You are here

Photo of a Latter-day Saint chapel in Hailey, Idaho. Image via

Opinion: The Church Did Not Cover Up Sexual Abuse in Idaho

Richard Ferguson's picture
Photo of a Latter-day Saint chapel in Hailey, Idaho. Image via


It should go without saying that under no circumstances should abuse be tolerated, nor should abusers escape accountability under the law. Speaking about the future state of an unrepentant child abuser, Jesus said that it would have been better if that person had been drowned in the sea with a heavy millstone attached to his neck. (Luke 17:2)

What are we to make of the latest article from the AP regarding a new case of abuse that occurred between a father and his daughter? The father was a volunteer bishop during the time the abuse took place. Years later, when confronted with the evidence, the father confessed his crime to his current bishop. The church excommunicated him and he has not since been rebaptized.

Many of us at Scripture Central, myself included have held voluntary ecclesiastical positions and dealt with cases of abuse. We hope to provide some context around the conversations being had with regards to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and answer such questions as: Why would the Bishop not testify regarding the confessions of an abuser, so the abuser to be brought to justice? Why might the church, or any church, offer money in reparation to the victim?

The Realities of Clergy-Penitent Privilege

Confessions to clergy have a long history in Christianity and in other religions where confidentiality is respected and strictly maintained. Lawmakers have considered changing laws which protect confidentiality of confessions by penitents to priests. According to a U.S. News and World Report article, in  over 100 instances, state and federal lawmakers have considered mandatory reporting laws but have always opted against requiring clergy to testify against the confessor. This is a wise decision, as painful as it may sound on the surface. Experience and studies have shown that mandatory reporting laws simply do not work and are counterproductive to the interests of law enforcement, of society at large, of victims, and of the perpetrator.

Not all religions encourage—let alone require, in serious situations—the confession of sins as a part of the process of repenting and obtaining God’s forgiveness. The law recognizes more strongly the appropriateness of confidentiality in any cases of confessions where the church requires such confessions to one’s ecclesiastical leaders. Such is the case in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints requires serious sexual transgressions to be confessed to one’s bishop.

It is widely acknowledged that without confidentiality protection, perpetrators would rarely confess for fear of legal trouble. Instead of the clergy helping perpetrators to seek help and take responsibility for their actions, the perpetrators would not confess, maintaining their dark secrets and driving them to abuse again. Involvement of clergy always aims to reverse the cycle of abuse. Are such efforts always successful? Of course not, and unfortunately the result is even more victims in some percentage of these cases. However, without such protection, there would be fewer confessions and additional abuse would occur in almost every case. And even where victims are not able to require the priest or minister to testify in court about the abuser’s confession, lawyers and counselors can often find other ways to achieve just and healing outcomes in these sad and deplorable situations.

The Church Settling with Victims

As to the reasons behind the offering of settlements generally, potential litigants are often concerned that fault or weaknesses in their cases will be found in a court of law, so they choose to settle now to avoid higher costs later. Some people view such settlements as a tacit admission of guilt, even if legally there may be a stipulation of no-fault. Plea bargaining is widely practiced as a way to make the best of a bad situation.

In the case of churches, there may be additional reasons why they may consider offering money even when a lawsuit is not threatened, as appears to be the case in the December 4 article by the AP.

The Church and all churches desire to help the victims. Free help, counseling, support, and love are always extended to any such victims.

These appear to be among the beneficial reasons The Church of Jesus Christ willingly offered settlement in this case, even though it involved a father who abused his daughter clearly outside of any control of the Church. He was a volunteer bishop at the time of some of the abuse, and he was aware of strict and explicit church prohibitions against any such abusive actions on his part and generally.

Whether the settlement is hoping in part to avoid legal risk or whether it is aiming to help a victim, in legal situations, the payment of money will almost always come with requirements of confidentiality. This is important to dissuade opportunists, including unscrupulous attorneys seeking financial gain or the church’s discomfiture, from suing the church and turning its assistance against the church. For clear reasons, the law does not want to discourage churches from offering generous, healing help, by making churches cautious about offering needed help.

In hindsight, since confidentiality was not maintained, we may now question the wisdom of the legal department offering settlement in this case. Reporters are now trying to lead readers to believe that hush money was offered to suppress guilt of the ex-bishop or complicity of the Church. That simply is not the case. When the Church learned of this matter, the abuser was promptly excommunicated and has not been readmitted to this day.

The church has a remarkable record in its efforts to minimize abuse in its ranks. The Church currently follows well-defined best practices in preventing abuse, from screening and training volunteers to installing windows in all classrooms and requiring at least two adults present in situations with minors.

In addition, the Church implements unique protections against abuse not found in other churches or organizations, such as keeping annotated records of church members if there are reasons a member should never be allowed to serve with youth and children. Youth have interviews with bishops at least annually that open the door for young men and young women to privately disclose any concerns. The multi-layered process of calling and sustaining any member in a new church calling also gives members an opportunity to express misgivings if there are any concerns about that member serving with children or youth.

What occurs within the walls of the homes of its members is outside the control of any institution to mitigate misconduct or crimes, as tragic as these situations are. The Church regularly works to help confessors repent, to accept responsibility, and to work to repair their sins and crimes. Furthermore, the Church's clear teachings and positive supports help victims recover from the abuses that have been perpetrated against them.

We are all heartbroken when we learn about cases of abuse, especially at the hands of those who are in sacred positions of trust. We are further appalled when efforts have been made to protect abusers from accountability. But such is not the case here. The abuse occurred in a domain outside the Church's reach, and when the Church learned of the matter, it took swift action. When the Church chose to provide financial support, it did so from the perspective of concern for the victim, not from the position trying to escape from any actual or potential legal risk. In light of these recent events, whether churches will choose to extend such assistance in future cases remains to be seen.