June 2020 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

Legislators in Arizona are considering altering a law that exempts clergy from a mandatory reporting requirement in light of a horrific case of child abuse in Bisbee.

A Bisbee man, Paul Adams, confessed to a bishop with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) that he was molesting his 5-year-old daughter. The bishop counseled the man and his wife but did not report the abuse to the authorities, reported the Arizona Republic. Another bishop later took over the case, and he also did not report the abuse.

Many states have laws requiring mandatory reporting of child abuse. Arizona is among them, but the law contains an exemption for members of the clergy if they believe that not reporting is “reasonable and necessary within the concepts of the religion.”

The Republic reported that despite the counseling, Adams continued to abuse the girl. When his wife gave birth to a second daughter in 2015, Adams abused her as well. He even uploaded videos of the abuse to pornographic websites, where they were eventually discovered by agents with Interpol and reported to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Adams’ employer.

LDS officials knew about the abuse for seven years but said nothing to authorities. After the abuse was discovered by Interpol, Adams and his wife were arrested. Adams was awaiting trial in 2017 when he hanged himself in his cell at a federal prison. The girls have since been adopted by separate families.

According to the Republic, an investigation into the matter is ongoing. Cochise County Attorney Brian McIntyre told the newspaper, “There is a pending investigation being conducted by an outside agency regarding alleged failure to act by certain members of a local church community.”

In addition, the Republic reported, the adoptive parents of the girls are exploring the possibility of filing a lawsuit against the LDS church. Their attorney, Lynne Cadigan, remarked, “The persons or institutions that keep this abuse a secret are morally and legally respon­sible for the harm to these children. Law enforcement needs to step up and charge those responsible for not immediately reporting these crimes.”

An Arizona lawmaker is also looking into the matter. State Sen. Victoria Steele (D-Tucson) has vowed to reintroduce legislation she sponsored last year that would require clergy to report child abuse or neglect if they suspect it’s still occurring.

But Steele’s bill has encountered stiff opposition from LDS officials and some members of the state legislature.

State Sen. Eddie Farnsworth (R-Gilbert) said compelling faith leaders to report abuse “changes the whole nature of the confessional.” Farnsworth has refused to allow a hearing on Steele’s bill.

Officials with the Roman Catholic Church also oppose the change.

“Basically, it’s the government regulating a sacrament,” Ron Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference, told the Republic.