The following first appeared on Public Square Magazine

Cover image: Michael Rezendes, journalist for the Associated Press, who wrote the August 4, 2022 article, “Seven years of sex abuse: How Mormon officials let it happen.”

Years ago, I had the privilege of working as research director at Utah Youth Village—the state’s largest and oldest non-profit for neglected and abused children. My office was adjacent to the area where foster parents brought in kids for therapy, and I often interacted with these remarkable children attempting to finally speak about the unspeakable. Before leaving, my wife and I lived as foster parents in a home that provided a healing atmosphere for sexually abused girls. We witnessed with our own eyes the enduring psychic toll imposed by these unimaginable early experiences on precious children that deserved so much more—and so much better. One of those darling girls has become like a daughter to us and an older sister to our boys.

Like so many, I have mourned the revelations about what two girls in Arizona passed through, enduring 7 years of sexual abuse at the hand of their father. But recent weeks have brought a new kind of grief for me as well, in witnessing the hostile and accusing public conversation we’re having about these incidents. If something as vicious and evil as child sexual abuse cannot bring hearts and minds together to seek understanding and improvements while presuming a willingness in those around us to fight this same horror, what will? Furthermore, if questions this weighty devolve into petty animosities this quickly … and if accusations this serious don’t invoke our honest desire to understand the full truth, what hope do we have to transcend any other lesser issue?

Speaking of the full truth, I’m not the only one who felt something was amiss about the initial report. The journalist responsible for this report, Michael Rezendes, recently claimed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “did not dispute any facts in the story” in its recent statement. But that’s simply not true. In a strongly worded statement last week about the Arizona abuse case, the Church raised concerns with “egregious errors in reporting and editing” in the original AP article involving “significant flaws in facts and timeline, which lead to erroneous conclusions.”

Like others, I’ve been curious to understand a little more about what exactly those errors are. A friend of mine (who prefers to remain anonymous) has spent a year reviewing the many documents in the case, reading them over multiple times. As she and I have reviewed some of the newest evidence, including sworn depositions by each of the bishops and a full transcript of the drop-in interview between special Homeland Security agent Robert Edwards and former Bishop John Herrod, we’ve both been struck by the seriousness of the discrepancies between the portrayal in the AP story, and a remarkably different picture emerging in these other documents.

In what follows, I summarize and walk through these key discrepancies, beginning with statements from the AP report, followed by what the full evidence appears to confirm. I lay this out in some detail, so you can review and decide for yourself what a fair and objective reading of the evidence in this heartbreaking case truly is.

Ten Misleading Assertions in the AP Report:

1. The Bishops were aware of current abuse in the Adams home. Multiple times, Rezendes and his colleagues collaborating on the article insinuate that bishops were aware of sexual abuse currently and actively happening in the home. For instance, the report uses present tense verbs like:

  • “MJ was a tiny, black-haired girl, just 5 years old when her father admitted to his bishop that he was sexually abusing her.
  • “One victim was 5 when her father told his bishop that he was sexually abusing her.”

If that were true, then church policy would have not only allowed but encouraged then-Bishop Herrod to report to authorities immediately. As Tad Walch summarized in a recent commentary, “Latter-day Saint leaders are instructed to report a confession of child abuse immediately if a report would ‘prevent life-threatening harm or serious injury and there is not time to seek guidance’ from the Church’s abuse helpline.” This kind of imminent danger is a clear exception to calling the helpline in the official church handbook, which adds, “In such cases, the duty to protect others is more important than the duty of confidentiality. Leaders should contact civil authorities immediately.”

Did either of these Bishops witness signs of current abuse happening? In a sworn deposition, John Herrod said the following about his prior knowledge of the perpetrator: 

In late 2011, within the privacy of the Bishop’s office, Paul Adams made a confidential confession to me in my role as Bishop. What Paul Adams confessed to me was a one-time incident that had not reoccurred. I never observed Paul Adams abusing or behaving inappropriately in any way toward his children, nor did I see any physical indications or visible signs that he was abusing them.

This was confirmed in the interview conducted by Edwards, who asked him on the bishop’s doorstep, “I just wanted to get the record straight … did you have any belief that Paul was doing anything like this? Did you have any signs? Was there anything weird that stood out to you, maybe while he was in the congregation? In church? Anything anybody spoke to you about?”

Herrod responded: “No”—apart from “what may have passed between him and I confidentially as a Bishop” [referring to the limited confession above]. Herrod then reiterated: “There was nothing. I mean, you know, people would say, ‘He’s kind of weird … I wonder what he’s doing,’ but there were no accusations or anything else.”

Edwards continued to inquire: “Okay.  So—so nobody ever—you know, none of the other individuals in the Church came and said they had seen something.”

Herrod: “No. No.”

Edwards: “The kids never confided in you.”

Herrod: “No.”

Edwards: “Or any of the Sunday school teachers or anything like that.”

Herrod: “No.”

Edwards: “That you were aware of?”

Herrod: “No.”

Although there were no indications of current abuse, Bishop Herrod subsequently made the appropriate call to the church helpline staffed by experts in mental health and legal reporting requirements, which is the focus of so much public discussion. This confession from Paul Adams about a past incident was apparently ambiguous enough to cause his first bishop to be unsure about its legal implications. As Herrod said in the interview, “It was one of those things where I said, here’s something where I don’t know to what extent the law was broken at the time.”

When there was a change in leadership in the congregation, Bishop Herrod passed along what he understood of this past incident. Was the second Bishop Kim Mauzy aware of anything more?  He has likewise stated under oath, “I never observed Paul Adams abusing or behaving inappropriately in any way toward his children, nor did I see any physical indications or visible signs that he was abusing them.”

2. The Bishops were aware the abuse was continuingMore than simply alleging an awareness of present abuse by these bishops, the AP report strongly conveys the impression that these leaders were also aware the abuse was continuing. That begins with the attention-grabbing title “Seven years of sex abuse: How Mormon officials let it happen” and continues throughout in statements like these:

  • “In 2012, when Herrod rotated out of his position as bishop of the Bisbee ward—a Mormon jurisdiction similar to a Catholic parish—he told incoming Bishop Robert “Kim” Mauzy about the abuse in the Adams household. Instead of rescuing MJ by reporting the abuse to authorities, Mauzy also kept the information within the Church.”
  • “The abuse went on for seven more years even though Mormon church leaders used a so-called helpline to report accusations of her abuse.”

Both bishops strongly deny awareness of any more than that single past incident, each stating under oath that they only learned the full extent of what was happening at the time of his arrest years later:

  • John Herrod: “I did not learn that Paul had abused his children after his confidential confession to me or about the extensiveness of the abuse and other illegal conduct until Paul was arrested in 2017 and news reports concerning the extent of the abuse were released.”
  • Kim Mauzy: “I did not know that Paul Adams was abusing his children while I was Bishop until he was arrested in 2017. The communications with me were about a past one-time incident (and other conduct by Paul Adams that gave rise to his excommunication). I did not know until Paul Adams was arrested in 2017 that he had abused Plaintiffs John Doe or Jane Doe II. I did not know until he was arrested that he had viewed or disseminated child pornography, including videos of his own children.”

In striking contrast with these statements, the report alleges that church leaders were not only aware of the abuse but somehow okay with it. As Rezendes writes, “church officials, from the bishops in the Bisbee ward to officials in Salt Lake City, tolerated abuse in the Adams family for years.” Each time graphic and heart-wrenching descriptions of abuse are made in the article, readers are left with the impression the Church was not only aware of the horror but not all that concerned with it. For instance, Rezendes has this to say about the Church’s feelings towards the harrowing experience of one victim having her own assault recorded for others to witness: 

That video represented nine minutes and 14 seconds in seven years of continual and unnecessary trauma for MJ—and a lifetime of abuse for her tiny sister—while Bishops Herrod and Mauzy and church representatives in Salt Lake City stood by.

Standing by and tolerating abuse, of course, relies upon an awareness that it is presently happening or continuing. While the journalist did cite pushback from the Church that “Herrod did not know that Adams was continuing to sexually assault his daughter after learning of the abuse in a single counseling session,” he immediately goes on to raise doubt about that in the subsequent paragraph:

But in the recorded interview with the agent obtained by the AP, Herrod said he asked Leizza Adams in multiple sessions if the abuse was ongoing and asked her, “What are we going to do to stop it?” “At least for a period of time, I assumed they had stopped things, but—and then I never asked if they picked up again.”

How are we to make sense of this discrepancy? This is where the full interview transcript is so essential compared with edited soundbites. Check out the full statement from John Herrod:  “We discussed probably what went on the one time. And then, from then on, it would have been, ‘okay, what are we doing to stop it? Is it still going on?’

If that first sentence is left off, it’s easy for anyone reading the article to assume the bishop is referring to ongoing abuse. But as the context makes clear, he’s not—he’s referring to “the one time.” And if you leave off the uncertainty reflected in the last sentence (“Is it still going on?”), it’s likewise easy to mistakenly assume the bishop is referring to current abuse that he knows is going on.

Neither sentence shows up in the AP article—a critical editorial decision that not only allows but is essential to Rezendes telling the story he ultimately does.

What else do the court documents reveal? While the complete interview transcripts do confirm an ongoing conversation between John and Leizza, they do not offer any proof that this discussion was anything more than a bishop ministering to a survivor of something hard in the past (and repeatedly trying to encourage her to report this prior incident)—along with the kinds of health check-ins any doctor might do (John was her personal physician as well).

In flat contradiction with these court documents, Rezendes repeatedly insinuates ongoing awareness of the abuse among leadership, even leaving the impression that Paul Adams was also “deeply involved in the Mormon community” in a way that would have given leaders more natural opportunity to be aware of ongoing concerns. While Leizza and her daughters remained actively involved, “prior to and after his limited confession [in 2011],” the Church further confirmed, “Paul rarely attended church or talked to leaders.”

That means that between 2011 and 2017—a period of 6 of the 7 years—Church leaders had very little interaction with Paul. That makes sense since Paul reportedly “spent much of his time online looking at porn, often with his children watching, or wandering the house naked or in nothing but his underwear,” which meant his beleaguered wife “assumed most of the child-rearing responsibilities, including getting their six children off to school and chauffeuring them to church and religious instruction on Sundays.”

3. The bishops did little to ensure the children’s safety and prevent future abuse. To summarize so far, readers of the AP article are invited to believe these bishops were aware of current abuse and a continuation of this abuse over time. Yet these horrifying revelations are insufficient for either of these men (and the church they represent) to do anything but stand by and “tolerate” it all.

To drive this shocking allegation home, the article later captures a glimpse of foster parents who sat in Leizza Adams’s sentencing hearing and, as Rezendes put it, “learned about the repeated rapes, the videos, and the fact that church bishops knew about the abuse of the older daughter and did nothing to stop it.” One of these parents opted to step away from the faith because he couldn’t, in his words, support a church “that would allow young children to be abused and not do anything to prevent it.”

If that damning accusation, woven throughout the article, was actually true, it should cause some serious problems for the Church. Yet it’s in stark and direct conflict not only with what the bishops said they were aware of but also with documented evidence of many things these leaders did to try to help the family based on what they did know—right from the beginning. After the initial confession, Bishop Herrod says, “Subsequently, I met with Paul Adams and his wife, Leizza, in the privacy of the Bishop’s office, and had Mr. Adams repeat that confession to me in front of his wife.”

It’s clear from the transcript that Bishop Herrod initially hoped this would prompt the wife to be able to take steps to keep the children safe. When later asked, “Did Bishop Herrod explain why he brought Leizza Adams in the room?” Agent Edwards recollected:

He brought Leizza Adams into the room because he wanted, you know, he wanted the children to be safe, and he thought if he—if Paul Adams told Leizza Adams while Bishop Herrod was observing, that Leizza would either remove the children from the situation or at least, very least, keep the kids away from Paul.

C.D. Cunningham has raised the possibility that one reason Rezendes may have concluded these bishops were aware of ongoing abuse is that these leaders “took the one past confession so seriously”—almost like the reporter couldn’t believe these leaders could have taken “one incident of past abuse so seriously, so obviously, they must have known more.”

In his own interview, John recollects telling Leizza to make sure “he’s never home alone with the kids,” with Leizza responding, “Yeah, he’s never home with them [alone].” And “I’m always there when he’s there.”

John also describes encouraging Leizza multiple times to take the additional step of reporting him, “Okay, this is what Paul has said, and you need to do this for the safety of the kids.”

Leizza responded, “Well, then, if he goes to jail, then what will I do?” John said, “Well, you keep the kids safe.”

Leizza then said, “Well, then I’ll just have to keep the kids safe [myself]” And the bishop cautioned, “well, that’s not a very good option.”

In retrospect, as he was interviewed years later by Agent Edwards, John spoke of battered wife’s syndrome, adding, “If Paul told her to do something, she was afraid not to do it.” Agent Edwards also interjects, “on the other hand, you know, she had no source of income of her own.”

Seemingly based on these recognitions from Herrod years later about Leizza’s mental state, the Rezendes ultimately gives the impression that former Bishop Herrod knew at the beginning Paul’s wife would do nothing, stating: “Herrod later told Homeland Security agent Robert Edwards he knew from the start that Leizza Adams was unlikely to stop her husband after he called her into the counseling sessions.” But as Blake Surerus points out, this plainly “contradicts agent Edwards’ testimony that Herrod thought she would keep the kids away and she in fact promised she would.”

While it’s true former Bishop Herrod recognized at this point years later the futility of these early conversations, the interview transcript makes it clear he had some hope earlier on—reflected again in multiple visits he mentions with Leizza trying to get her to report. It also seems clear from my reading of the transcript that this leader was under the impression that some kind of (yet uncertain) legal action was going to be prompted by his efforts with the family. In explaining why he held off on restricting Paul’s church membership, John says, “I hadn’t done any church action with him yet since we didn’t know where the legal action was going.”

Influencing Leizza wasn’t Bishop Herrod’s only attempt at intervention. He also met in counsel with Paul over a period of time, encouraging him to take steps to fully repent and make restitution for this past incident, as well as to seek professional help. He also encouraged Leizza to get professional help, which would have triggered a mandatory reporting of the incident (see church summary of the different efforts). This former bishop summarized in the interview that he “asked Paul Adams for permission to disclose his confidential confessions to authorities, but he refused, and it was clear to me he expected confidentiality. I encouraged him to turn himself in, but he refused. I encouraged his wife, Leizza, to go to authorities, but she did not.”

The bishop also attempted to physically separate the family, encouraging Paul Adams to move out of the home (which he did temporarily). This leader did so, even while still only aware of one incident of prior abuse. In sum, rather than revealing a leader disinterested and tolerant towards such horror, the transcripts paint a picture of a man clearly concerned with “Okay, what can I do to safeguard his kids, family, and everyone else?” In short, this bishop and his successor (who excommunicated Paul and continued ministering to Leizza) actually did a lot to try and help and at least attempt to prevent future abuse.

The pattern of these repeated efforts is consistent with a larger system that employs multiple layers of safeguards unique to this faith community, as attested by therapist Jennifer Roach, a survivor of clergy abuse in her prior faith (see also). And it also lines up with the consistent teaching reflected in the Church’s official response:

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. Our hearts break for these children and all victims of abuse.

The fact that the rest of Paul’s family “continued to attend church services with their mother, Leizza Adams, until Paul’s arrest in 2017” also demonstrates something about how they felt about the support and love they were receiving.

4. The Church and its helpline had a uniform policy of discouraging disclosure. The AP report asserts that “the failure to prevent or report abuse was part of the policy of the defendants.” As evidence for this claim, the reporters cite a formal helpline protocol encouraging priesthood leaders to encourage family members to report abuse, underscoring a subsequent section that advises those taking calls to “never advise a priesthood leader to report abuse. Counsel of this nature should come only from legal counsel.”

That suggestion to involve legal counsel is highlighted as evidence of a blanket discouragement of disclosure. This becomes yet another significant misrepresentation since the advice from legal counsel is regularly given to bishops to directly report to authorities, depending on state law. As others have noted, different states have different laws about reporting abuse, and the helpline communicates those. Writer Tad Walch has summarized, “the result is that the United States now has a hodgepodge of laws regarding the confessional privilege, laws that in some cases have created a clash between a sacred religious practice and the compelling need to protect children from unspeakable crimes.”

Hence, the need for personalized expert guidance for volunteer bishops. As C.D Cunningham previously pointed out, “laws in this area are complicated and vary from country to country and state to state, which means a single policy can’t apply to all bishops, and they will need individualized advice.”

5. Clergy-congregant confidentiality in difficult cases is obviously only harmful secrecy. Both bishops emphasize their sincere conviction that confidentiality of the single past instance of abuse felt important at the time in their (sadly unsuccessful) efforts to help the father, mother, and their family move in a better direction:

  • John Herrod: “I believed that these communications were to be maintained as confidential within the concepts of my religion and my role as a church bishop.”
  • Kim Mauzy: “I understand that church doctrine and Arizona law required me as Bishop to maintain in confidence the confidential communications I received from Bishop Herrod and from Paul and Leizza Adams, including communications during the church disciplinary proceedings related to Paul Adams.”

Although there is a long religious history demonstrating the value of privacy in encouraging wrong-doers to disclose voluntarily to faith leaders they might trust to hear their darkest secrets, these concerns about confidentiality have been sharply dismissed as malicious “secrecy” in the AP report, which cites lawyer Lynne Cadigan as saying, “Child abuse festers and grows in secrecy.”

While a refusal to speak at all about abuse is clearly problematic, Tad Walch cites the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Rowan Williams, arguing in “Religious Confession and Evidential Privilege in the 21st Century” that: “The ‘seal’ of confession is not—as some critics would argue—a form of malign secrecy but an assurance that all kinds of destructive and damaging behavior can be spoken out, named and acknowledged for what they are.”

Even so, Walch goes on to review how various governments have concluded that abuse should constitute an exception to this norm. In popular discourse, mandated reporting has become seen as a no-brainer, obvious step that should be generalized across all cases, with Rezendes citing one disgruntled adoptive parent of the victim as saying, “We just don’t understand why they’re paying all these lawyers to fight this. Just change the policy.” The AP report also cites Cadigan as insisting: “That is why the mandatory reporting came into effect. It’s the most important thing in the world to immediately report to the police.”

While that is very often the case, journalist Tad Walch has summarized some of the surprisingly extensive evidence demonstrating inadvertent consequences of such laws—quoting law professor Cole Durham, who notes:

Often, intensifying the mandatory character of the reporting requirements and making it more difficult for religious leaders to maintain confidentiality tends to be correlated, at least in some studies, with reduced reporting in the jurisdiction and reduced effectiveness of reporting.

As just one example, researchers from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine published a 2017 article in the American Journal of Public Health, entitled Universal Mandatory Reporting Policies and the Odds of Identifying Child Physical Abuse, where they found the “probability of making a confirmed report [of child abuse] was significantly lower” in contexts where universal mandatory reporting was the law—adding, “this effect almost doubled for nonprofessionals compared with professional reporters.” The authors concluded, “Universal mandatory reporting may not be the answer for strengthening the protection of children victimized by physical abuse.

Why could this be the case? As C.D. Cunningham previously noted in this magazine:

There may be some inadvertent consequences of eliminating all prohibitions on reporting. For instance, according to one clinical psychologist, “As the boundaries of confidentiality decrease, people who need help are less likely to seek it out. Instead, they will suffer along in silence and isolation.”

I’ve witnessed with my own eyes multiple men who had abused their families in dark periods in the past testify to miraculous changes that came from not only being confronted but also being supported to find a new heart and new life in Christ. The desire to preserve a sacred space of repentance for perpetrators is important—and need not conflict with the greater imperative to support victims. As Cunningham continues:

Confessing instances of abuse to a clergy member can often set abusers on the path to deep changes in their behavior. Whereas if they don’t go to see a clergy member because they’re worried about being reported, their abuse will continue without anyone knowing.  Clearly, the victims need to be our top priority. But there are many victims. And some of those victims will only be helped if their abuser comes forward. And those abusers might only come forward if they trust clergy confidentiality.

6. The Church misinformed bishops about the law in Arizona. In his AP article, Rezendes writes:

Bishop Herrod, in his recorded interview, said church officials told him he had to keep what Adams told him confidential or he could be sued if he went to authorities. But [Brian] McIntyre, the Cochise County attorney, said that’s false, noting the Arizona reporting law says that anyone reporting a belief that child sex abuse occurred “is immune from any civil or criminal liability.”

The AP’s implication that the Church had the law wrong in Arizona and could have faced no consequences for reporting has become a frequent talking point since the publication of his article. But the Arizona law is more complicated than McIntyre (or by extension) Rezendes lets on.

It’s worth noting that McIntyre prosecutes criminal cases, not civil ones. And Arizona law does, in fact, make clergy liable if they testify about a confession made to them without the permission of the confessor (12-2233).

That’s why both bishops emphasized the Arizona laws in their public statements. For instance, John Herrod told agent Edwards, “If the kids, anyone else tells me, then I can.  But if it comes from him, then I can’t.”

The agent then responded, asking to confirm that the bishop was talking about “clergy-penitent privilege in the Church?”

Bishop Herrod responded, “No. No. No. No. That’s Arizona state law. Yeah, cause the Church doesn’t—it says—you do whatever the state tells you to do.”

He continued, “If you know something and the state says you tell, you tell.  But on the other hand, they say it’s illegal for you to tell … then you can’t do it. So, yeah, it has nothing to do with church rules. It’s—those are the Arizona rules.”

While it’s true the criminal law does include immunity for those who report abuse, the law is vague about whether or not that immunity would stand if the law did not require the person to report, as in the case with clergy. And even if the immunity did apply, it’s also qualified, meaning that clergy could still be sued for reporting if it could be proven they acted with malice—a consideration the bishops would have been wise to consider given Adams’ complicated relationship with the Church.

Even some in Arizona’s state assembly have recognized that the cumulative effect of the current laws in Arizona is to discourage clergy from reporting abuse.

While Rezendes reports that the county attorney opened up an investigation into the Church, he fails to mention that no charges have been made (perhaps because the law is, in fact, much more complicated and ambiguous than the journalist has acknowledged).

Rezendes makes no mention of this confusion about the current law or the potential liability faced by bishops who report in Arizona, instead leaving the reader with the conclusion that the law is cut and dry in this area.

7. The Church helpline aims to “divert” and “bury” abuse accusations. In referring to what he calls the Church’s “so-called help line,” Rezendes highlights a claim from the lawsuit against the Church that “it’s part of a system that can easily be misused by church leaders to divert abuse accusations away from law enforcement and instead to church attorneys who may bury the problem, leaving victims in harm’s way.” He continues to cite this lawsuit at length as alleging the primary aim of the helpline is:

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

In line with such a self-interested purpose, Rezendes portrays the helpline as a “closely guarded secret” that his own research uniquely reveals “how it works.” Heralding its efforts to unmask a corrupt system, the article summary notes:

The Associated Press obtained thousands of pages of sealed court documents that show in detail exactly how the Church’s “help line” can divert abuse complaints away from law enforcement, leaving children in danger.

While a surprising number of people have accepted these accusations at face value, virtually all of it is a sharp contrast with the experiences so many others have had. As summarized in a recent commentary:

A university professor at a prominent institution recently recounted calling the hotline and then turning that “case to law enforcement;” another former bishop shared a story on Twitter of hearing a disclosure of child abuse and calling authorities; the person was arrested within the hour, he said. Similar stories have been shared online and with us, including one by a parent of a victim who called the experience of reporting abuse “swift and thorough.”

While Rezendes portrays the helpline as merely a legal mechanism, he does acknowledge the calls are “answered by social workers or professional counselors.” As confirmed by people who have worked on the helpline and by a local abuse counselor, the helpline is “staffed by legal and clinical professionals with decades of experience and expertise in handling child abuse cases.” As Jennifer Roach and Lynn Chapman elaborate, the protocol for these calls makes it clear that when a help line call is answered, “the conversation focuses on safety first”: “Those who work on the help line also advise lay leaders on other steps that may be taken to help ensure continued safety and provide appropriate support to the victim, their family, and others impacted by the abuse.”

“Once the safety of the victim is addressed,” they continue, “the focus of the call turns to compliance with all applicable laws, including reporting statutes. Reporting laws vary by jurisdiction and navigating them can be complex—especially in jurisdictions where consent is required before disclosing confessional statements to authorities.” It’s precisely because of this complexity that it’s so important to have legal and mental health experts advising volunteer church leaders. As the church handbook states:

In some locations, leaders and teachers who work with children and youth are considered ‘mandated reporters’ and must report abuse to legal authorities. Similarly, in many locations, any person who learns of abuse is required to report it to legal authorities. Bishops and stake presidents should call the help line for details about mandated reporters and other legal requirements for reporting abuse. The Church’s policy is to obey the law.

8. Latter-day Saint leaders proactively “directed an effort to conceal” these many years of abuse. More than simply presumed failures of the Church helpline, the AP article alleges a kind of active, coordinated conspiracy to keep the abuse disclosures hidden. While disregarding the sworn statements of the bishops themselves, Rezendes quotes liberally from the lawsuit, which accuses the Church and local bishops of negligence and conspiring to cover up child sex abuse to avoid “costly lawsuits” and protect the reputation of the Church. A more extensive citation in the article summary accuses the Church of implementing the help line “not for the protection and spiritual counseling of sexual abuse victims … but for (church) attorneys to snuff out complaints and protect the Mormon Church from potentially costly lawsuits.” The report also cites Craig Vernon, an Idaho attorney famous for filing sex abuse lawsuits against the Church, as saying, “The help line is certainly there to help—to help the Church keep its secrets and to cover up abuse.” Once again, the reader is left with the impression of church leaders with a clear awareness of ongoing abuse—accompanied by an evident lack of concern and unwillingness to do anything (see #1-4). For instance, the article goes on to profile a local prosecutor who “opened a criminal investigation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after bishop John Herrod said church lawyers told him he could not disclose years of child sex abuse by church member Paul Adams.”

The AP report summarizes as one of its key takeaways their “revelation that Mormon officials directed an effort to conceal years of abuse in the Adams household.”  They quote one of the children who likewise insists, “They just let it keep happening”—and claim that “a similar dynamic played out in West Virginia, where church leaders were accused of covering up the crimes committed by a young abuser.”

The only way we can possibly believe these claims would be to ignore all the evidence outlined above concerning the level of awareness these bishops had, along with the actions they took based on this limited knowledge. That includes repeated efforts to get both Paul and Leizza to report the abuse to authorities without the bishops breaking their privilege.

Everything hinges on what these bishops knew—or didn’t know. And so, if we get that wrong—if we overstate (or understate it), our ultimate conclusions may be far off from reality. And that’s sadly what we see throughout the AP article—with the entire article ending with a mic-drop quote from Gerard Moretz with the Pima County Sheriff’s Office, who says, “What aspect of your religious practice are you advancing if you don’t report something like this?” [“This,” of course, referring to years of torture—which naturally implies an awareness that this torture is happening.]

9. The tragic abuse continued primarily due to the Church’s neglect. As the article summary notes: “Paul Douglas Adams, a U.S. Border Patrol employee living with his wife and six children in Bisbee, Arizona, continued abusing his daughter for as many as seven more years, and went on to abuse a second daughter. He finally stopped in 2017 with no help from the Church only because he was arrested.”

The implicit narrative is that clear responsibility ought to fall on the Church for allowing this “seven years of secrecy in the Adams case” and failing to trigger an arrest of this dangerous man. That arrest, as Blake Surerus points out, happened 4 years after Adams was excommunicated. Yet the report “leaves out the date of excommunication until much later in the article” and “leads you to believe church leaders still had/could have had contact with Adams, and they still knew of [the] abuse.” While the abuse continued for 7 years (as the article repeatedly emphasizes), and while there were others, including Paul’s partner with the Border Patrol, who knew about the abuse, Surerus also points out that there was, strangely, “no mention of how long Church was actually involved” with the father directly (only one of those 7 years, see point #2).

It’s worth pointing out that for anyone familiar with these painful dynamics, they know that abuse is notoriously hard to detect, especially child abuse and especially when that abuse is sexual. Improving our ability to watch for the signs is an urgent and ongoing need for all of us. Although surely everyone in retrospect wishes they had known and done more, the available evidence confirms that at the time, these bishops were doing all they knew how to do—including in their striving to follow Arizona law and Church policy.

10. Ergo, the Church ultimately prioritizes perpetrators over children. Rezendes writes that one affidavit in the sealed records which repeatedly says the Church condemns child sexual abuse, also suggests the Church is more concerned about the spiritual well-being of perpetrators than the physical and emotional well-being of young victims.”

The reporter also attempts to portray the Church’s legal defense as implying disinterest in any other moral arguments to stop the abuse: “Whatever moral or public policy arguments one could make that the Church should have told authorities that Paul Adams was raping his daughters are irrelevant, the lawyers argued.”

To suggest this statement or the collective efforts of these leaders somehow demonstrates a lack of concern for abused children overlooks the actual evidence while discounting the work of the Church as a whole across decades. The article does cite the Church as emphasizing that “the first responsibility of the Church in abuse cases is to help those who have been abused and protect those who may be vulnerable to future abuse” and “abuse cannot be tolerated in any form.”

As Elder Patrick Kearon said in our most recent conference, if you have experienced abuse in the past, “we weep with you.” And “we yearn for you to overcome the confusion, shame, and fear” and to find healing in Christ. As C.D. Cunningham argued, “By all honest measures, the Church’s primary concern is helping victims of abuse.  To suggest the primary aim is to help avoid liability is a transparently cynical framing of the Church trying to sincerely obey the law in the states and countries where they operate.”

By contrast, this article had a very different takeaway. Namely, this tragedy, which one judge described as “one of the most horrendous cases of child molestation” he had ever encountered, says something definitive about the Church’s true disregard for children.

To punctuate this point, the AP summary of the article ends with this quote from one of the victims of Paul Adams: “I just think that the Mormon Church really sucks. Seriously sucks. They are just the worst type of people, from what I’ve experienced and what other people have experienced.”

Discussion. So what’s your own conclusion about what took place in Arizona? It’s pretty clear from the report and its unusual editorial choices what these journalists want you to believe—but what do you believe?

It seems to me that one of the central storylines of this entire tragedy is something we see in so many other accounts: namely, how difficult it is to pick up on signs of sexual abuse happening behind close doors (yes, even when you’re aware it has happened before).  However unexciting an “angle,” that is, it does seem to line up with the documented evidence.

For myself, I’m honestly surprised at how different a picture these court documents paint compared with the narrative in Rezendes’s “explosive” and “bombshell” article. I’ve struggled to understand how anyone could read these full transcripts and reach some of the conclusions these reporters did—not, at least, if you’re trying to be fair to all the evidence.

But then I heard from a friend who had just listened to a Rezendes interview on RadioWest, and who remarked to me that “while this reporter may be sincere,” there did seem to be a noticeable bias: “he can only imagine that the Church has concerns for its reputation for the purpose of gaining more converts for tithing money.” This made me wonder how the intense experience of reporting on abuse in other faith communities may have jaded this man—leaving him almost unable to experience religion as anything other than hypocrisy and power. If that was your starting point worldview and an emotional template for faith generally, I guess I can imagine how you might grasp after anything you can see that aligns with and justifies that point of view (while discounting anything that doesn’t).

I can imagine that but would have hoped for better from a journalist.

1. We should still expect better from truth-seeking institutions. In my interview with Jon Haidt earlier this summer, he argued that the “spectacular failure of the late 2010s” was how leaders of what he called “our knowledge-centered institutions,” like newspapers and universities, have “failed to stand up for the mission of their institutions.” As he put it, “I don’t expect everyone to care about the whole truth, but professors should.”

Yes, journalists and federal agents should too. I understand why people in the general public are inclined to believe religious institutions shouldn’t be trusted with abuse. The revelations in recent decades of widespread abuse in different faith communities have been difficult for all of us to read.

I also frankly understand why a journalist—especially one who became movie-famous reporting on the Catholic Church scandal—might be inclined to believe all religious institutions fall prey to this. What I don’t understand is why these reporters would still insist on bending the evidence to fit his hunch when so much of it contradicts this preferred narrative.

In Rezendes’ book on the Catholic sexual abuse revelations, he writes about wanting to try the case in the court of public opinion. Who needs a jury and careful court proceeding when you can persuade the masses? That appears to be what he’s attempting to do here as well.

And he’s pulling it off too!  Most people without an investment in the faith don’t appear to be thinking twice about his conclusions. Yet, at the very least, it seems clear that Michael Rezendes and the AP didn’t present a holistic picture of the evidence and didn’t give readers a chance to see the complexities. While there are many unanswered questions, and we don’t know everything we need to know, what we do know makes this much clear. The AP does not “publish the names of sexual abuse survivors without their consent,”—but apparently, it publishes promiscuous accusations of conspiracy to cover up sexual abuse without adequate evidence.

Furthermore, I can’t help but consider how differently Special Agent Edwards represented his conversation with the Bishop in court—compared with the actual transcript—and how some of his conclusions have now been used to impugn an entire people of faith. It’s hard not to reflect on the larger conversation about ways federal agencies are being weaponized against conservatives right now. And combined with the recent national embrace of a similarly slanderous miniseries promoting the notion that brutal violence somehow embodied the heart of the Church of Jesus Christ (and another Netflix special about Lori Vallow coming out in September with the same meta-message), it’s not hard to start seeing a pattern.

2. Inherent tensions require a higher-quality public conversation. So much of this case is presented popularly as simple and obvious. Yet, in a fascinating article, Tad Walch highlights competing principles and priorities involved while expressing confidence we can navigate them. As he put it:

The tension between doctrines about confessions and the impulse to protect children through mandatory reporting laws raises important legal, societal, and religious questions about how religious leaders try to focus on and prioritize rescuing victims of abuse while also providing spiritual help to the person who has confessed.

Imagine if we could actually talk about these tensions openly and as trusted allies in the fight against abuse? Walch goes on to quote Notre Dame law professor, Father John Paul Kimes, as arguing that this is “not a binary choice”:

There are ways to do both at the same time, and to see it as a zero-sum game, I think, is horribly reductive. Protecting the child is not a zero-sum game. It’s not that I cannot protect the sacramental life of the church and the child at the same time. They should not be seen in opposition to each other.

But of course, they are being seen in opposition to each other—sharply so. But Kimes reiterates, “There are things that I can do, there are ways that I can work with the victim, to provide protection to the victim, while still maintaining the integrity of the sacramental life of my faith tradition.”

Imagine if we could have that conversation together!

3. Understanding truth (should) come before taking action.  I’ve seen and heard from many people who, as soon as the article came out, have been calling for crucial changes involving “brave conversations” and “overdue soul-searching.” Certainly, we should all be about finding ways to improve once it’s clear what actually happened.

As I told another friend who wanted to talk about needed changes—before we move to discuss actions and improvements, there must be a more searching exploration of, simply put, what is true here.

Were these bishops (and by implication, many other leaders in the Church) aware of current and ongoing child sexual abuse and yet refusing to act to stop it because of a coordinated effort to cover up such ugliness so as to “protect the Church’s image?”

Or not?

This is not one of those “agree to disagree—you have your view and I have mine” philosophical issues. And it’s not a question whose answer should be determined by our divergent implicit biases towards religion. It’s a factual, even criminal question—of the highest importance. And my hope is we could have that conversation first. As my own review demonstrates, there is definitely plenty to still consider (this powerful summary of the key questions in the case is also really helpful).

4. That kind of public conversation seems simply beyond many people today. None of this nuance will matter to some people, of course, as evident in some of the responses to Blake’s Twitter commentary I referenced above that attempted to shed light on some of this nuance:

  • “None of this matters, not one little bit, when a SIX WEEK OLD INFANT is being raped by her father.”
  • “Do you always go through this much trouble to attempt to help your cult not look like it’s one of the largest pedophile rings in the world?”

That’s about what we can expect from many people these days. An almost compulsive habit of accusation and suspicion—attacking anything that preserves their preferred narrative (in this case, against religious people as clear hypocrites). And if anyone raises a question or concern about the popular narrative, they are immediately suspect, as if any critical thinking about the case is somehow aimed at defending child abuse.

In all seriousness, I’m struck by how flat and superficial so much of this popular analysis is, reading almost like an action-adventure movie: Secrecy is always bad, forcing reporting is always good, helping a perpetrator try to change is always naive, victims are always right, and institutions are always up to something, especially religious ones.

That’s the kind of conversation that leads to impulsive decisions and aggression. People are leaving the Church over this, “this is the last straw!” Others have decided that vandalizing churches is an appropriate response, scrawling things like “Predators welcome here!”

Seeing so many eager to wield this as yet another culture war weapon this last week constitutes, for me, another ominous threshold we’ve passed over. The sacred space of healing and ministry to the abused is tread under people’s feet and taken up on the many critical podcasts by people talking in smug, self-congratulatory ways, secretly thrilled to see the angle the AP article takes. It’s been particularly saddening to see people I know who have stepped away from the Church approach the whole story with so little curiosity about many of the critical questions being raised. I surely hope I could and would have more wondering if my own ideological opposites were condemned of something.

My advice to those emotionally inclined to believe anything unpleasant they hear about a faith community like ours?  As Rich Lowry wrote this week in a fascinating New York Times piece, “It would be better if more people acknowledged—life being complicated—that even someone you hate and fear can be treated unfairly.”

Ultimately, the question to ask is what this all means for the children we all say we want to protect.  To anyone passionate about fighting abuse, I would simply ask: If we were truly committed to helping as many children as possible, is this really the conversation we’d be having?

I sure don’t think so. But what do you think?