Judge limits privilege defense in AZ Mormon sex abuse case

An Arizona judge overseeing a high-profile lawsuit accusing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of conspiring to cover-up child sex abuse has ruled that the church may not refuse to answer questions or turn over documents under the state’s “clergy-penitent privilege.”

Clergy in Arizona, as in many other states, are required to report information about child sexual abuse or neglect to law enforcement or child welfare authorities. But an exception to that law — the privilege — allows members of the clergy who learn of the abuse through spiritual confessions to keep the information secret.


Judge Laura Cardinal ruled on Aug. 8 that the late Paul Adams waived his right to keep his confessions secret when he posted videos of himself sexually abusing his two daughters on the Internet, boasted of the abuse on social media, and confessed to federal law enforcement agents, who arrested him in 2017 with no help from the church.

“Taken together, Adams’ overt acts demonstrate a lack of repentance and a profound disregard” for the principles of the church, widely known as the Mormon church, Cardinal said in her ruling. “His acts can only be characterized as a waiver of the clergy-penitent privilege.”

The lawsuit accuses two Arizona bishops and church leaders in Salt Lake City of negligence in not reporting the abuse and allowing Adams to continue abusing his older daughter for as many as seven years, a time in which he also abused the girl’s infant sister.

Cardinal issued her order, which the church is expected to appeal, after attorneys for three victims objected when the church refused to turn over disciplinary records for Adams, who was excommunicated in 2013. The victims’ attorneys also objected when a church official cited the privilege when refusing to answer questions during pre-trial testimony.

“The judge’s order applies to the church’s secret records and to what happened at the secret ex-communication hearing,” said Lynne Cadigan, an attorney for the three children who filed suit.

Cardinal’s order will require church official Richard Fife, a clerk who took notes during the excommunication hearing, to answer questions from the attorneys representing the Adams children. It will also require church officials to turn over records of the disciplinary council meeting.

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