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If you are a member of the Mormon Church and you have a problem, you’re supposed to talk to your local bishop. And if the bishop has questions about how to handle an issue—say an accusation of sexual abuse—he can call a special 24-hour “help line.”

If the social worker or counselor is told about the abuse, they are not told to report the matter to local authorities. Instead, if the issue appears to be serious, those staffers are told to call an attorney with the law firm Kirton McConkie, which represents the Mormon Church.

A few years ago, VICE News ran a piece about how this “help line” was designed “to shield the Mormon Church from potential lawsuits that pose a financial threat to the Church.”

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It’s always been a bit of a mystery how that bury-the-crime hotline operates behind the curtain because the Church doesn’t share any information about it. We don’t know how many calls are received, much less how many of them are abuse-related. But if a call relating to abuse gets transferred to a Church lawyer, it suddenly falls under “attorney-client” privilege, which allows the Church to maintain secrecy.

The biggest concern, then, is that if a bishop finds out about a serial sexual abuser and contacts the hotline for further instructions, that bishop could be told everything’s being taken care of… even though the end result is silence, not prosecution.

Now we know just how bad the situation can actually get.

First, a quick tangent.

In 2018, the Mormon Church settled a lawsuit brought against them by multiple plaintiffs who said a man named Christopher Michael Jensen sexually abused their children while babysitting them… and that Church leaders knew about it but didn’t act. They didn’t alert law enforcement, either, even those in their state of West Virginia, clergy members are required to notify the authorities about possible child abuse.

Because Jensen’s actions went unreported, other Mormon families allowed him to babysit their kids before his eventual arrest in 2013. Jensen was eventually classified by a judge as a “violent sexual predator” and is now serving a prison sentence of 35-75 years.

In 2019, two mothers went to their local Mormon testimony meeting to warn the congregation that their leaders helped cover up a pedophile. They were drowned out by music, singing, and Church leaders.

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Why bring that story up now?

I mentioned that Church leaders knew about his crimes. Turns out those bishops contacted the “help line” when they heard the allegations… but nothing of consequence happened to Jensen, who continued to prey on other children.

It turns out there was a lot more information about that hotline that came out during that trial.

And in a piece published yesterday by Michael Rezendes of the Associated Press, we found out he got ahold of those documents, confirming the worst suspicions about the help line, that the protocols for staffers involved literally telling the bishops that they should “never advise a priesthood leader to report abuse” and to contact the Church’s lawyers instead.

The Associated Press has obtained nearly 12,000 pages of sealed records from an unrelated child sex abuse lawsuit against the Mormon church in West Virginia. The documents offer the most detailed and comprehensive look yet at the so-called help line… Families of survivors who filed the lawsuit said they show it’s part of a system that can easily be misused by church leaders to divert abuse accusations away from law enforcement and instead to church attorneys who may bury the problem, leaving victims in harm’s way.

“The help line is certainly there to help — to help the church keep its secrets and to cover up abuse,” said Craig Vernon, an Idaho attorney who has filed several sex abuse lawsuits against the church.

The lawsuit in question here involves a Mormon man named Paul Douglas Adams, who sexually assaulted his own daughters for years, video-recorded the assaults, and shared them online. Just horrible, disgusting stuff.

When Adams’ daughter MJ was 5, he admitted to his bishop that he was sexually abusing her. The bishop called the hotline. The confession remained a secret.

[The Church] said, ‘You absolutely can do nothing,’” [Bishop John] Herrod said in a recorded interview with law enforcement.

Adams continued raping MJ for another seven years. And then, when another daughter was born, he began assaulting her, too. She was only six weeks old when he started.

It was only after officials in New Zealand came across one of the videos depicting his sexual abuse, and informed law enforcement in the U.S. about it, that Adams was finally arrested in 2017. He took his own life before a trial could begin.

Three of Adams’ kids are now plaintiffs in that lawsuit which goes after the Church as well as the bishops involved in covering up what their father did. The bishops’ lawyer says those men should be off the hook.

“These bishops did nothing wrong. They didn’t violate the law, and therefore they can’t be held liable,” he said. [Attorney William] Maledon referred to the suit as “a money grab.”

Don’t blame the bishops, he’s saying. Blame the Church instead. Meanwhile, the Church is hiding behind religious and legal privilege.

Part of the problem here is that Arizona law, which would apply to the Adams and their bishops, allows religious leaders to get away with this sort of thing:

Arizona’s child sex abuse reporting law, and similar laws in more than 20 states that require clergy to report child sex abuse and neglect, says that clergy, physicians, nurses, or anyone caring for a child who “reasonably believes” a 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.

There’s a religious loophole when it comes to reporting sexual abuse. It makes no sense. It hurts victims. But the Catholic Church and the Mormon Church and Jehovah’s Witnesses, among others, have constantly fought bills seeking to close those loopholes.

This lawsuit claims all the defendants were engaged in a conspiracy to cover up abuse allegations in order to protect the Church’s reputation. After all, the Church is built on the backs and pocketbooks of its 16 million members.

Rezendes also notes that the documents show that records of the phone calls to the hotline are “destroyed by the end of every day.” Furthermore, all calls that go to the Church’s lawyers are automatically “covered by attorney-client privilege and remain out of the reach of prosecutors and victims’ attorneys.” Basically, there’s no paper trail and the worst cases are treated in a way that allows them to be buried.

If you were designing a system to keep allegations of sexual abuse in the Mormon Church hidden from the public, this is how you would do it. So what if the victims don’t get justice? So what if the alleged perpetrators are allowed to continue abusing other people? All that seems to matter is that the Church comes out looking squeaky clean.

Here’s another damning detail in the AP article: Before the hotline was established in 1995, bishops were told to report assault allegations to the police. Which means the “help line” only made things worse… for the victims. (Not the Church. Never the Church.)

If the Mormon Church wanted to get rid of the hotline, or at the very least train staffers to report all allegations of abuse to secular authorities, they could do it immediately. They won’t because they just don’t give a damn about victims of sex abuse. They won’t do anything about the problem if it means admitting how awful the Church is when it comes to handling the most heinous of crimes.

There’s one bright spot in all this: The Adams children no longer live with their mother, who was eventually charged with child sex abuse and went to prison for 2.5 years. Three live with relatives. Three were taken in by other families. In the case of the infant who was abused, the Mormon family that took her in had no idea what she had been through until they sat in on Leizza Adams’s sentencing hearing and learned the details of what their new child had been through.

It was enough to make them leave the Mormon Church for good:

But after learning about what Adams did to their new daughter, and the failure of the church to stop him, the scales fell from their eyes. “We decided to remove our records from the church,” said Matthew Whitworth. “I personally couldn’t continue to provide tithing money to a church that would allow young children to be abused and not do anything to prevent it.”

Maybe the bigger question is why anyone would remain in an organization that cares more about its reputation than the members themselves. If you’re in the Mormon Church, you’re supporting an institution that covers up cases of abuse and creates more victims every day, whether you want to admit it or not. This is the Church. This is what they do. It is indefensible.

But if stories of sexual abuse and faith-based cover-ups, backed by the Church’s leaders, aren’t enough to get you to leave the religious for good, then I don’t know what else will work.

At the very least, stories like these help puncture the unwarranted positive reputation of the Mormon Church. Even if members have reasons to stay, despite these stories, at least people outside the bubble are aware of just how monstrous the institution really is.

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.