Apologists Facilitate Sexual Assault Coverups
TW: child rape, mention of suicide*
A cadre of apologists use logical fallacies and outright lies to prop up the Church’s image in the midst of irrefutable evidence of harmful practices. Those apologists use Kirton McConkie, official church statements, and repeated gaslighting to weave a tapestry of falsehoods that lull us into passivity. It’s tempting to believe what they say. We’ve been taught to trust and love our church leaders. It hurts to see ways they privilege their own image over the safety of children. But if we’re going to end abuse, we have to understand how apologists work. Doing so will allow us to recognize the same strategies when we encounter them in other places.
As an example of the monstrous results of false representation, I’m going to answer Public Square Magazine’s (PS) recent post by C.D. Cunningham about the AP article on sexual abuse and the helpline. While I target this particular writer, he is not alone in how he operates.
I want to be transparent. I’m a survivor of years of child sexual abuse that was ignored by my bishop, among other adults. So I come to the topic with big emotions.
Cunningham writes, “Amidst 12,000 pages, there is undoubtedly a great deal of context and detail that is being missed.” I do not disagree with this statement. I’m just not sure why it’s relevant to a discussion about the effectiveness of the Church’s helpline or best practices to end child abuse. Michael Rezendes, the author of the Associated Press article, won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003 for his work in exposing the Catholic church’s cover-up of clergy sex abuse. He also won the George Polk Award for National Reporting, the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, and the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting for the same coverage. He won other awards (and was a Pulitzer finalist) for similar investigations. Surely Cunningham isn’t saying he is a better investigative reporter than Mr. Rezendes.
But my larger question in light of Cunningham’s non sequitur is this: what context would make child sexual abuse ok?
Cunningham continues, “To suggest the primary aim (of the helpline) is to help avoid liability is a transparently cynical framing of the Church trying to sincerely obey the law in the states and countries where they operate. By all honest measures, the Church’s primary concern is helping victims of abuse. To reiterate, the current guidelines state, ‘When abuse occurs, the first and immediate responsibility of Church leaders is to help those who have been abused and to protect vulnerable persons from future abuse.'” Cunningham asserts without proof that Church leaders have helped and protected vulnerable persons from future abuse. I would like to know in what way they did so in the cases outlined by AP news.
I argue that it’s “a transparently cynical framing” of the victims to insist they are money grabbing opportunists. It’s “a transparently cynical framing” of the bishops to assert they lied about the advice they received from the helpline.
The helpline appears to be one way Cunningham sees the Church protecting children. Regarding the usefulness of the helpline in urging clergy to report, he says, “The Church confirms that in Arizona alone, this has happened hundreds of times.” He again links to the US News reprint of the AP News article. I’m flummoxed by his choice to relink to the article rather than to any hard evidence which would prove his statement. I would love to see the primary source documentation for his (or the Church’s) assertion that the helpline has helped hundreds of times in Arizona. Not that it has received hundreds of calls, because that’s different. Taking calls is not the same as ending abuse. I want evidence that the helpline has, in fact, helped. Cunningham quotes the Church’s website as proof that the helpline works. But goals are not the same as results, and wanting the helpline to end abuse doesn’t mean that it actually does.
We have primary testimony that refutes Cunningham’s unsupported belief that the helpline ends abuse. The AP article says, “The help line has been criticized by abuse victims and their attorneys for being inadequate to quickly stop abuse and protect victims.” When the people most affected by proffered help repeatedly report that it is inadequate, an honest organization would listen to that critique and make changes so the help was more effective. Actions always speak louder than vague, blanket statements of concern, and the Church’s failure to act makes their thoughts and prayers ring hollow.
Cunningham writes, “Arizona had a type two law. Clergy are required to report abuse unless maintaining confidence is ‘reasonable and necessary’ under the beliefs of the faith.” The law actually reads, “Any person who reasonably believes that a minor is or has been the victim of physical injury, abuse, child abuse….shall immediately report or cause reports to be made of this information to a peace officer, to the department of child safety….” That means that any adult who has a reasonable reason to believe that a child is being purposefully harmed is required to report it immediately. Shall. Immediately. Those aren’t suggestions or pleas. Those are enforceable laws. The required reporting must happen immediately. Not after chatting with lawyers, not after interviewing additional family members, and definitely not after waiting 7 years. Just to make sure the “shall” and “immediately” are understood, the law repeats the mandate further down, in section L: “This subsection does not discharge a member of the clergy, a Christian Science practitioner or a priest from the duty to report pursuant to subsection A of this section.”
Cunningham seems to have become tangled up in the part of the law that reads “a member of the clergy…who has received a confidential communication or a confession in that person’s role as a member of the clergy…in the course of discipline enjoined by the church to which the member of the clergy…belongs may withhold reporting of the communication or confession if the member of the clergy…determines that it is reasonable and necessary within the concepts of the religion” (bold not in original). May. They may withhold reporting. When? Only when it is both reasonable and necessary within the concepts (or doctrines/policies/theology) of the religion. I remember Jesus teaching that “…it were better if a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea” than hurt a child. Have we officially rescinded that teaching? Because I’m struggling to understand how that particular clause can possible apply to any member of our religion. I don’t see that doctrine in any of our sacred texts, including General Conference. Quite the opposite. I believe official doctrine would say that it is reasonable and necessary to protect God’s most vulnerable children. There seems to be a disconnect between official doctrine and what the policies actually do, however.
Bishop Herrod was also the family physician, another category Arizona specifically names as a mandated reporter of child abuse. Since one of the pillars of our faith states that we obey the law, I would have expected a man who has been named a mandated reporter twice by the state would report the abuse under at least one of those titles he holds.
Cunningham rightly points out that laws vary around the world and can be confusing. That’s why states like Arizona provide easy-to-access mandated reporter training online. If I were LDS church leaders, I would require every person called to a position in contact with any youth to take whatever training local agencies made available. I know the Church can do it because as the Primary President I was required by my bishop to attend the Boy Scouts’ child protection course. The course had clear steps to follow. When we suspected child abuse, our first step was to call the Boy Scouts’ hotline. From there, we would be instructed on if and how we should inform other people, including the parents and the authorities. If the suspected abuse happened during a camping trip, we were to finish the trip, stay silent until the Boy Scouts’ offices were open the following week, and then make the call. If that sounds like the Church’s policy, I can promise you it was equally as effective at ending abuse.
Cunningham engages in dishonest interpretation when he writes, “Confessing instances of abuse to a clergy member can often set abusers on the path to deep changes in their behavior. Whereas if they don’t go to see a clergy member because they’re worried about being reported, their abuse will continue without anyone knowing. Clearly, the victims need to be our top priority. But there are many victims. And some of those victims will only be helped if their abuser comes forward. And those abusers might only come forward if they trust clergy confidentiality.”
In the same vein, Cunningham insists, “A reasonable argument can be made that, in the aggregate, maintaining some degree of clergy confidentiality helps reduce child abuse over the long term.” He’s basically saying, ‘We can’t report abuse because a lot of children are abused and some of those abusers may or may not talk to clergy and may or may not become hesitant to do so if the clergy may or may not report it so it’s probably better to just not report it ever.’ We have a real-world example of this thought process in action: the Adams case. Not reporting abuse led to 7 more years of abuse. It led to an additional infant being raped. If Cunningham is going to insist that clergy-penitent secrecy leads to less overall sexual abuse, he’d better back it up with solid stats. And those stats should be free from the misinterpretations he so frequently writes.
In order to understand how he misuses stats, I’m going to outline a little tour of logical fallacies in Cunningham’s article. He cites a 2020 law passed in Queensland, Australia, which removed the confessional seal from Catholic priests. Cunningham says, “In the two years since the law was passed, most crimes went down in Australia, but domestic violence and sexual abuse rates began to increase at a higher rate and continue to rise.” He’s trying to convince us that removing the confessional seal for Catholic priests (and it was just Catholic priests) in Queensland (and it was just Queensland) directly caused domestic violence and abuse to increase. The Guardian article he links to is entitled “Queensland Domestic Violence Offenses Increased 17% During Pandemic, Data Shows.” Domestic violence is believed to have increased AROUND THE WORLD during Covid. Why? Is it because Catholic priests in Queensland no longer had clergy-penitent privilege? Property offenses were also up across Australia. Does that mean that the new Queensland law caused an increase in vandalism as well?
Let’s take it from another angle. 21.7% of the population in Queensland self-identify as Catholic. The data in the report include all sexual assaults reported to police, not just those committed by Catholics. The data he links to also do not confine the numbers to Queensland. So, Cunningham took a fact (that sexual abuse reported to police has risen all over Australia) and assigned the cause to one law that affects one subset of a particular subset of the entire Australian population.
Even using Cunningham’s logic, if we’re talking about sexual assaults reported to police, that doesn’t mean that sexual assault itself is up. It means it’s reported more. Which is the purpose of the law. Knowing about a problem doesn’t create the problem.
If we narrow the data down to Queensland, every measured offense except homicide increased in the same timeframe. Are we going to attribute robbery, unlawful entry, motor vehicle theft, and other theft to the updated Queensland mandated reporting law? Correlation is not causation.
Not every church agrees with Cunningham’s slippery slope analysis. After the Queensland law passed, the Anglican Church immediately confirmed that priests are to comply with mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse. They simply decided to protect children over predators and presto! done. It seems that they, too, believed Jesus when he said, “Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.”
But let’s address his assertion that mandated reporting laws themselves actually harm our efforts to end abuse. He uses a couple of links as evidence, but neither link says what he says it says.
The opinion article he links to in Psychology Today addresses valid concerns regarding state mandated reporting by licensed therapists when therapists learn (or suspect) in the course of providing therapy that their client is a sexual predator. The article also deals with the issue of public access to private therapy notes. But Bishops are not therapists and should not be used as such. Bishops do not have the skills to help predators end predation, as proven by both bishops who failed to stop the abuse. It’s bizarre to assert that a non-professional volunteer clergyman, reporting known abuse to law enforcement as required by law, is the same as mandating therapists report their clients or publish their notes on the internet.
Next, Cunningham theorizes that mandated reporters cause many of the problems that make mandatory reporting laws ineffective. This time, he links to a study. I urge you to read the study. It doesn’t say what Cunningham says it says. Here is part of what the study does say:
“Physician reports of suspected maltreatment of children have been shown to be the most likely to be supported be (sic) subsequent child welfare investigation. Yet nonreporting among physicians continues to be a challenge. Nonreporting can stem from various reasons, often tied to the correct identification of at-risk children and trust in the Child Protective Services response and is also subject to individual bias….In contrast, mandatory reporting by the lay public is more likely to result in spurious reports.”
The report states very clearly that when child abuse is reported by physicians, it’s effective. It also calls out physicians’ underreporting of suspected abuse and theorizes some of the causes. It doesn’t say physicians shouldn’t be mandated reporters: it concludes that laws may not increase the rate of physician-based reports of child abuse even though those reports tend to be the most effective.
The research also suggests that mandated reporting laws may not be helpful when lay people are required to report signs of abuse. It is not applicable to a situation where the perpetrator confesses the sexual assault multiple times, nor does it apply to physician-based reporting WHICH THE RESEARCH SAYS IS EFFECTIVE AT ENDING ABUSE. The bishop/physician didn’t just suspect Adams of abuse; he had confessions and witness statements.
There is one area that the study levels criticism applicable to this particular case. Since Bishop Herrod was both bishop and family physician, he was a mandated reporter on two fronts and, as physician, falls into the category of physician under-reporting of abuse.
One peer-reviewed article in an outstanding publication called Child Abuse & Neglect published by one of the leading multidisciplinary databases in the world, ScienceDirect, addresses Cunningham’s concerns that mandated reporting is harmful. It is. Sometimes. When lay people are mandated reporters, they file spurious or injurious reports of abuse based on their own prejudices and lack of training. So, Wilma next door might report abuse simply because she’s biased against certain people. But we don’t need to worry about that in the cases addressed by the AP article because there was clear, irrefutable evidence that Adams was abusive and that he was likely to continue the abuse. The only bias evident in this case is bias against victims in favor of predators.
In order to exonerate the Church, Cunningham dips his toes into the misogyny of victim blaming when he turns his focus on Leizza Adams. “The bishop encouraged both the perpetrator and his wife to report the abuse. The Church chose to maintain clergy confidentiality in this case but took no proactive steps to hide it from anyone else and, in fact, encouraged reports to be made.” President Faust had a lot to say about the sin of omission and I, for one, take no comfort in the fact my bishop knew I was being abused but chose to do nothing about it.
According to Cunningham’s logic, encouraging Adams to turn himself in should have been more effective than reporting the abuse. It was not. The abuse continued. In fact, Adams expanded his pedophilia to include an infant daughter. Self-reporting doesn’t work in movies, and it certainly doesn’t work with a man who bragged to friends that he could rape his daughters whenever he wanted.
The bishop also encouraged Leizza Adams, the predator’s wife, to turn him in. I don’t think she’s exempt from blame, but I would like to reflect on what her life was like because that speaks to why she didn’t turn him in.
Financially, she couldn’t. She was a woman living in an isolated location with 6 kids and no source of income.
Physically, she couldn’t. According to the perpetrator’s coworker (who was Mrs. Adams’ best friend), Paul Adams had an explosive personality and a horrible temper.
Emotionally, she couldn’t. That same bishop told one of the perpetrator’s coworkers that he knew Mrs. Adams was unlikely to stop her husband because she seemed “pretty emotionally dead.” Emotional disconnect or apathy is a common result of spousal abuse. Rather than laying the responsibility to report on the bishops, Cunningham blames an abused and traumatized woman who, after reporting, would have had to return to her abuser.
Cunningham asks a valid question, “Did the church support the abuser?” He then skirts the issue by saying that the Church supported him the way they support all Church members.
They did not.
They did not support the children who were being abused. Instead, they broke the law by refusing to report. Consequently, they were complicit in the ongoing abuse.
Cunningham says the Church has less sexual abuse than other churches. Sexual assault/rape is under reported in every sector of society. Given the way the apologists have come out en masse to hurl accusations of “money grab” at the child whose father raped her throughout her entire childhood, we can begin to understand why those rates are low. And since the bishops failed in their duty to care for her and prevent abuse, we can see why victims would believe reporting their abuse is pointless.
Although Cunningham claims to use data in his analysis of the frequency of sexual assault, he doesn’t link to the data. Instead, he references his own write up of a report, but that write up also fails to link to the primary source. I believe he references this primary source document from 2012 published by MormonLeaks in 2018. The document doesn’t purport to be a list of all reported sexual abuse in that month, let alone all sexual abuse, including unreported cases, in the Church. Rather, it’s a snapshot in time of one living document meant to keep multiple attorneys in the loop about the specific situations they were working on together. In other words, it would be like someone creating a google doc for a group project in school. No one would look at that single google doc and assume it included all work from every classroom in every nation over the course of a month, and yet that’s exactly what Cunningham is trying to get us to believe.
The Truth and Transparency Foundation (which grew out of MormonLeaks) has several well documented examples of predation covered up by, or at least not reported by, the LDS church, examples which occurred at the time of the 2012 document but which are not on it. For example, the child sexual abuse in this story took place over several years, including 2012, but was not reported to clergy until 2016. Even when it was finally reported to clergy, they did not report it to authorities. Instead, they allowed the predator to live in a home where his parents ran a day care. I’m just saying that there are other situations of abuse that go unreported to clergy, and which are unreported to authorities even when confessed to clergy. Cunningham’s math doesn’t add up.
Looking at another example of how Cunningham twists information he doesn’t like, we can see outright lies. In his article from 2018 (the one he references), he says, “According to the document, the Church is very legally compliant. In one case a missionary confessed to sexting a fifteen-year-old prior to leaving on his mission. The Church knew the Stake President was a mandated reporter, and would not consider asking for an exception.” The document actually says, “The missionary department is reluctant to send this Elder home to (redacted) where he may face prosecution for a felony. His conduct is clearly unlawful in (redacted), and his Stake President would have a duty to report. The Elder also recently confessed to kissing and some touching with a 15 year old girl in the mission field. It is clear that the Elder needs to go home. Direction?” It says, in very plain language, that the law firm and Church leaders knew about this man’s repeated and ongoing criminal sexual abuse of minors. He had established a pattern of criminal conduct. They knew he would likely face felony charges, at least for the abuse he perpetrated while at home. Did they report him as required by law? No. Instead, they hid his patterns of abuse so he wouldn’t face charges. This, then, establishes another pattern; the Church and its lawyers refuse to turn in sexual predators regardless of what the law requires. Cunningham calls that “very legally compliant,” a statement I find incredibly disingenuous.
To think this isn’t a systemic problem requires Pollyanna-ish trust in an organization that hasn’t proven worthy of that trust.
Cunningham insists that AP misstated its report of 7 additional years of sexual abuse. He reasons that since the perpetrator was only a member of the church for an additional 3 years, the article should have used that as the metric. I’m struggling to understand this logic. The child and her siblings did experience 7 years of abuse after Adams’ initial confession to Bishop Herrod. The abuse continued until Interpol traced a video of child rape back to Adams, at which point he died by suicide. In those 7 years, the Church never did help end the abuse. It wasn’t until the abuse was reported to authorities that it ended.
Furthermore, why does it matter when the perpetrator left the Church when the victims still remained in the Church? Even assuming that bishops aren’t tasked with caring for those who have left the Church, or with spreading the gospel to those who are unbaptized (Ward Councils everywhere would disagree), those children and their mom were presumably still part of the ward. The bishops were charged with ministering to the entire Adams family, but after talking to the helpline, they chose instead to prioritize the predator. So, how exactly does it make sense to reduce their culpability to 3 years? There’s no discount on abuse just because the abuser stops walking into a certain building. There’s no point at which the continued abuse stopped mattering to the children. The fact is, it took 7 years from the time of the first confession until the abuse ended, and both bishops made multiple decisions that facilitated the abuse. There’s no absolution for ignoring abuse just because the abuser walks out of your building.
Cunningham next makes an interesting observation. “Churches who operate as independent entities get no oversight. They mess this stuff up far worse than groups like The Church of Jesus Christ that are willing to take consultation outside of the immediate local context. In a closed system, the temptation to bow to strong personalities is just too strong—and many of the independent churches without oversight are so personality-driven that this is destined to happen.” What is his definition of a church that operates as an independent entity? And where is his proof that these nebulous, unidentified churches “mess this stuff up” (by which he means they facilitate child abuse) more frequently than the LDS church?
Even assuming he has some foundation for his claim, and assuming we can figure out what these “independent entities” are, where is the oversight for the supposedly dependent LDS church? Cunningham and the Church clearly don’t believe evidence of wrong doing from moderate, well-documented reports written by Pulitzer-prize winning journalists in well-respected news outlets, so where, exactly, is this mythical oversight Cunningham says we have? One man set apart as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, believed to be the mouthpiece of God, wielding the threat of excommunication, with 14 similarly placed men backing him up on every single decision, is the very definition of “strong personalities.” When we find ourselves in front of a disciplinary committee because we advocate for an end to abuse, where, exactly, do we go to access the oversight so we don’t have to “bow” to those men?
There is no oversight, no control mechanism to force Church leaders to adopt best practices. The Church doesn’t accept consultation unless we count the lawyers and publicists. They certainly never accept consultation by the people their policies harm.
We see how 15 men, with complete control over the finances, policies, and messaging of the Church, misuse that power. When confronted with evidence of failure to protect, a church dedicated to protecting the vulnerable would ask themselves what went wrong and how they can fix the system. When faced with a lawsuit from a child who faced years of abuse without any help from the leaders charged with ministering to her, an honest church would find out what she needed to begin healing from the trauma. Instead, they called her a gold digger. Instead, they deleted Tweets that called them out. Instead, they excommunicate members who call attention to abuse.
A church that uses its vast resources to hire lawyers instead of taking care of the widows and orphans is a church that cares more about money than about the vulnerable. A church that hides behind a screen of misinterpreted legalese is a church that has lost itself.
*I use phrasing that might be offensive to some people (perpetrator, pedophile, abuser). I recognize that in the context of transformative justice, those are harmful words. In the context of responding to systemic protection of abusers, I’ve chosen to directly name the harm they inflict by focusing on the words we have for that harm. In a different context, I would likely choose different words.