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Utah lawmaker pushes for LDS abuse reporting reform

Posted by Travis Uresk | Aug. 15 2022 | LDS Abuse |

By Sam Metz

Aug 12, 2022

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Republican state lawmaker in Utah said Friday he plans to introduce legislation that would require clergy to report child abuse to authorities, eliminating the clergy-penitent privilege in a state where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the predominant religion.

Rep. Phil Lyman's news release came a week after The Associated Press published an investigative story focusing on cases in Arizona and West Virginia that found the church's abuse reporting system can 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.

Lyman, a member of the faith who himself served six years as a bishop of a local congregation, said he had already been working for months on his legislation but called the AP story “powerful” and an example of the kinds of problems caused by delaying report of the abuse.

He said he deeply values the repentance and confessional process. But he argued the clergy exception can delay intervention for victims and create uncertainty for clergy members. He would prefer to have clarity so clergy members could tell parishioners at the beginning of confessions that they are required to report abuse.

“People should be able to go and confess their sins to their bishop without fear of being prosecuted up until when they are confessing something that has affected someone's else life significantly," Lyman said. “Right now, you'd hear their confession and you would say, ‘Gosh, I don’t know what to do with this.' ”

Church officials didn't immediately respond to an email Friday seeking comment. The faith said in a statement issued one day after the AP story was published that the piece “seriously mischaracterized” the reporting systems and that a help line that local leaders are supposed to call to report abuse focuses on helping victims.

William Maledon, an attorney representing bishops and the church in a lawsuit filed by children who say they were abused in Arizona, told the AP last month that the bishops were not required to report the abuse.

Arizona and Utah are among more than 20 states with similar laws that give reporting exceptions to clergy who receive information about child neglect or sexual abuse during spiritual confessions.

Lyman has already discussed the legislation with Democratic Rep. Angela Romero, who introduced a similar proposal in 2020 that didn’t go anywhere in Utah's statehouse. Romero said she believes a majority of people in Utah — regardless of their faith — would support removing exceptions. Though she still expects some resistance from some religious institutions, her conversations with other lawmakers have given her confidence it will be seriously considered when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

“It’s going to require individuals contacting their elected officials and telling them they want to see the exemption go away,” she said.

Lyman said his bill isn't directed solely at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but he reached out to inform the faith on Thursday of his plans. He hadn't heard back yet as of Friday afternoon but said he expected to have a “meaningful conversation” with church officials about his proposal.

The church has its headquarters in Salt Lake City and an estimated two-thirds of the state's residents and the majority of state legislators belong to the faith.

“The exception for clergy seems to create some subjectivity and some ambiguity,” said Lyman, who is from southeastern Utah. “At best, it creates some delays. And to me it puts clergy in a little bit of an awkward position.

How Latter-day Saints are addressing sex abuse: Too little, too late

By Jana Riess

Aug. 13th, 2022

Like many people, I was disgusted to read The Associated Press’ investigative reporting about how two Arizona bishops of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints failed to report a horrific case of one father’s sexual abuse. In this decision, they were guided by a “help line” for lay bishops set up to answer questions about cases of sexual abuse.

According to the article, the help line instructed the first bishop who called to “do nothing” and avoid reporting this father’s ongoing rape of his daughter to the police. As a result, the abuse continued for another seven years, with the father, Paul Douglas Adams, continuing to rape the older daughter and post videos of it online. When another daughter was born to the family, Adams began sexually assaulting her when she was just 6 weeks of age and also uploaded those videos to the internet.

Other than eventually excommunicating Adams from the church, the bishops appear to have done nothing to ensure the safety of his daughters.

And since Arizona does not require clergy to report the sexual abuse of minors to the police, what they did may have been perfectly legal. That does not make it right.

I want to make a couple of things clear. First, this column is not an attack on bishops. They are doing superhuman labors as volunteers. There aren’t many perks for being a bishop, and there are countless minefields. I’ve seen some unfair online discussions that depict these men as power-mad egomaniacs who would be constantly twirling their mustaches if only they were permitted to have facial hair.

That’s ridiculous. Most Latter-day Saint bishops are trying hard to do the right thing. The fact that the institutional church is often setting them up to fail is not their fault.

The second point is that I have not seen any credible evidence that the incidence of sexual abuse is higher in Latter-day Saint communities than anywhere else. I’ve certainly seen allegations to that effect — here is one from, surprise, surprise, a personal injury law firm — but no supporting data.

In fact, there’s been very little academic research on sexual abuse in Latter-day Saint communities, apart from an interesting 1990s Dialogue article (see below "Youth, Sex, and Coercion.") and some important small-scale qualitative studies that explore the trauma victims experience but do not offer reliable estimates on the scope of the problem.

What we can say with confidence is that when sexual abuse has happened in the LDS Church, it has too often been mishandled, which makes a traumatic experience all the worse for victims. Many of the same factors that have enabled abuse to flourish undetected in other religions are present in Mormonism as well, including:

• A closed and nontransparent leadership system that is run almost exclusively by men.

• A widespread cultural mandate to show only the best parts of our community and hide flaws from outsiders.

• A “purity culture” that shames victims of sexual violence into silence.

• A hierarchical leadership in which some men are believed to have special religious authority over others — especially women and children — and are not to be criticized.

• A sense of superiority to other communities, so that many inside the faith believe that “it could never happen here.”

How did I come up with this list?

By reading the news, again and again, about how this has played out in religions not that different from mine.

You can read here about how the Southern Baptists tried for years to deny the problem of sexual abuse and attack the whistleblowers, only to have that approach blow up spectacularly when the evidence became impossible to ignore.

Or read here about how the Roman Catholic Church tried for years to deny the problem of sexual abuse and attack the whistleblowers, only to have that approach blow up spectacularly when the evidence became impossible to ignore.

Or, since we’re on a roll, read here or here or here about how evangelical Christian megachurches tried for years to deny … you get the idea.

Latter-day Saints have the opportunity to learn from other groups’ mistakes. But will we? Judging from the church’s response to the AP news story so far, I would have to say we likely won’t.

In a testy and defensive statement last week, the church asserted the AP “seriously mischaracterized” the “nature and purpose of the church’s help line.” It didn’t specify what the story got wrong, however, other than saying the help line exists to ensure that “all legal requirements for reporting are met.” (How is that supposed to convince us the church is doing the right thing by victims?)

It also boasts of “many safeguards put in place by the church” and says that any member who supervises children or youths has to complete a training every few years about “how to watch for, report and address abuse.”

In an ideal world, that would be true. But in the world we actually inhabit — where we are an almost entirely volunteer workforce at church — the assertion just doesn’t bear scrutiny.

The online training, such as it is, was put in place because of lawsuits. It explains church policies (like asking another adult to be in the room when working with children and youths) and quizzes members periodically to make sure they understand. At 20 to 30 minutes, it’s too brief and general, though the real-world examples are helpful.

Although the church’s website now says that all children’s Primary workers are supposed to take the training within a month of being called, the rollout of that requirement hasn’t been universal. I served in Primary for seven years without ever being asked to do this training, and I continue to substitute as a Primary teacher when needed, all without this magical training that the church lauds as “one of many safeguards” against abuse. But since it’s available for members on the church’s website, I went through it on my own.

To find out more about how the church handles abuse reporting, this week I interviewed a therapist who worked for its Family Services division for many years and has counseled people in and out of the church on sex abuse, domestic violence and mental health issues.

The therapist, who asked to remain anonymous, generally had a “good experience” helping bishops and stake presidents. In paying to make therapists available to advise bishops, he pointed out, the LDS Church is “pretty progressive” compared with other religious groups. He did not work directly on the help line team, but because of his work he was aware of changes it underwent over time.

In earlier years, he said, calls from bishops would often be answered by a therapist; if necessary, the therapist might call in one of the attorneys on the help team. In the past two years, however, the attorneys have begun answering all the calls and it remains unclear how often therapists are involved.

What’s more, bishops who mentioned abuse to therapists on counseling calls that didn’t go to the help line were quickly rerouted there, and thereby to the legal team.

“I would say it was about four years into my work for the church when it became a very clear instruction that if the bishop starts to disclose to us any details about abuse, we were to stop the conversation immediately and tell the bishop to call the abuse help line.”

He speculated that this change happened because therapists are mandated reporters in every U.S. state, whereas bishops in some states (including Arizona) are protected by clergy-penitent privilege and are not necessarily mandated reporters.

The change was frustrating for him, he said, because therapists are trained to safeguard victims, including making time-sensitive, mandated reports to child welfare agencies, counseling bishops on how to help victims and sharing available resources for them and their families.

“Imagine the difference if the help line were to focus on help for victims more consistently instead of just ‘you are not required to report anything.’” he said. “It would potentially save lives and prevent ongoing abuse.”

By routing all abuse calls to the legal team at the help line, the church protected its own interests and reduced its liability — in fact, the therapist pointed out that the help line is part of a division in the church bureaucracy called “risk management.” Unfortunately, this emphasis on self-protection for the church actually increased the risk for the victims.

If I had to guess what will happen next, it is that the church will continue to issue repeated and vociferous public denials that any of its representatives ever did anything wrong, and that it will fail to tackle the systemic problems listed above that enable abuse and its subsequent cover-up. We will have learned little from the examples of the Catholics, the Southern Baptists and the megachurches.

Because it couldn’t happen here, of course. Just move along.

Woman Claims Mormon Church’s Cover-Up Culture Protected Her Sexual Predator Dad

By Carol Kuruvilla

Jun 29, 2018

A woman who filed a child sexual abuse lawsuit against her father is claiming that Mormon church leaders knew about the abuse for years but failed to report it to the police.

Kristy Johnson, 55, went public with her allegations against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and her father, longtime church employee Melvin Kay Johnson, during a news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday. She contends that the LDS church, while not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, was complicit in allowing her father’s abuse of her and her siblings to continue for years.

The Mormon church has a “culture” that protects sexual predators, Johnson said during the press conference.

“There is a very real, horrendous problem in the church right now,” she said. “That problem is that sexual predators are more protected in the Mormon church than innocent children and vulnerable adults.”

The civil lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Utah federal court, is directed against Melvin Kay Johnson, 81, who was for years employed with the Church Educational System, an organization within the LDS church tasked with providing religious and secular education to Mormons. He worked at an LDS seminary building in Ogden, Utah; as a religion professor at the church-run Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah; and at other Mormon educational institutions.

Melvin Kay Johnson, who now lives in Lehi, Utah, did not respond to a voicemail left at a listed telephone number. LDS church spokesman Eric Hawkins did not return HuffPost’s request for comment on the allegations.

Utah state law places no statute of limitations on victims of childhood sexual abuse suing their alleged abusers, the Salt Lake Tribune reports. But that does not apply to suing institutions, like the LDS church.

Father molested his children for years and Mormon bishops did not report it to police, lawsuit and documentary claim

By Courtney Tanner

and Nate Carlisle

Updated: June 29, 2018

Kristy Johnson remembers the routine. Growing up, her father would take her to a basketball game at Brigham Young University, where he worked, and each time, after the final buzzer, they’d walk over to his office. There, she says, he would close the door, lock it and molest her for a few minutes.

They always went out for ice cream when he was done.

Johnson says she was 6 years old when it started. Now, 55, she says it’s time for him to be held accountable.

“The memories, the details, started coming back as I got older,” she said. “The anger is there and the courage grows in you.”

In a milestone case, Johnson filed suit Wednesday against her father, saying he groped her and her siblings for years while clergy from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints counseled the man, who was a church employee, but never informed police. The Mormon church, however, is not named a defendant.

Johnson is suing only her father, Melvin Kay Johnson, 81.

The family’s story also is the subject of a short documentary called “Glass Temples,” which showed Thursday at the Salt Lake City Public Library. Johnson spoke after the film, sitting on stage next to one of her brothers, sharing her experience and taking questions from the audience of about 100.

“As a child you kind of compartmentalize,” she said. “You make yourself deal with it, and it’s a weird thing you do as a victim.”

The documentary includes corroboration of the abuse from Johnson’s siblings and an acknowledgement by Melvin Johnson. The film shows three of his children coming to his Lehi home with a camera to confront him. The man shakes and stutters as he says: “Years ago, I molested my daughters. All three of them.”

“I knew it was wrong, but I did it. I was selfish.”

Kristy Johnson’s attorney, Craig Vernon, sat in the auditorium as it played. “He’s admitted to molesting his kids,” Vernon said.

Melvin Johnson did not return phone and email messages sent to him Thursday. Representatives of the LDS Church did not immediately offer comment.

The lawsuit doesn’t specify the amount of money Kristy Johnson is seeking from her father. The complaint says she also wants a judge to order Melvin Johnson to lobby the LDS Church for policies that better protect abuse victims.

“We didn’t choose this,” she says in the film. “It happened to us. It wasn’t our choice. But we’re damn sure going to do something about it.”

The lawsuit claims the elder Johnson began molesting his daughter in 1969, when she was 6, and the abuse continued until she was 21, when she left home to serve an LDS mission; in the documentary, he says it started in 1977. Kristy Johnson alleges her father molested her at their home in Ogden, in her father’s offices at Brigham Young University and later when the family moved to California.

Melvin Johnson worked at the Church Educational System, the LDS Church institutions providing religious education to children and adults. He also taught religion at BYU, Vernon said.

“Every time they moved to a different place,” Vernon said, “the mother would report it to a bishop.” He said Kristy Johnson’s mother died in 2015.

Rather than report the abuse to police, the lawsuit says, LDS bishops would counsel Melvin Johnson or treat the case as a church discipline matter.

“There was no clergy privilege to hide behind when mom reported it to bishops,” Vernon said. “She’s not the confessor.”

Other children in the home also were abused, the lawsuit says. One of them, Kathy Johnson, appears in “Glass Temples.” She alleges that church leaders “made sure that my father never served time.”

When Kristy Johnson returned from her mission, her complaint says, she and her siblings reported their father to the police. Vernon said the report was made in Orange County, Calif. No criminal charges were filed. And the lawsuit says the local LDS stake president chastised Kristy Johnson for reporting a church matter to police. During the documentary, too, the siblings call Lehi police officers, who came to the house but did not arrest the elder Johnson.

Vernon said at some point Melvin Johnson was excommunicated for a year. There was an annotation on his church record for a few years, Vernon said, then the LDS Church removed that annotation in 2007.

Vernon also is the attorney representing McKenna Denson, who is suing the LDS Church and former Missionary Training Center President and former Weber State University President Joseph L. Bishop. Denson says Bishop raped her. He and the church have denied that.

While Kristy Johnson’s lawsuit is in federal court, it is filed under a Utah law that allows victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue the perpetrators without any statute of limitations. The exemption does not apply to institutions, Vernon said. In the Denson case, the LDS Church is being sued instead under a fraud theory.

Representative Kay J. Christofferson proposes the following substitute bill:




4 Chief Sponsor: Kay J. Christofferson

5 Senate Sponsor: Aaron Osmond



8 General Description:

9 This bill modifies the Utah Criminal Code regarding sexual offenses against a child.

10 Highlighted Provisions:

11 This bill:

12 ▸ modifies the definition of aggravated sexual abuse of a child by a person in a

13 position of special trust to provide that a victim of this offense is a minor younger

14 than 18 years of age, rather than the current provision defining the victim as an

15 individual younger than 14 years of age;

16 ▸ provides that a position of trust means a position held by a person who is an adult

17 and who is three or more years older than the victim; and

18 ▸ repeals the provisions enacted in this legislation on June 30, 2017.

19 Money Appropriated in this Bill:

20 None

21 Other Special Clauses:

22 None

23 Utah Code Sections Affected:


25 63I-2-276, as renumbered and amended by Laws of Utah 2008, Chapter 382

26 76-5-404.1, as last amended by Laws of Utah 2014, Chapters 135 and 141


28 Be it enacted by the Legislature of the state of Utah:

29 Section 1. Section 63I-2-276 is amended to read:

30 63I-2-276.Repeal dates -- Title 76.

31 (1) The following language in Subsection 76-5-404.1(1) is repealed June 30, 2017:

32 (a) the language in Subsection (1)(b)(i) "except as defined under Subsection (1)(b)(ii)";

33 (b) Subsection (1)(b)(ii);

34 (c) the language in Subsection (1)(c) "an adult who is three or more years older than

35 the victim, and who holds any of the following positions";

36 (d) the phrase "who is an adult" in all places in Subsection (1)(c); and

37 (e) the language "if the cohabitant is an adult" in Subsection (1)(c)(vi).

38 (2) The language ", and who is 18 years of age or older" in Subsection (1)(a)(xix) is

39 reinstated after "secondary school".

40 Section 2. Section 76-5-404.1 is amended to read:

41 76-5-404.1.Sexual abuse of a child -- Aggravated sexual abuse of a child.

42 (1) As used in this section:

43 (a) "Adult" means an individual 18 years of age or older.

44 (b) (i) "Child" means an individual [under the age of] younger than 14 years of age,

45 except as defined under Subsection (1)(b)(ii).

46 (ii) "Child" means an individual younger than 18 years of age who is the victim of an

47 offense committed in violation of Subsection (4)(h).

48 (c) "Position of special trust" means an adult who is three or more years older than the

49 victim, and who holds any of the following positions:

50 (i) an adoptive parent;

51 (ii) an athletic manager [who is an adult];

52 (iii) an aunt;

53 (iv) a babysitter;

54 (v) a coach;

55 (vi) a cohabitant of a parent [if the cohabitant is an adult];

56 (vii) a counselor;

57 (viii) a doctor or physician;

58 (ix) an employer;

59 (x) a foster parent;

60 (xi) a grandparent;

61 (xii) a legal guardian;

62 (xiii) a natural parent;

63 (xiv) a recreational leader [who is an adult];

64 (xv) a religious leader;

65 (xvi) a sibling or a stepsibling [who is an adult];

66 (xvii) a scout leader [who is an adult];

67 (xviii) a stepparent;

68 (xix) a teacher or any other person employed by or volunteering at a public or private

69 elementary school or secondary school[, and who is 18 years of age or older];

70 (xx) an uncle;

71 (xxi) a youth leader [who is an adult]; or

72 (xxii) any person in a position of authority, other than those persons listed in

73 Subsections (1)(c)(i) through (xxi), which enables the person to exercise undue influence over

74 the child.

75 (2) A person commits sexual abuse of a child if, under circumstances not amounting to

76 rape of a child, object rape of a child, sodomy on a child, or an attempt to commit any of these

77 offenses, the actor touches the anus, buttocks, or genitalia of any child, the breast of a female

78 child, or otherwise takes indecent liberties with a child, or causes a child to take indecent

79 liberties with the actor or another with intent to cause substantial emotional or bodily pain to

80 any person or with the intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person regardless of

81 the sex of any participant.

82 (3) Sexual abuse of a child is a second degree felony.

83 (4) A person commits aggravated sexual abuse of a child when in conjunction with the

84 offense described in Subsection (2) any of the following circumstances have been charged and

85 admitted or found true in the action for the offense:

86 (a) the offense was committed by the use of a dangerous weapon as defined in Section

87 76-1-601, or by force, duress, violence, intimidation, coercion, menace, or threat of harm, or

88 was committed during the course of a kidnapping;

89 (b) the accused caused bodily injury or severe psychological injury to the victim during

90 or as a result of the offense;

91 (c) the accused was a stranger to the victim or made friends with the victim for the

92 purpose of committing the offense;

93 (d) the accused used, showed, or displayed pornography or caused the victim to be

94 photographed in a lewd condition during the course of the offense;

95 (e) the accused, prior to sentencing for this offense, was previously convicted of any

96 sexual offense;

97 (f) the accused committed the same or similar sexual act upon two or more victims at

98 the same time or during the same course of conduct;

99 (g) the accused committed, in Utah or elsewhere, more than five separate acts, which if

100 committed in Utah would constitute an offense described in this chapter, and were committed

101 at the same time, or during the same course of conduct, or before or after the instant offense;

102 (h) the offense was committed by a person who occupied a position of special trust in

103 relation to the victim;

104 (i) the accused encouraged, aided, allowed, or benefitted from acts of prostitution or

105 sexual acts by the victim with any other person, or sexual performance by the victim before any

106 other person, human trafficking, or human smuggling; or

107 (j) the accused caused the penetration, however slight, of the genital or anal opening of

108 the child by any part or parts of the human body other than the genitals or mouth.

109 (5) Aggravated sexual abuse of a child is a first degree felony punishable by a term of

110 imprisonment of:

111 (a) except as provided in Subsection (5)(b), (5)(c), or (6), not less than 15 years and

112 which may be for life;

113 (b) except as provided in Subsection (5)(c) or (6), life without parole, if the trier of fact

114 finds that during the course of the commission of the aggravated sexual abuse of a child the

115 defendant caused serious bodily injury to another; or

116 (c) life without parole, if the trier of fact finds that at the time of the commission of the

117 aggravated sexual abuse of a child, the defendant was previously convicted of a grievous

118 sexual offense.

119 (6) If, when imposing a sentence under Subsection (5)(a) or (b), a court finds that a

120 lesser term than the term described in Subsection (5)(a) or (b) is in the interests of justice and

121 states the reasons for this finding on the record, the court may impose a term of imprisonment

122 of not less than:

123 (a) for purposes of Subsection (5)(b), 15 years and which may be for life; or

124 (b) for purposes of Subsection (5)(a) or (b):

125 (i) 10 years and which may be for life; or

126 (ii) six years and which may be for life.

127 (7) The provisions of Subsection (6) do not apply when a person is sentenced under

128 Subsection (5)(c).

129 (8) Subsections (5)(b) and (5)(c) do not apply if the defendant was younger than 18

130 years of age at the time of the offense.

131 (9) Imprisonment under this section is mandatory in accordance with Section 76-3-406.



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