4 takeaways from AP’s Mormon church sex abuse investigation

Aug 3, 2022, 9:21 AM | Updated: Aug 4, 2022, 10:53 am
MJ and her adoptive mother sit for an interview with The Associated Press in Sierra Vista, Ariz., O...

MJ and her adoptive mother sit for an interview with The Associated Press in Sierra Vista, Ariz., Oct. 27, 2021. State authorities placed MJ in foster care after learning that her father, the late Paul Adams, sexually assaulted her and posted video of the assaults on the Internet. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

(AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

When an Arizona bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon church, learned that a member of his ward was sexually assaulting his 5-year-old daughter, he followed church policy and called the Mormon Abuse Help Line.

The bishop later told law enforcement that church attorneys in Salt Lake City who staff the help line around the clock said that because he learned of the abuse during a counseling session the church considers a spiritual confession, he was legally bound to keep the abuse secret.

Paul Douglas Adams, a U.S. Border Patrol employee living with his wife and six children in Bisbee, Arizona, continued abusing his daughter for as many as seven more years, and went on to abuse a second daughter. He finally stopped in 2017 with no help from the church only because he was arrested.

The Associated Press obtained thousands of pages of sealed court documents that show in detail exactly how the church’s “help line” can divert abuse complaints away from law enforcement, leaving children in danger.

Takeaways from the AP’s investigation:


The seven years of secrecy in the Adams case began when church attorneys in Salt Lake City advised Bishop John Herrod and later Bishop Robert “Kim” Mauzy they were exempt from reporting requirements under the state’s child abuse reporting law because of the law’s so-called clergy-penitent privilege.

“You absolutely can do nothing,” Herrod said he was told during an interview with federal investigators.

Arizona’s child sex abuse reporting law, and similar laws in more than 20 states, says clergy, physicians, nurses, or anyone caring for a child who “reasonably believes” the child has been abused or neglected has a legal obligation to report the information to police or the state Department of Child Safety. But it also says that clergy who receive information about child neglect or sexual abuse during spiritual confessions “may withhold” that information from authorities if the clergy determine it is “reasonable and necessary” under church doctrine.

An Arizona attorney who is defending the bishops and the church in a lawsuit filed by three of the Adams children, told the AP that Herrod and Mauzy — and by extension the church — were acting within the law and in accordance with their “religious principles.”

“These bishops did nothing wrong. They didn’t violate the law, and therefore they can’t be held liable,” said William Maledon. He also called the Adams children’s lawsuit “a money grab.”


The Associated Press obtained nearly 12,000 pages of sealed records from an unrelated child sex abuse lawsuit against the Mormon church in West Virginia, which show that the help line is part of a system that can easily be misused by church leaders to divert abuse accusations against church members away from law enforcement and instead to church attorneys, who may bury the problem, leaving victims in harm’s way.

It was established in 1995 when legal claims of sex abuse against churches were on the rise.

Officials of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said in sworn statements included in the sealed records that the help line is staffed by social workers who destroy records of all calls at the close of each day.

When the social workers receive calls about abuse that may present a risk to the church — such as abuse committed by prominent church members, abuse perpetrated during church activities, or especially egregious instances of abuse — the calls are referred to attorneys with the Salt Lake City law firm Kirton McConkie. The church maintains that all calls referred to the attorneys are protected by attorney-client privilege, leaving no record of the accusations accessible to prosecutors or victims’ attorneys.

The lawsuit filed by the Adams children alleges: “The Mormon Church implements the Helpline not for the protection and spiritual counseling of sexual abuse victims…but for (church) attorneys to snuff out complaints and protect the Mormon Church from potentially costly lawsuits.”


Miranda and Matthew Whitworth adopted the Adams’ younger daughter when she was just 2 years old. Miranda said when they met, the toddler wrapped her arms and legs around her head, buried her face in her neck, and refused to look up to say good-bye to her mother’s family.

“It was the craziest thing,” Miranda Whitworth said. “It was like when you see a baby monkey or baby gorilla cling to their mother, and they just won’t let go.”

The couple said they joined the lawsuit to push the church to change its policy so that any instance of child sexual abuse is immediately reported to civil authorities. “We just don’t understand why they’re paying all these lawyers to fight this,” Matthew Whitworth said. “Just change the policy.

Nancy Salminen, a special needs teacher in public schools, adopted the older Adams daughter, MJ, after providing her with foster care when she was 12 years old. Today, MJ is a bubbly 16-year-old who plays in her high school band and proudly dons a crisp new uniform for her job as a fast-food restaurant.

“She had every excuse to fail and to just fold into herself and run away,” Salminen said. “But instead, she came back stronger than anyone I’ve ever known.”


Paul Adams died by suicide in jail before he could stand trial on federal child pornography charges and state child sex abuse charges.

Leizza Adams pleaded no contest to two counts of child abuse and served two-and-a-half years in state prison.

Judge Wallace Hoggatt called the abuse endured by MJ and her younger sister “one of the most horrendous cases of child molestation” he had ever encountered.

Today, the lawsuit filed by the Adams children in Cochise County Superior Court, as well as a criminal investigation by the Cochise County attorney, continue to unfold.

“I just think that the Mormon church really sucks. Seriously sucks,” MJ told the AP. “They are just the worst type of people, from what I’ve experienced and what other people have experienced.”


Associated Press editor Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City and news researcher Randy Herschaft in New York contributed to this report.

To contact the AP’s investigations team, email investigative@ap.org.


Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Associated Press

Starbucks leader grilled by Senate over anti-union actions

Longtime Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz faced sharp questioning Wednesday before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee
1 day ago
FILE - The overdose-reversal drug Narcan is displayed during training for employees of the Public H...
Associated Press

FDA approves over-the-counter Narcan; here’s what it means

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday approved selling naloxone without a prescription, the first over-the-counter opioid treatment.
1 day ago
FILE - A Seattle police officer walks past tents used by people experiencing homelessness, March 11...
Associated Press

Seattle, feds seek to end most oversight of city’s police

  SEATTLE (AP) — The U.S. Justice Department and Seattle officials asked a judge Tuesday to end most federal oversight of the city’s police department, saying its sustained, decade-long reform efforts are a model for other cities whose law enforcement agencies face federal civil rights investigations. Seattle has overhauled virtually all aspects of its police […]
2 days ago
Associated Press

Washington moves to end child sex abuse lawsuit time limits

People who were sexually abused as children in Washington state may soon be able to bring lawsuits against the state, schools or other institutions for failing to stop the abuse, no matter when it happened.
2 days ago
Three children and three adults were killed in a shooting at a private Christian grade school in Na...
Associated Press

Nashville shooter who killed 6 drew maps, surveilled school

Three children were killed in a shooting at a private Christian grade school in Nashville on Monday, hospital officials said.
3 days ago
(Photo from KIRO 7)...
Associated Press

Police: passenger pulled jet’s emergency slide before LAX to SEA flight

A passenger on a Delta Air Lines flight out of Los Angeles International Airport was detained for triggering the plane’s emergency slide prior to takeoff, authorities said.
3 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Compassion International...

Brock Huard and Friends Rally Around The Fight for First Campaign

Professional athletes are teaming up to prevent infant mortality and empower women at risk in communities facing severe poverty.
Emergency Preparedness...

Prepare for the next disaster at the Emergency Preparedness Conference

Being prepared before the next emergency arrives is key to preserving businesses and organizations of many kinds.
SHIBA volunteer...

Volunteer to help people understand their Medicare options!

If you’re retired or getting ready to retire and looking for new ways to stay active, becoming a SHIBA volunteer could be for you!
safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.
Comcast Ready for Business Fund...
Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
4 takeaways from AP’s Mormon church sex abuse investigation