A Utah state representative told a Mormon bishop not to report a church member’s sexual abuse, advice that led to seven years of rape and abuse committed by the church member against his own daughters, according to new lawsuit documents.
State Rep. Merrill Nelson (R-UT), a prominent lawyer for the Mormon church, allegedly answered the first call from a help line when Bishop John Herrod told him that Arizona church member Paul Adams had admitted to sexually abusing two of his daughters. For more than two years, Nelson communicated with Herrod and another bishop who knew about the abuse allegations, according to call records, the Associated Press reported.
Nelson told Herrod “that he could be sued if he reported, and the instruction by counsel not to report Paul [Adams] to the authorities was the law in Arizona and had nothing to do with Church doctrine,” according to the plaintiff’s filings. However, as the AP reported, Arizona law allows blanket immunity for those who report child sexual abuse or neglect.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), commonly known as the Mormon church, issued a statement in August challenging an AP article from earlier that month and explaining the church’s actions.
“In late 2011, Paul Adams made a limited confession to his bishop about a single past incident of abuse of one child,” the church’s statement read. “The bishop then called the help line, where he was advised about how to fully comply with Arizona’s reporting laws. In compliance with that counsel, from that time forward, the bishop repeatedly tried to intervene and encourage reporting.”
The church went on to explain that it counseled Adams to “repent and seek professional help” and asked him and his wife Leizza to report the abuse which they refused to do. According to the statement, church leaders encouraged Adams to move out of his home, and he did temporarily. Following his confession to the bishop, Adams rarely communicated with or attended the church, the statement said. The church also said it did not learn “the extent of the abuse” until 2017, four years after Adams was excommunicated.
The sex abuser’s two daughters and one of his sons are trying to gain access to records from the Mormon church, but the church has refused them based on confidentiality. After a county judge ruled in the victims’ favor to see the records, the Mormon church took the case to the Court of Appeals.
According to the new records, Nelson talked with Herrod and one other Mormon bishop from November 2011 to February 2014 after Adams had been excommunicated from the church. Roger Van Komen, manager of the church’s southeast region family services department, said in a deposition that the lawmaker discussed Adams’ abuse with Herrod in those communications.
Adams, who admitted to a pornography addiction, was going to counseling sessions when he reportedly told a bishop that he abused his daughters. Herrod was then reportedly instructed by the church’s lawyers not to contact authorities.
“They said, ‘You absolutely can do nothing,’” Herrod told law enforcement.
Adams raped one of his daughters for up to seven years, while also abusing his infant daughter and recording the abuse to post on the internet. The father of six was finally arrested in 2017 after New Zealand law enforcement officials discovered a video Adams had posted online. He killed himself in custody before his trial.
Adams’ wife Leizza served more than two years in prison for child sex abuse charges, and the couple’s two daughters and son filed a lawsuit in 2021, alleging that the church covered up their parents’ abuse. Before the new lawsuit records had been filed, Nelson told the AP that the church’s help line “did operate as intended.”
“The bishop called the help line and was advised no duty to report it to civil authorities. In fact, could not report because of the clergy privilege,” Nelson said. “It is intended and always has from the beginning been intended to to help victims get the help they need through social services, professional counseling, medical help, legal help, law enforcement.”
Nelson refused to comment on the new records after they were made public.
This article has been updated to include a statement from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.