Update on Bisbee Case

Since I last posted on this, 1) Mormonr published the testimonies of the two bishops involved in the Bisbee case, and 2) the Church came out with their follow-up statement.

For point # 1,  contrary to the testimony of the law enforcement agent, both bishops indicate that they only knew about a one-off case of abuse. Given that we now have the two bishops (plus the Church, although their information might be based on the bishop testimony) vs the agent who was relaying second-hand information, I think the evidence weighs more heavily away from the scenario implied in the AP article, which is that they were aware of ongoing rape, recording, and broadcasting across seven years but didn’t report it because of some pharisaical adherence to a no-report rule. (Incidentally, the journalists had access to the bishop’s testimonies, so with the curious omission of their side of the story the AP article does start to look more sensationalist).

However, it does appear that they were at least aware of one one-off case (and it goes without saying that any case of sexual abuse is egregious, even if it was a one-off) and did not report that. While a “no-report” order is still highly arguable in that case, it is much less clear cut than in the scenario promoted by the AP article where the bishops were aware of the ongoing sexual assaults for seven years and allowed them to continue without reporting.

So in regards to # 2, we’re still left with some of the issues we were before. I appreciated that the Church’s follow-up response was much thicker on specifics than the first one, which was quite vague. While the Church didn’t come out and directly say it, my interpretation is that the preponderance of evidence suggests that the bishops were told not to report. While not reporting an ongoing seven year rape and child pornography production is in a different universe than not reporting a past one-off incident that, as far as they knew, remained a one-off incident, the question remains about the legal complexities of clergy/penitent confessions and whether the Church in practice is too cautious about potential liability or damaging the confessional process relative to potential harm to victims. While there have been a lot of off-the-cuff remarks, frankly I have yet to see an expert legal take on these issues that satisfies me (which doesn’t surprise me; this appears to be a specialized, esoteric area of law; however, this Deseret News article, agree with it or not, has addressed the issue more thoroughly than anything else I’ve seen). Whatever the case, it does appear that the Church’s legal arm is doubling down on their own legal interpretations (for example, with their statement that in some cases the confessor “owns” the confession), which may or may not be warranted.

32 comments for “Update on Bisbee Case

  1. Bisbee was excommunicated 2 years after his initial confession. This was at a time when over a dozen individuals in the church would have known about that confession and any further developments.

    And any defense of not notifying law enforcement over those years is not going to play well. Does anyone know of a perpetrator of sexual child abuse overcoming that impulse without serious intervention? Anyone who fails to report is culpable.

  2. Because this is a religious blog first and a legal blog second IMO, I have two thoughts.

    One act of sexual abuse is enough. Full stop.

    Neither leader received inspiration from God that the abuse would continue and grow and that they needed to stop it. I was taught God talks to his leaders. The church may need to rethink the way it teachers us to reverence our leaders over our own intuition.

    I agree with your assessments of the church statements.

  3. It could very well be that the reason Paul Adams gave a “limited” confession was because he feared the bishop would go to the authorities if he told the whole story. Even so, it seems that with what little the bishop did know he encouraged Paul and his wife to get professional help–which they refused to do because that would most certainly have brought the establishment down on them.

    You can’t help people who don’t want to be helped. And as terribly sad as it is–the children were victims of evil, unrepentant parents who finally copped to the whole thing because they got caught.

  4. The details do not absolve the church of responsibility. As the judge in the original case said – lots of people knew something very bad was happening. One off is the worst way to describe raping a child. And the church should have done more to help. I wish that had been the church’s response. Just honestly trying to improve instead of legalistic excuses.

  5. The Church’s second statement still leaves a lot of questions.

    So the bishop knew of at least one event by 2011. If you know that a man has raped his child, why would you assume it’s a one-off event? The kind of person who rapes a child once probably does it more than once. That really strains credulity.

    But what’s really a puzzle is the 2013 disciplinary council. We can probably assume it involved the high council and stake presidency, which adds up to 13 additional local leaders who knew about at least some abuse and didn’t report it to law enforcement. And why was there a disciplinary council in 2013 for a single one-off incident in 2011? The Church’s statement is pretty vague here.

    There is more to this story than the Church is letting on. We may learn a lot more if indeed the disciplinary council records are released.

  6. “The details do not absolve the church of responsibility.”

    Brian, the details can be very significant. As significant as (say) knowing whether the brake peddle is on the left or the right. ‘Seems rather trite–I know–but such a detail could be the key to avoiding or cause an horrific accident.

  7. “You can’t help people who don’t want to be helped.” Disastrously but undeniably, the LDS leadership has become “those people”. Dysfunctional beyond all hope of rescue. The hubristic and obstinate messaging emanating from Mormon HQ is only serving to cement this perception in the public mind.

  8. Ryan, we don’t know what the content of Paul Adams limited confession was. We have no way of knowing whether or not he admitted to rape in that first interview.

    Re: Paul’s Excommunication: Based on what little has been revealed it’s quite possible that it was a bishop’s court–not a court on the stake level. Plus, it seems quite likely that he was excommunicated for reasons other than child abuse. My understanding is that it was for having intimate relations with his mother.

  9. Chino Blanco,

    Let’s let this play out in the courts–and learn, if we can, what really happened before we make too many bald assumptions that we may later regret.

  10. There is a preponderance of evidence that the abuse was on going and that the bishops knew it. Not just the bishops, but multiple members of the church. I’ll cite just two facts. First, the bishop urged the mother to report the abuse to authorities to.protect the child. That doesn’t happen unless the bishop thought the child was still in danger. Second, the old bishop told the new bishop about the abuse, this was two years after the confession. This indicates an ongoing problem. The second bishop called the help line and got the same self serving advice the first bishop got. The problem continued.

  11. @ Old Man: I might be missing something, but if he was exed two years after the initial confession I don’t see why anybody would know about the confession until around the time of the disciplinary council except for the bishop, his wife, him, and the helpline person.

    @Chadwick: Agreed, one is too many, but two things can be true at the same time: 1) one act of sexual abuse is an atrocious abomination, full stop, and 2) it’s quite different than seven years of sexual assaults, recordings, and distribution.

    @Brian: Yes, the Church should definitely re-appraise their approach in light of what just happened, no argument there, but I also don’t see the Church’s desire to set the record straight after the AP article as being illegitimate.

    @ Ryan: Yes, the 2013 disciplinary trial is a puzzle. There is that weird thing about him having sex with his mother, and then also an allusion to something else being involved in the excommunication besides the abuse, so it sounds like something finally tripped the wire, when one would think that a slam dunk case of sexual abuse would be enough to trigger a disciplinary council. The fact that it wasn’t suggests either that 1) the bishop seriously dropped the ball, or 2) the confession (which, as Jack points out, we’re still a little fuzzy on) was ambiguous enough or had some other issue to make it difficult to press in a disciplinary court.

    @Jack: It will be interesting to see this play out in the courts.

    @ Builderwill: Those facts show that he knew something had happened, but they don’t necessarily imply that he knew it was ongoing. If a bishop knew about a one-off case of rape against a daughter, that’s serious enough on its own that he could still very likely try to encourage self-report and also tell the next bishop.

  12. I didn’t say it was illegitimate. I said that there is some responsibility that the church bears and I expect better of an organization that says it is the the one true church led by a prophet and Jesus.

    I read the transcript of the interview you cited and the bishop told the police investigator he knew that the father was videotaping himself having sex with a five year old.

    Maybe they have some “Legitimate” reason to not act on that information, but it does not absolve them of responsibility. Do what is right, let the consequence follow. Not do what is legally makes it most likely we won’t get sued.

  13. I’ll believe the Bishop’s when they say that they did not know the extent to which the abuse was happening. It kind of relies on the abuser going into all of the details. But they follow up actions of the Bishop’s (pressuring the wife to involve the authorities, holding an excommunication) does show that they felt that more intervention was needed than what the church could do. Their stated actions do not line up with the idea that the abuse was something that had happened in the past and was never going to happen again.

  14. A thing I find interesting about this case is the comparison with cases involving other organizations that receive public attention. When I read in the newspaper every year or so about child sex abuse involving my large county’s school district, the alleged perpetrator is always a teacher or staff member who abused a student. I cannot think of another news report involving failure to report abuse by a child’s parent, and I doubt that is because our schools’ teachers always report as they should every time. Similarly, the Catholic abuse scandals all involve priests doing the abusing.

    Since the Bisbee abuser was a member of the LDS church, his abuse became in some way known to bishops and a visiting teacher, who apparently were the only people in the whole town who knew enough to be culpable for not having called the police and are now being sued for their inaction.

  15. Yes–and on top of that, John, the help line has been criticized for its supposed inaction when it has done more good for victims of abuse than any one of us really knows.

  16. I dont care if they even suspected or thought or knew or didn’t—as soon as they found out- the police should have been called period. Forget the hotline- forget the coverups or he said she said- its very simple—you find out- you call the police. That solves the problem and the church should be 100% in support of doing that and therein lies the problem—they are not–so its assumed they are covering it up. Whether they are or not—not putting an IMMEDIATE stop to it makes it all very suspicious.

  17. JACK: And you know that how? What victims have received “good”. do you know? or are you just repeating what you were told by the church.

  18. There have been several comments on the blogs by people who have actually used the help line–and they tell a completely different story about its utility than what the AP article leads us to believe.

    Plus here’s an article by a sister who used to work for the help line that paints a very different picture than the one we’re getting from critics:


  19. There are a lot of “full stop” comments that leave me wondering how many times most have called the police to report abuse. Institutional abuse scandals usually involve abuse by agents of the institution rather than failure to report abuse by those served by the institution. To some extent the Bisbee bishops are scapegoats for several dozen others’ blissful ignorance. Since the attention this case is drawing is due to some sense that rather being exceptional, it is a visible example of failures happening repeatedly hundreds or thousands of times a year all over the place, then these scapegoats are carrying the guilt that all of us wish to load on them and not bear for our not being willing to recognize and report the abuse all around us.

  20. If you read the summary Stephen C linked, it’s pretty clear the bishop wanted the abuse reported. He asked the parents to contact the police directly as well as encouraging them to get treatment from mandatory reporters. It’s also pretty clear he believed he was not allowed to disclose what he had been told. Note how even when he spoke with the perpetrator’s wife, he insisted that the perpetrator tell her what had happened rather than him saying it.

    So I think we have to assume that the lawyer he spoke to on the help line told him he was not allowed to report. I’m not a lawyer, but there seems to be broad agreement that this was incorrect. Even the Church’s defense is that the bishop was not required to report due to clergy-penitent privilege, not that he was not allowed to report.

    I’ve spoken with several former bishops about this, and they all agree that it does not match their experience. The help line almost always encouraged them to report (the one exception sounded like a good one, though no details were shared). If they were asked to delay, it was only to gather evidence so they could be sure the perpetrator would be removed from the home as a result of the report. In some cases the person on the help line called the local Child Protective Services on the spot and they reported together.

    But it sure looks like in this case a tragic mistake was made. (I imagine the Church’s lawyers are telling the PR department not to say that.) So there’s room for improvement.

    Bishops need more professional help, not less, so I certainly don’t want to get rid of the help line. But I would love to see it moved from the department that is in charge of reducing the Church’s legal liabilities to the organization that is in charge of promoting children’s welfare, the Primary. That would also make it clear that the social workers and psychologists are in charge, not the lawyers.

    Also, the Church’s statement says one purpose of the help line is to “Directly report the abuse to authorities, regardless of legal exemptions from reporting requirements, when it is known that a child is in imminent danger.” I’d like to see that expanded to something like “…when there is reason to believe a child will be in danger in the future.” “They are living with someone who abused them in the past and that person has not received treatment” would normally qualify.

  21. Jennifer Roach:

    “Several people have asked, understandably so, why it’s an attorney answering the helpline and not a therapist or social worker. Wouldn’t a social worker know better how to help the victim? No. Let me explain why. When a call is made to the helpline it’s often because a potential crime has been committed. Therapists and social workers are not trained in forensics. We’re not trained how to collect or handle evidence that may be used in a legal case. And in fact there is history here – anyone remember the McMartin Preschool case? A family ran a preschool and was accused of sexually abusing the kids in their care. Instead of choosing an interviewer that is trained to collect evidence from very young children, they allowed social workers to interview the children. Without meaning to, the social workers ended up collecting unusable information because they led the children toward saying certain things. Therapists and social workers can cause great harm here, and should not be the one on the phone who is essentially collecting the first grab of evidence.”

    Full article: https://www.fairlatterdaysaints.org/blog/2022/08/06/reflections-on-abuse-reporting-and-the-church

  22. Jack, don’t you think that maybe social workers learned from that case? I can assure you that the way children are interviewed has changed, both for the police who used to terrify the children into silence and the social workers. I had many clients who were either terrified by police or the police flat out didn’t believe them. Well, things have changed. Now, there are special people who interview children. But those children cannot be interviewed unless it is reported in the first place. The bishop is not in the position to interview the children and neither is anybody that the bishop calls who works for the church. So, the church should report and then let the proper authorities interview the children and gather evidence.

  23. With all due respect to Sister Roach, the help line does not interview children or collect evidence. It advises bishops. And if the top priority were gathering evidence for prosecution of the perpetrator, you’d want experts in criminal law, not liability.

    I don’t want to be too negative here, because I have every reason to believe that most of the time the help line does great work. But in this case, it appears the help line lawyer put concerns about a bishop’s legal liability ahead of helping a child in need. When you consider that the help line is in a department that’s focused on avoiding liability, it’s impressive that doesn’t happen more often. Organizations tend to develop a culture that helps them accomplish their primary mission, and it’s hard for a subunit with a different mission to maintain a different culture. I applaud the way the help line staff generally do put children first, and my suggestion is to make that easier for them by shifting that group to an organization that has the same mission.

  24. Well, I (and sister Roach) could be wrong–I’m not an expert. Though, I’ve had plenty of experience being on the receiving end of therapy–most of which has been very positive. Still I think Roach makes a good point about the forensic aspects of abuse. And so it’s really a matter of (or so it seems to me) getting legal experts, therapists, and law enforcement, to work together in a way that makes the best sense–and I can’t say that I know exactly what that combination should look like.

  25. Stephen, your repeated use of the phrase “one one-off” in this article puzzles me. You could just as easily have said “one case” in all instances in your article, and the meaning would be that the bishop was only aware of one case (I think this is what you’re trying to convey?). Whether deliberate or not, your choice of words suggests that the children were abused on only one occasion. Why insist on this?

  26. A couple years ago there was much public expression that police are so bad at exercising their authority that police departments should be defunded and disbanded. Before that there was much reporting that portrayed foster care as abusive. Seasons change, though, so it makes sense to come around to a time for calls to involve police with families that raise concerns and place the children in foster care while government employees sort everything out. At least until it is time to protest about police and foster care again.

  27. @Michael: Sorry, just saw this. I used the term “one-off” (which I don’t see as that different from “one case”) because as far as the bishops knew it was a single case and wasn’t ongoing, although we can talk about what they should have assumed the threat level was given that one case they knew about. Nobody here is suggesting that it was a single case in actuality.

  28. That is a good article. I suspect Renendez let his sad experience with the Catholic church color his perceptions of what happened in this case. But it does spent an awful lot of time on the assertion that the bishops involved only knew about one instance of abuse. That’s important in that a lot of the shock value of the initial AP article comes from the implication they knew about everything that was going on. But it’s really not that important in terms of what should have been done. (The key point is that the bishops and the help line lawyer thought that what should have been done was illegal under Arizona law.) So I’m going to take Stephen C’s hint and talk about what can be assumed if you know about a single instance of abuse.

    Many people who sexually abuse children are expert liars and manipulators, so if they told you about one instance of abuse, there’s a good chance there are actually more. Second guess yourself in all your interactions with them.

    Most people who sexually abuse children cannot stop without professional help, and even then it’s hard. So if they told you about one instance of abuse there’s a good chance they will abuse again. The victim is still in danger.

    If sexual abuse happened once, you have an emotionally and spiritually wounded child. Child victims of sexual abuse need professional help, or at least an evaluation, even if it only happened once. A mother or father who prevents that may not deserve to be in that role.

    Healing will require that the child feel safe–not you think they’re safe, not their mother says they’re safe. Even if you magically knew the perpetrator would never abuse again, the child may not feel safe until the perpetrator is removed from the home. If the perpetrator is trying to repent, it may be that part of their restitution to the victim is removing themselves from the victim’s life unless the day comes that the victim feels strong enough to invite them back. Note that this is independent of the victim forgiving them.

    Also: I’ve had a few more conversations with former bishops who have used the help line, and they uniformly said it was very helpful and they never got any hint the help line was trying to cover anything up. Also, one mentioned that the help line really does get involved in collecting evidence, so I owe Sister Roach an apology. (I’d still love to see the Primary put in charge of the help line though.)

  29. Whose lawyer is staffing the help line? Is the Church the client, or is the inquiring bishop the client? And is the bishop told whether he is establishing a lawyer-client relationship when he calls?

    Oftimes, in the context of alleged corporate wrongdoings, the interests of the corporation and that of its agents diverge. And the careful corporate lawyer lets her friend the agent know that she represents the corporation. And that she can’t advise the agent because the conflicting interests of agent and corporation make joint representation impossible. I don’t see an exception just because the Corporation is the Corporation of the President.

  30. SHAME upon our LDS church leadership…the Catholic Church has reaped the unforgivable cost of their actions.
    So has the LDS church been as guilty for their in-action and cover-ups.

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