TW: sexual assault of children
I distanced myself from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a few months ago, but I haven't given much serious consideration to removing my name from its membership records until now. This is actually old news, but Michael Rezendes with the Associated Press, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for exposing the Catholic Church's sex abuse cover-ups, just published an in-depth report that blew it up. Basically, for seven years this guy frequently raped three of his children, including at one point a baby, and posted videos of it to the dark web. He confessed at least some of his misconduct to his bishop, who called the church's abuse hotline, where the church's lawyers told him not to report. And then the next bishop excommunicated the guy and still didn't report. And then the guy was arrested after someone in New Zealand was arrested for watching one of his videos. Fortunately, he killed himself and is currently facing real justice instead of living on taxpayers' money. His three victims are suing the church for not helping them, and the church is trying to get their lawsuit dismissed because it thinks it did nothing wrong. The Associated Press has also obtained 12,000 pages of documents from another lawsuit about how the abuse hotline works.
In 2020, church attorney William Maledon said this in a statement: "As clergy, the bishop was required by Arizona law to maintain the confidentiality of the father’s limited confession." But in 2022 Michael Rezendes wrote this: "William Maledon, an Arizona attorney representing the bishops and the church... told the AP last month that the bishops were not required to report the abuse." Those of you who understand English may notice that these are two different claims, and may further notice, after reading the Arizona law, that the first one is bullshit. This is what the Arizona law says: "A member of the clergy, a Christian Science practitioner or a priest who has received a confidential communication or a confession in that person's role as a member of the clergy, as a Christian Science practitioner or as a priest in the course of the discipline enjoined by the church to which the member of the clergy, the Christian Science practitioner or the priest belongs may withhold reporting of the communication or confession if the member of the clergy, the Christian Science practitioner or the priest determines that it is reasonable and necessary within the concepts of the religion."
There is no conceivable way to interpret that passage as legally forbidding clergy from reporting confessions of abuse, and any lawyer who interprets it that way is so incredibly freaking stupid and/or dishonest that he should be a police officer instead. But maybe he doesn't have enough anger management problems. He also said, "These bishops did nothing wrong. They didn’t violate the law, and therefore they can’t be held liable." Once again, the second part may be true, but the first sure as hell isn't. Now I won't be too hard on the bishops yet because it's unclear how much they were actually aware of. Not that I consider Maledon a reliable source, but in the same 2020 statement where he lied about Arizona law, he claimed, "It was not until law enforcement made an arrest of the father that the bishop [sic] learned of the scope and magnitude of the abuse that far exceeded anything he had heard or suspected." If either of them were aware of or even suspected the scope and magnitude prior to that time, then here we have a disturbing example of members being conditioned to place obedience to the church above their own most basic grasp of morality.
There's also this gem in an affidavit from Paul Rytting, the church's director of risk management: "If members had any concerns that their disciplinary files could be read by a secular judge or attorneys or be presented to a jury as evidence in a public trial, their willingness to confess and repent and for their souls to be saved would be seriously compromised." What exactly is he implying? Granted, there's a bit of a catch-22 if declining to grant confidentiality discourages people from confessing their crimes in the first place, and I see no reason for bishops to tattle about illegal acts that aren't actively harming anyone, but the salvation of a child rapist's soul is one hundred percent the child rapist's problem, and anyone who thinks for a moment that it's a legitimate consideration to balance against the victims' needs can fuck off into the sun.
I was consumed with rage from the moment I read the story. And then the church went and made it worse the next day by releasing a vague, tonedeaf, and absolutely pathetic damage control statement with little more substance than "Nuh-uh, we care about abuse victims so much, this article is wrong." It addresses zero, I mean zero specific details of the cases described in the article. It doesn't refute any of the facts that Rezendes reported or provide any additional context to make them less damning. It doesn't even repeat any of Maledon's arguments. It just expects members to believe that "The story presented in the AP article is oversimplified and incomplete and is a serious misrepresentation of the Church and its efforts" because the church's anonymous PR employees say it is. And of course a lot of members do. A lot of them, starting from the a priori assumption that the church is perfect and always right, are knee-jerk defending it because its reputation and their fragile fundamentalist faith matter more to them than child rape victims do. I shudder to think that I might have done the same a few years ago.
Of course, while depressingly widespread, that's not the universal response. A lot of members with a basic grasp of morality are unequivocally condemning how the church handled the situation. And I don't doubt that most local and global leaders are good people who abhor sex abuse of any kind. But if the church as an institution was serious about it, if it really meant the pretty words in its damage control statement, this is the minimum that it would do:
1. Apologize for failing these victims. Of course, this would set an awkward precedent because the church has never apologized for anything. But it's about damn time it did.
2. Commit to evaluating the systems it has in place so it can fix their shortcomings and make sure this never happens again. It doesn't help anything to just insist on how great the systems are when they clearly didn't work in this instance.
3. Compensate the victims out of basic decency whether it's legally obligated to do so or not. The church could give each of them fifty million dollars without scratching the surface of its financial resources. (One of the church's knee-jerk defenders told me, "You don’t know that the Church isn’t trying to compensate them. You have ZERO insight into the discussions that are going on behind the scenes." To which I said, "If the church was treating the victims fairly, I doubt they would have felt a need to complain to the media about how much the church sucks. In fact, doing so would severely jeopardize any potential settlement the church was considering. So I do have some insight in the form of basic logic." Yeah, I'm rude.)
Oh, and minor detail, it would do all these things before it was slammed with negative publicity.
I don't know how much of an abuse cover-up problem the church has and I don't have the expertise to try to estimate it fairly. I don't know how much abuse occurs, how much of that is reported, and how many of the reports are handled correctly. I do know that this is far from the first time a bishop or other leader has gotten a report and done little or nothing about it. The church has been sued for abuse multiple times before, and multiple people on the internet have shared their experiences with being abused in the church and not getting the help they were entitled to. Sometimes local leaders are unduly concerned about the victim forgiving the abuser, about not harming the abuser's reputation, about not preventing the abuser from serving a mission. Sometimes, of course, the bishop is the abuser, though I know situations like that are very rare. But I knew someone whose abuser was her father and the bishop and nobody believed her because bishops are good men. So anyway, whether or not this problem is on par with the Catholic Church's problem or the Southern Baptist Convention's problem, it ought not to be tolerated. However effective the systems in place may be for most situations, they can always be improved, and the church ought to improve them instead of acting like it's being persecuted.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.