Attorneys for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and two former lay bishops deny responsibility for the fact three young children in a Bisbee family -including a newborn- endured repeated physical and sexual abuse because church officials with knowledge of the abuse did not notify police.
A 2017 federal criminal investigation into the abusive actions of Paul Douglas Adams and his wife Leizza revealed Paul Adams told former LDS bishops Dr. John Herrod and Robert Kim Mauzy about his ongoing abusive conduct several years before federal agents traced graphic videos of the abuse to Adams’ home in Bisbee.
Attorneys for the children sued various LDS officials in November 2020 for failing to take steps to stop the abuse. In response, LDS church officials confirmed neither Herrod nor Mauzy reported Adams’ past or ongoing abuse to police despite their knowledge of the harm being done to the children.
“Defendants assert that the Church Bishops had no right or obligation, consistent with the clergy exception to the Arizona reporting statute and other Arizona law, to disclose a confidential and privileged communication with a Church member,” the Church states in their Jan. 12 answer to the lawsuit.
The reason, according to church attorneys, is that LDS officials interpret Arizona’s mandatory reporting law as prohibiting disclosure of what is said in a confessional setting by church members “who have sinned or seek spiritual guidance and counseling” unless the member authorizes the disclosure.
Arizona law states clergy need not report suspected child abuse divulged in “a confidential communication or a confession” if the clergy believes maintaining that confidentiality for the confessor is “reasonable and necessary within the concepts of the religion.”
The statute does not address whether the confessional exemption applies when clergy have a reasonable belief that a child is being subjected to ongoing criminal abuse. But the LDS answer to the lawsuit makes it clear the Church believes there is no duty to protect from future abuse.
“Defendants admit that Bishop Herrod counseled with both Paul and Leizza Adams at times, instructed both of them to report to authorities any abuse of their children that may have occurred or authorize him to do so, but they both refused,” the lawsuit states. “Defendants were constrained by applicable law from reporting the abuse without permission of the perpetrator or his wife.”
The lawsuit on behalf of three of the Adams’ six children was filed in Cochise County Superior Court in November 2020, nearly three years after Paul Adams killed himself by hanging while awaiting trial on state and federal charges.
Adams admitted after his February 2017 arrest to making videos of himself sexually abusing two daughters inside the family’s Bisbee home. Those videos were discovered by Interpol who worked with U.S. agents to identify Adams, who even described in graphic details his sexual abuse of one daughter when she was a newborn.
The criminal investigation also revealed Shaunice Warr, a female church member who worked with Paul Adams at the U.S. Border Patrol, was assigned by the local bishops to serve as a “visiting teacher” for Leizza Adams. Warr, who also served as the children’s Sunday school teacher, told federal agents she knew of problems in the home at the tie but denies knowing it involved sexual abuse.
Warr is not represented by the same attorneys who responded on behalf of church officials, as well as Herrod, Mauzy, and their spouses.
In April 2018, Leizza Adams pleaded no contest to two counts of child abuse endangerment and agreed to sever her parental rights to all six children. She was released from prison in October 2020 to begin a four year term of probation.
In asking for leniency, Leizza Adams argued she did her best to protect the children but “relied too much” on guidance from local church officials.