The Bisbee Case: Where Was the Failure Point?

Like a lot of you, I felt nauseated after reading the AP article that recently dropped, and have been following the story since. There’s always a temptation when something like this happens to give an off-the-cuff hot take, but it was clear that there was a lot to this story to unpack and I didn’t have the time to slodge through and compare/contrast the different accounts, so I waited until somebody came up with a clear outline of everything to see where exactly in the process the ball got dropped. 

The Mormonr website has now put together such an outlineAfter reading it, there appear to be two potential failure points.

First, there are conflicting accounts for whether the bishop was told it was up to him to decide or whether he was explicitly told not to report. If the latter, then the Church either gave the wrong legal advice, since the Arizona statute clearly allows for reporting, or this was a matter of laser-focused lawyers building up hedges around liability. (The idea that they were doing this to protect the Church’s image doesn’t make a lot of sense, as by all accounts the perpetrator here was the ward weirdo, not some authority figure; the liability concern makes more sense even if you assume the worst about the Church). Even if it was the latter, there is some fuzziness as to how much the bishops knew.

Perhaps there is a risk that people who thought they were confessing in confidence could later sue the Church, or some other legal nuance in the case law that I’m missing, but a simple reading of the Arizona statute suggests that it’s okay if clergy report. If the Church, as a matter of standard protocol, tells bishops to not report in cases where they are covered by clergy-penitent privilege, even if there is a reasonable likelihood that children are currently endangered, then that’s a big problem and I’m glad that feet are being held to the fire. (However, many of the people yelling at the Church about this yell at the Church about everything, so there’s a not insignificant chance that such a policy could continue after all of this). If that is the case, then there’s a disjuncture between the hotline policy and the handbook that does say to report abuse. 

The Church having a general policy of allowing the bishop to make the call is more arguable, and I don’t want to open up a whole debate thread here about the risks and benefits of clergy-penitent privilege, but this is a more complicated issue than some are suggesting once one steps away from the extreme, no-duh, worst-case scenario of the Bisbee case. For example, when I was doing my research on Virtuous Pedophiles I discussed earlier, I told research subjects straight up before the interview that I would report any illegal activity they admitted to me (although I’m a little fuzzy on how I would have since most of them had VPN-ed up), and thankfully I wasn’t put in that situation and I don’t think any were offending, but I was worried that some would accidentally slip out that, say, they viewed child porn out of curiosity decades ago. If you’re a bishop and somebody with an otherwise spotless record admits that decades ago they viewed child porn out of curiosity, I’m open to the possibility that reporting that to law enforcement and getting them on a sex offender registry for the rest of their life isn’t the most prudent thing to do. I’m also open to the possibility that from a utilitarian perspective the benefits of being able to discuss issues with clergy in a confidential setting would lead to less abuse overall than taking away protection and very rarely being able to trick somebody into providing incriminating evidence when they thought that what they were saying was in confidence. To approach it from a more secular perspective, would you be okay with a government hotline that abusers could call anonymously to receive counseling (and presumably encouragement to stop)? 

Again, I’m open to the possibility, but I haven’t thought about this long enough to have a strong opinion one way or another, but it’s certainly more complicated of an issue as a general principle (again, once we move away from the extreme, no-duh Bisbee case) than some people are making it out to be. 

Of course, the second failure point is the two bishops involved, especially if they were told that whether to report was up to them. If they received explicit no-report instructions they may have been trying hard to stop it given the limitations the Church essentially imposed, and their moral culpability is less than whoever gave them the explicit no-report order (assuming the relevant facts were all known and reported to the Church, which again is arguable), but there was clearly a failure at that level too regardless of what instructions they received. 

38 comments for “The Bisbee Case: Where Was the Failure Point?

  1. As I’ve said elsewhere, there may be 12,000 pages worth of information that we’re not privy to–as in the case in West Virginia. I’d also add that the fact that two bishops seemed to “fail” in the same way vis-a-vis the same case may not necessarily be indicative of systemic failure. It could be an indication that there were complicating factors in the case that made it difficult for them to simply report it to the authorities. Also — and this is the pill that’s probably most difficult for us to swallow — it could be that both bishops felt inspired *not* to take that action–and we may never know why.

    That said, if there was a failure on the part of the church–then I hope we’ll be able to learn from our mistakes and do what we can to recompense the family and help them to heal. But even so, I can’t help but believe that the situation was more difficult and complex than we know. And the fact that we don’t know more than we do is a sign (to me) that the church is *not* trying to protect itself before all else.

  2. Stephen, it seems like there might be one more potential point of failure I haven’t seen addressed. I’m not a lawyer and I’m a bit wary of the idea that any particular point of law is obvious. The hotline’s legal advice to the bishop in question came from Kirton McConkie, but they’re a Utah firm. Did they seek the advice of an Arizona law firm in formulating a response to Arizona law? If so, what was that advice, and why did it read the law the way it did?

  3. @ Jack: Apparently the 12,000 pages are what provided the additional info on the hotline–but as far as I can tell the AP article didn’t really have much that about that that we weren’t already aware of, so I think he’s just being a good reporter and getting solid documentation; additionally dropping the “12,000” pages might have been used as a shocker, as if it’s 12,000 pages worth of multiple abuses, when anybody who’s involved with government and court proceedings knows that it’s not that hard to get up to 12,000 pages with a single case.

    The two bishops not taking action kind of suggest that there were complicating factors, but I can’t see any in the data besides 1) the Church telling them not to, or 2) they didn’t know the full extent (although I’m leaning against #2, the weird bit about him being excommunicated for having sex with his mother and not the abuse provides at least some support). I really doubt the spirit was genuinely involved here with their decisions given the implications. They may have thought it was, but cases like this are exactly why the fact that we see through a glass darkly with spiritual messaging means at some point you remove it from the realm of spiritual impressions and put it in the hard nosed, data-based world of the courts.

    @ Jonathan: By all other accounts KM is pretty good about being aware of the contingencies of local law, going so far as to hire out to other lawyers when they’re out of their range (I think the Sltrib had an account of a British bishop who was referred to a local lawyer), so I doubt KM made some rookie mistake of thinking that Utah law applied everywhere.

  4. I appreciate that you are looking for the failure point(s) here. I think there are legal/procedural/systems failures and then there are moral failures. What is most distressing to me are what I see as the institutional moral failure in this case, which continues even now in my opinion.

  5. Good analysis from what I can tell – I haven’t read the article and I’m not sure I want to. I would agree that at least some of those “yelling at the Church” would be doing that for anything showing any imperfection on the Church’s part.

  6. There is no doubt about the moral imperative to stop abuse. But there are important legal limits on how that imperative is implemented. Those limits may have been misunderstood or misapplied in this case. What legal advice was given is a factual matter that does not appear to be completely established. Whether a duty to report existed depends on both what the bishops and others actually knew and the law. What the bishops actually knew are also facts that do not appear to be completely established. Whether the statute in question mandates reporting is a matter of law that will have to be decided by the court. Every other opinion – including the opinions given as advice to the bishops in this case – are speculation. Unfortunately, tragic cases like this are how the duty to report is clarified.

    It is possible that the bishops were given incorrect legal advice, or that they misunderstood what they were told. But I do not accept that either bishop or the Church in general sought or seeks to protect abusers. Especially in this case. What was to be gained?

    On my read, it is quite possible that neither bishop understood the full scope of the abuse, or the full horror of its continuing nature. I am wary of conflating the legal and moral obligations to report. I do not agree that a moral failing can be deduced from the legal failure, if there is one. It seems to me that we only have one side of the story, and that plaintiff’s counsel is attempting to try the case in the court of public opinion to force a large settlement.

    That said, I am certain that there are lessons to be learned about how to end abuse and protect victims. And I hope that such lessons are recognized and learned.

  7. Just my opinion but I have always felt that any kind or form of unlawful behavior, which can and should be prosecuted by law enforcement should always be reported straight to legal authorities. Child sexual abuse exactly fits in with unlawful behavior and it is a duty of anyone who finds out about it to go straight to law enforcement authorities. This is not a matter to be taken lightly nor is it something any abuser has a right of secrecy of with counselors or other institutions.

  8. In regards to KM, it is my belief that the calls to the hotline would likely reflect the number of units in each state, which would make calls from Arizona to be the fourth most common (after Utah, California and Idaho). Given that half of the calls in general would be from outside Utah, I can’t imagine a single answer being across all states (clergy reporting requirements differ *greatly* across the states, including some where failing to report including Clergy is a Felony!). If Rhode Island or DC changed their law, I could imagine KM possibly failing to keep up, but not Arizona.

  9. Stephen, I’m not suggesting KM made a rookie mistake. I assume they sought legal advice from an Arizona firm, and I’m wondering what advice they were given, and why their advisor gave them that advice.

  10. @ Rob: Reporting any illegal behavior might be a bit of a stretch, I’m much, much, much more okay with clergy/penitent privileges when nobody is at risk of harm. If somebody comes into a bishop and confesses that they took a hit of some illegal drug last week I don’t know if much is to be gained form turning them in. However, that’s not the case here so I don’t want to sidetrack.

    @ Jonathan: Ah, I get what you’re saying now, my mistake. That’s an interesting possibility: what if the failure point is farther upstream, and they got bad advice from whoever they outsourced it to?

  11. Does D&C 42 have any relevance here? It seems like we have a “turn them in” theology.

  12. Stephen,
    I should have phrased it to mean serious illegal behavior. I don’t believe in clergy/pertinent privelege laws at all in cases of child abuse/neglect. I believe all states should pass laws making it mandatory to report child abuse by clergy. The problem with the church helpline as I see it is that the church training on the issue makes it ambiguous on reporting crime and its seriousness. Thus we have these kind of problems.

  13. Seems to me that the first failure point is lack of pre-emptive training for Bishops. My understanding is that most Bishops deal with domestic abuse/violence and/or victims of sexual abuse during their tenure and that they receive zero training for these situations beyond listening to the spirit and the hotline-to-a-lawyer phone number.

  14. Second point of failure: Destroying all records of calls to the hotline rather than using these records to follow up with Bishops to make sure victims have been assisted.

  15. “However, many of the people yelling at the Church about this yell at the Church about everything, so there’s a not insignificant chance that such a policy could continue after all of this.”

    Seriously? SMH.

  16. We’re learning now that the bishop(s) may not have known how serious the problem was until after Paul was arrested. Hopefully more details will be forthcoming and we’ll be able to build an accurate narrative. But then again, we may never learn enough to know exactly how things really played out. Even so, I trust that the bishops involved did the best they could to help that family according to their understanding of the situation.

  17. I’m one of those people who often spends time yelling at the Church. And I’m surely wrong some (a lot) of the time. Not this time.

  18. One of the failure points after the fact is the statement released by the church which blames AP and sounds culpable.

  19. They had a church court and excommunicated him yet nothing was done to protect his wife or children. That is a failure point

  20. Laura,

    I think the church is very reticent to reveal too much of its inner workings–especially where disciplinary counsels and the like are involved. And so what I take away from the statement is–the church wanted to make it clear that the AP article was off base without getting into the particulars of the story.

    I can see how that approach may seem a bit dodgy–but I think it’s really more a matter of protecting sensitive information than trying to cover up anything.


    It looks as if he might’ve been excommunicated for reasons not having to do with the abuse. I don’t know exactly what that means regarding his crimes toward his children–except that it could be true that the bishop didn’t know the severity of the situation until after he was arrested.


    This could be the one time you’re wrong. :D

  21. @Jack “I think it is more a matter of protecting sensitive information than trying to cover up anything.”

    Seriously??? Sensitive information for whom? Who needs protecting?The Church, the law firm, the Bishop and ward members? They missed the mark on protecting the child. I think you have this backwards.

  22. Old Woman,

    I’m not very smart about these things–I can’t begin to comprehend the inner workings of the law–but what I’m talking about is a general practice on the part of the church. If, hypothetically, a survivor did *not* want the history of her abuse made public you could trust the church (for the most part–you can’t plug every leak) to remain silent.

    And so what I’m saying is that the church has good reasons for withholding information–reasons that go beyond merely protecting its corporate assets.

  23. From what I’ve read, he was exed for having a sexual relationship with his own mother, not for the abuse of the children. Which is odd if prior to being exed the Bishop was counseling with the wife to protect the children from him. Barring everything else, the counseling implies that the Bishop knew the children were in danger. The whole thing is just too awful.

  24. The priest-penitent privilege doesn’t exist to “protect[] sensitive information.” It exists to encourage people to confess to their spiritual leaders, in the expectation that such confession will lead to repentance and reformation of the sinner. Would such confessions end if sinners knew that their words would be reported immediately to the local police? And, would such a policy lead to better or worse outcomes? I don’t know that anybody knows the answers to those questions, but I’d bet that the people who are charged with making decisions about these matters have thought about them for a lot longer than the commenters on this and other blogs have.

    As to the Arizona statute that says a clergyman who receives a confession “may report,” there are two questions in a church organized like ours. First, should bishops report confessions of child abuse to the police? And, second, who makes the decision? Does each bishop in Arizona make that decision for his ward–or does the leadership of the Church make the call for all the Arizona bishops? If the latter, then you’re a bit hasty in concluding that the help line gave wrong advice.

  25. Mark B, I don’t know if you were responding to me (in part) but I agree with what you say about confidentiality existing to encourage people to confess. I’m only suggesting that, as a matter of course, the church protects information having to do with confessions, disciplinary councils, and so forth. And that that basic policy may be used as an argument against the idea that they’re trying to cover their tracks by not making more information available.

  26. Even when a member who’s being excommunicated for something purely religious like apostasy and who speaks publicly about the disciplinary process, the church still chooses to stay silent on the topic and not defend itself or its reasoning. How much more guarded would it be when the topic involves a crime and a lawsuit.

    It is extremely curious to me that he was excommunicated for other reasons not related to abuse. To me this also signals that the Bishop(s) and the Stake leaders may not have known all that everyone thinks they know.

  27. In most states, the priest-penitent privilege simply prevents members of the clergy from being witnesses in civil or criminal proceedings against the person who confessed to them. Many states have a similar evidentiary privilege for spouse. Just like the spousal privilege, members of the clergy are not prohibited from reporting crimes in most states. Anyone who attended BYU and had any interaction with the Honor Code Office knows that BYU loves snitches. BYU students who confess certain (perfectly lawful) sins to their Bishop could lead to them being kicked out of BYU. As such, the apparent Church policy or practice of not reporting child abuse unless you are legally required to do so is pretty shocking to me.

    The simple solution is to change Church policy, specifically, to state that Bishops and Stake Presidents are required to report all child abuse allegations to law enforcement unless state law prohibits them from reporting. Most states will allow a report to be made. The help line can advise if the Bishop lives in a state where they are prohibited from reporting, and provide strategies to get the victims help when legal barriers exist. I think that most members of the Church will be perfectly fine with such a policy and the idea that the Church has zero tolerance for child abusers and molesters. They can go through their repentance process in jail.

  28. Regardless of what actually happened in Bisbee, the Church has a massive problem in how it handles sexual, physical, and emotional abuse.

    I consider myself a committed member of the Church, and have slogged through decades of Home Teaching, now Ministering. I have dealt with a few dozen cases of abuse that were bad enough for the Bishop to involve himself. I have a few jaundiced observations to offer:

    1. The victims of abuse, even to this day, are viewed with suspicion, if not outright hostility. That was particularly evident in the West Virginia scandal.

    2. Priesthood leaders all too often focus on reclaiming the abusive sinner, and neglect the victims. I have personally seen this on many occasions.

    3. The Church is dealing with sexual abuse, because it is being forced to.The Church seems to have trouble grasping the fact that nothing stays hidden forever. “Be sure your sins will find you out.” (Leviticus.)

    4. It is painfully evident that the Church is primarily concerned with protecting itself as an institution. I hope for the day that the Church appoints an Ombudsman to deal with cases of abuse. In the meantime, the Church’s policy of no apologies is only going to make things worse—until someday, the Church has to pay such huge damages in a highly-publicized abuse case, that it will change its policy.

    5. I have seen many cases where Ward and Stake leaders react much more harshly to female immorality than male immorality.

    I hope that the Church I love will change its actual policy on abuse, and put genuine teeth behind its statements condemning abuse.

  29. @Mac “It is extremely curious to me that he was excommunicated for other reasons not related to the abuse.To me this also signals that the Bishop and Stake leaders may not have known all that everyone thinks they know.”

    Paul Adams was excommunicated for having sex with his mother, incest, which is a third degree felony in Utah. Was it reported to the authorities? I don’t know, but doubtful. The abuse that had been going on with his children continued until his arrest in 2017. This signals to me that they knew enough. Why no action was taken is beyond my comprehension.

  30. The clergy-penitent priveledge is kind of puzzling to me. I think everyone will agree there is a definite line that if crossed would require reporting to law officials from a confession. For instance- suppose that children in a community were being kidnapped, raped and then tortured to death and then as a bishop you have the serial killer show up in your office for a confessional and he confesses and has proof of killing more than 20 children. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that you are going straight to the police, no second thought about it. So then, where exactly is that line where clergy can or should keep something secret, and be protected under law to keep it a secret? Seems to me like theres a lot of “devil in the details” going on here where that line should be.

  31. Rob,

    Yeah–it’s tricky. In the scenario you’ve described above I’d be tempted to take the guy to the ground and pound him–even at the risk of losing my position as a spiritual leader. But then again–if every bishop, priest, or pastor, reacted that way the door would be shut tight to the perpetrator who feels just enough compunction about his crimes to make a private confession.

    As someone has mentioned elsewhere it’s a horrifying calculous–perhaps as horrifying as selecting which soldiers were to be first off the landing crafts at Normandy.

  32. The bottom line for me is that it is our duty as servents of God to make all his paths straight which include the duty of our legal system to make due process of the guilty. Whether it means convincing the perpetrator to turn themselves in or in fact reporting their actions yo the police it is the same. Part of honoring and sustaining the law coupled with repentance and forgiveness of serious sin such as child abuse is in fact turning one over to law enforcement so that due process can begin. A bishop has no legal power or authority to excuse or forgive one of serious illegal behavior in the eyes of the law.

    If I was a bishop or SP and a person came to me in confidentiality and they admitted to a serious sin such as rape or sex abuse I would inform them immediately that I am obligated as both a citizen and servent of God to make sure they are turned in to law enforcement so that safety of all are protected and also so that true repentance and forgiveness can begin.

  33. The original article says the reports go to the department of risk management, as opposed to family services.
    A previous head of risk management says he regularly reported to the first presidency.
    So a failure point at the very top!

  34. There is an overview of the Bisbee case over at Mormonr, that has a lot of primary sources listed. I’m not surprised that both Bishops didn’t know the extent of the abuse, but the first Bishop knew 1) that the father had molested his 5yo daughter more than once, and 2) that the father was *recording* the abuse. Even that is just jaw-dropping information to me. How could a Bishop know that and not report it?

    I’ve said this elsewhere, but it bears repeating. The church characterized MICHAEL REZENDES’ reporting as inaccurate. Do they not see that criticizing the journalist who helped break the story of the catholic clergy- abuse coverup in 2003 is phenomenally bad optics? Holy cow, this is how you tell the entire world you have a serious problem.

  35. I suppose that’s my major complaint, Margo. You’ve got a journalist of his uncontested caliber who nonetheless chooses to: (a) never mention any of the things the bishops did to support and try to get the family to self-report, even though some of that evidence is publicly available; (b) omit any discussion whatsoever about the pluses and minuses of the priest-penitent privilege and why a church might feel obligated not to reveal confidences, even in heinous situations like these; and (c) pick (or allows someone to pick) an incredibly biased title like “Seven Years of Abuse: How the Mormon Church Let It Happen,” as though this was an outcome the Church wanted.

    You don’t have to agree that the Church made the right call here to include those things. And it’s because I assume a reporter of his quality would want to tell both sides of the story well that I found it so disappointing. All we got here was a more erudite and fulsome rehash of the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ pleadings.

  36. jimbob, I love your comments on the recent BCC threads. I wasn’t able to tell you (over there) because I’ve been banned from that site.

  37. Where is President Russell M. Nelson? Is he hiding behind lawyers and PR people? My own Seattle stake president just sent out an email with church letterhead stating that he was very concerned about the AP story and child abuse, and that he would be providing training to bishops. My stake president is taking an open and proactive approach. Ethics and morality should far outweigh legalities.

  38. According to the new statement from the church he was excommunicated for child rape. The Bishop urged all parties to report. He did not report. This was the failure point.

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