Like a lot of you, I felt nauseated after reading the AP article that recently dropped, and have been following the story since. There’s always a temptation when something like this happens to give an off-the-cuff hot take, but it was clear that there was a lot to this story to unpack and I didn’t have the time to slodge through and compare/contrast the different accounts, so I waited until somebody came up with a clear outline of everything to see where exactly in the process the ball got dropped.
The Mormonr website has now put together such an outline. After reading it, there appear to be two potential failure points.
First, there are conflicting accounts for whether the bishop was told it was up to him to decide or whether he was explicitly told not to report. If the latter, then the Church either gave the wrong legal advice, since the Arizona statute clearly allows for reporting, or this was a matter of laser-focused lawyers building up hedges around liability. (The idea that they were doing this to protect the Church’s image doesn’t make a lot of sense, as by all accounts the perpetrator here was the ward weirdo, not some authority figure; the liability concern makes more sense even if you assume the worst about the Church). Even if it was the latter, there is some fuzziness as to how much the bishops knew.
Perhaps there is a risk that people who thought they were confessing in confidence could later sue the Church, or some other legal nuance in the case law that I’m missing, but a simple reading of the Arizona statute suggests that it’s okay if clergy report. If the Church, as a matter of standard protocol, tells bishops to not report in cases where they are covered by clergy-penitent privilege, even if there is a reasonable likelihood that children are currently endangered, then that’s a big problem and I’m glad that feet are being held to the fire. (However, many of the people yelling at the Church about this yell at the Church about everything, so there’s a not insignificant chance that such a policy could continue after all of this). If that is the case, then there’s a disjuncture between the hotline policy and the handbook that does say to report abuse.
The Church having a general policy of allowing the bishop to make the call is more arguable, and I don’t want to open up a whole debate thread here about the risks and benefits of clergy-penitent privilege, but this is a more complicated issue than some are suggesting once one steps away from the extreme, no-duh, worst-case scenario of the Bisbee case. For example, when I was doing my research on Virtuous Pedophiles I discussed earlier, I told research subjects straight up before the interview that I would report any illegal activity they admitted to me (although I’m a little fuzzy on how I would have since most of them had VPN-ed up), and thankfully I wasn’t put in that situation and I don’t think any were offending, but I was worried that some would accidentally slip out that, say, they viewed child porn out of curiosity decades ago. If you’re a bishop and somebody with an otherwise spotless record admits that decades ago they viewed child porn out of curiosity, I’m open to the possibility that reporting that to law enforcement and getting them on a sex offender registry for the rest of their life isn’t the most prudent thing to do. I’m also open to the possibility that from a utilitarian perspective the benefits of being able to discuss issues with clergy in a confidential setting would lead to less abuse overall than taking away protection and very rarely being able to trick somebody into providing incriminating evidence when they thought that what they were saying was in confidence. To approach it from a more secular perspective, would you be okay with a government hotline that abusers could call anonymously to receive counseling (and presumably encouragement to stop)?
Again, I’m open to the possibility, but I haven’t thought about this long enough to have a strong opinion one way or another, but it’s certainly more complicated of an issue as a general principle (again, once we move away from the extreme, no-duh Bisbee case) than some people are making it out to be.
Of course, the second failure point is the two bishops involved, especially if they were told that whether to report was up to them. If they received explicit no-report instructions they may have been trying hard to stop it given the limitations the Church essentially imposed, and their moral culpability is less than whoever gave them the explicit no-report order (assuming the relevant facts were all known and reported to the Church, which again is arguable), but there was clearly a failure at that level too regardless of what instructions they received.