A Utah lawmaker and prominent attorney for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints advised a church bishop not to report a confession of child sexual abuse to authorities, a decision that allowed the abuse to continue for years, according to records filed in a lawsuit.
The records — two pages of a call log from a law firm representing the church and the deposition of a church official — show that Utah Democratic State Representative Merrill F. Nelson took the initial call from a bishop who said the member church member Paul Adams had sexually abused his daughters. Nelson also had several conversations over two years with two bishops who knew about the abuse, records show.
Nelson is a conservative congressman who was elected to the Utah House of Representatives in 2013 and announced his retirement earlier this year. He also was an attorney with the Kiron McConkie firm of Salt Lake City, which represents the church. He earned his undergraduate and law degrees from church-owned Brigham Young University.
A copy of the deposition and excerpts of the call log were attached to a legal filing with the Arizona Court of Appeals made by attorneys for the plaintiffs. Three of Adams’ children are battling the church, widely known as the Mormon church, over access to records the church insists are confidential. The church took the case to the Court of Appeals after a Cochise County judge ruled in favor of the victims.
According to the plaintiff’s legal filing, Nelson advised Bishop John Herrod not to report the abuse and told him “that he could be sued if he did, and the attorney’s instruction not to report Paul to the authorities was the law in Arizona and it had nothing to do with the doctrine of the Church”. But Arizona’s child sexual abuse reporting law provides blanket legal immunity to anyone who reports child sexual abuse or neglect.
The AP reported in August that Adams confessed to Herrod in 2010 that he sexually abused his daughter, named MJ.
Church lawyers said Herrod, and later Bishop Robert “Kim” Mauzy, legally withheld information about MJ’s abuse under the state’s privilege of repentant clergy. Arizona law generally requires clergy members to report child neglect and sexual abuse, but allows them to withhold information obtained during a spiritual confession.
The call log filed with the Arizona Court of Appeals shows Nelson spoke with Herrod and Mauzy several times between November 2011 and February 2014, the period when Adams was disbarred. Mauzy presided over a church disciplinary process in 2013 after which Adams was expelled.
Although the record does not detail the subject of those communications, Roger Van Komen, director of family services for the church’s southeast region, said in a deposition also included in the record that Nelson discussed the case with Herod.
The 2021 lawsuit alleges the church conspired to cover up Adam’s sex crimes. The one-time US Border Patrol agent repeatedly raped MJ and eventually her younger sister at their home in Arizona over a seven-year period and posted videos of the abuse online.
During an interview with the AP before the new court filings were filed, Nelson defended the church’s actions in the Adams case and the penitent clergy privilege. He said the church’s “abuse helpline” that Herrond had called for advice was designed to protect children.
“I don’t have all the facts, but it seems to me that it worked as it should,” he said. “The bishop called the helpline and was told he was not obliged to report it to civil authorities. Actually, I couldn’t comment because of clergy privilege,” Nelson said.
“It was intended and always was from the beginning to help victims get the help they need through social services, vocational counseling, medical help, legal help, law enforcement,” Nelson said.
Nelson, when contacted after the new files were released, declined further comment and asked that his previous comments be off the record. “I don’t make any comments on specific cases,” he said.
A spokesman for the church declined to comment on the plaintiff’s statement.
The church created the helpline in 1995 and requires bishops and other church leaders to call it before deciding whether to report abuse to police or child welfare officials.
According to church documents, those answering the helpline refer callers to church attorneys with Kirton McConkie if allegations of abuse are serious. Lawyers then decide whether callers should report the abuse.
Nelson, who was a Kirton McConkie shareholder, took Herrod’s first call to the help line reporting Adams’ abuse, according to Van Komen’s filing. Nelson told the AP that he has retired from the company, although he remains listed on its website as a member of the First Amendment and Religious Organizations section.
An AP investigation published in August found that the helpline is part of a system that can be easily abused by church leaders to divert allegations of abuse from law enforcement and instead to church lawyers who may bury the problem, leaving victims at risk.
The AP’s findings were based in part on 12,000 pages of sealed records in an unrelated child abuse lawsuit against the church filed in West Virginia. Many of the documents describe how the helpline works, which includes destroying all files at the end of each day
The sealed files included a list of questions that helpline responders should ask before speaking to Kirton McConkie attorneys. The so-called “protocol” listed the names of several Kirton McConkie attorneys and their phone numbers, including Nelson.
Until now, the church has said all communications between Herrod and Mauzy and church attorneys are confidential under attorney-client privilege. But the new log provides some details of Nelson’s conversations with the two bishops.
For example, the log shows Nelson wrote an “initial case summary” on Nov. 7, 2011 “based on a conversation” with Herrod. The journal also notes a “description of legal advice” and notes additional communications with the bishop.
Federal officials arrested Adams in 2017, four years after he was excommunicated, finally stopping his abuse of MJ and her sister, without help from the church.
Adams died by suicide in custody before he could stand trial. His wife, Leizza Adams, served more than two years in state prison on child sexual abuse charges. Three of their six children, including a boy who was allegedly abused, filed a lawsuit accusing the church of negligence for failing to report their abuse and of participating in a larger conspiracy to cover up child sexual abuse.
Attorneys for the three children declined to comment on the log and their most recent court filing. In their 2021 lawsuit they cited Kirton McConkie while accusing the church of running a system designed to protect the church from potentially costly sexual abuse lawsuits.
“The Mormon Church operates the Helpline not for the protection and spiritual counseling of victims of sexual abuse, as stated in Mormon church doctrine and literature, but for Kirton McConkey’s attorneys to defuse allegations and protect the Mormon church from costly lawsuits,” the lawsuit states. .
Follow Michael Rezendes and Jason Dearen on Twitter at @MikeRezendes and @jhdearen. Contact AP’s global investigative team at email@example.com or https://www.ap.org/tips/