Victims of a deceased child sexual abuser in Arizona were told the LDS Church had a right not to disclose information it had received in confession.
by Massimo Introvigne
Some just do not get it, but the inviolability of the secret of confession does not depend on the nature of the crime. The horrific nature of child sexual abuse is currently used as a picklock to unhinge the door of the confessional secret. But one breach would destroy the whole door. Today it is child sexual abuse, tomorrow it will be rape, drug dealing, serial killing, or terrorism. In the end, there will be no secret of confession at all.
“Bitter Winter” reported in April this year that the Arizona Supreme Court had judged that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, popularly known as the Mormon Church) was authorized not to disclose information given to it in confession by a man called Paul Adams. He had routinely raped his two daughters before being arrested in 2017 and committing suicide in jail. At the time of the arrest, Adams was no longer a member of the LDS Church, having been excommunicated in 2013, but he committed some of his crimes when he was still a Mormon.
As a logical consequence of the Supreme Court ruling, on November 3 Cochise County Superior Court Judge Timothy Dickerson dismissed a lawsuit filed by the two daughters of the deceased abuser against the LDS Church and several of its representatives involved in the case. The judge confirmed that, as horrible as Adams’ crimes were, the LDS Church was exempted from the general duty of reporting them to the police because the corresponding information was obtained in a situation of confession.
The Arizona decisions in the Paul Adams trials are important for two features of the case. First, the criminal posted in the dark web videos where he publicly confessed and documented his crimes. The attorneys for his daughters argued that he had thus waived his right to be protected by the secret of confession. However, the Arizona judges maintained that Adams might have waived its rights but the LDS Church and its representatives did not. They remained protected by the principle of the secret of confession.
Second, while laws protecting the secret of confession were written having in mind the Catholic model, where one penitent confesses to one priest, in the Adams case several LDS representatives became aware of his confession. In fact, the local LDS bishop (whose position is similar to a Catholic parish priest) even consulted with his church’s authorities in Salt Lake City. Unlike in the Catholic confession, a significant number of LDS representatives become aware of the confession, and written documents about it were generated. This did not destroy the confessional privilege, the Arizona courts said.
The point is important because in California an anachronistic law only protects the secret of one-on-one Catholic-style confession. This law should be amended. In a situation of religious pluralism “confession” has meanings going well beyond the Catholic sacrament, and all religions are entitled to equal protection. The secret of confession, under assault in several countries, deserves more protection, not less.