek procedural reforms, not sinning on the side of institutional self-preservation, but rather prioritizing the protection of the most vulnerable members of its community: children.