UNITED STATES NEWS

Recordings show how the Mormon church protects itself from child sex abuse claims

Dec 3, 2023, 10:01 PM | Updated: Dec 12, 2023, 1:30 pm

HAILEY, Idaho (AP) — Paul Rytting listened as a woman, voice quavering, told him her story.

When she was a child, her father, a former bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had routinely slipped into bed with her while he was aroused, she said.

It was March 2017 and Rytting offered his sympathies as 31-year-old Chelsea Goodrich spoke. A Utah attorney and head of the church’s Risk Management Division, Rytting had spent about 15 years protecting the organization, widely known as the Mormon church, from costly claims, including sexual abuse lawsuits.

Rytting had flown into Hailey, Idaho, that morning from Salt Lake City, where the church is based, to meet in person with Chelsea and her mother, Lorraine.

After a quick prayer, he introduced himself and said he was there “to look into” Chelsea’s “tragic and horrendous” story.

Chelsea and Lorraine had come to the meeting with one clear request: Would the church allow a local Idaho bishop, which in the Mormon church is akin to a Catholic priest, to testify at John Goodrich’s trial? Bishop Michael Miller, who accompanied Rytting to the meeting, had heard a spiritual confession from Chelsea’s father shortly before John Goodrich was arrested on charges of sexually abusing her.

While the details of his confession remain private, the church swiftly excommunicated Goodrich.

Audio recordings of the meetings over the next four months, obtained by The Associated Press, show how Rytting, despite expressing concern for what he called John’s “significant sexual transgression,” would employ the risk management playbook that has helped the church keep child sexual abuse cases secret. In particular, the church would discourage Miller from testifying, citing a law that exempts clergy from having to divulge information about child sex abuse that is gleaned in a confession. Without Miller’s testimony, prosecutors dropped the charges, telling Lorraine that her impending divorce and the years that had passed since Chelsea’s alleged abuse might prejudice jurors.

Rytting would also offer hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for a confidentiality agreement and a pledge by Chelsea and Lorraine to destroy their recordings of the meetings, which they had made at the recommendation of an attorney and with Rytting’s knowledge.

Today, John Goodrich, who did not respond to the AP’s questions, is a free man, practicing dentistry in Idaho.

“Going into this meeting with Rytting, I felt like it would be very clear, once everything’s laid out that, look, this is not something that we want to cover up,” said Eric Alberdi, a church member who attended the meetings as Chelsea’s advocate and also made recordings, which he shared with the AP.

“This is something that we want to uncover for a number of reasons, so that John … doesn’t do this again. So that Chelsea can move forward,” said Alberdi, who was not bound by the confidentiality agreement and who has since left the church. “You know, covering this up did not make any sense.”

In a statement to the AP, the church said “the abuse of a child or any other individual is inexcusable,” and that John Goodrich, following his excommunication, “has not been readmitted to church membership.”

Alberdi’s recordings provide an unprecedented record of the steps the church normally takes behind closed doors to keep allegations of child sex abuse secret – steps that can leave predators free and children at risk.

“How many people can know the truth and choose to pretend they don’t and leave others at risk of the same abuse and they know it and they just don’t care?” Lorraine Goodrich said. “I don’t understand that. I’ll never understand that.”

Two years earlier, in the spring of 2015, Chelsea Goodrich, then a 29-year-old graduate student in psychology living in Southern California, began to confront disturbing memories.

While her peers dated and created lasting relationships, she filled with anxiety and dread at the prospect.

“Instead of wanting to have a relationship, I just remember feeling terror and confusion and kind of disgust, like all at once, about it,” she said during a series of interviews with the AP.

Her memories included several occasions, she recalled, when John Goodrich slipped into her bed at night in their house in Mountain Home, Idaho, to spoon her while he was aroused, pushing himself against her backside. On one occasion, when she was 9, she remembered her father had apologized to her for being aroused while they were playing in the family swimming pool and told her not to tell her mother.

The last similar incident Chelsea recalls occurred during a school field trip to Washington, D.C., where her father admits he climbed into bed with her in a state of arousal and slipped close behind her. John Goodrich admitted that during a recorded conversation, obtained by the AP, with Chelsea, Lorraine and one of Chelsea’s brothers.

Lorraine and Chelsea had been recording their confrontations with John about the alleged abuse, which they would later turn over to police.

While grappling with these memories, Chelsea met a Mormon friend she came to trust and with whom she shared these unsettling remembrances. Her new friend told her that her father, Paul Rytting, was a high church official who often dealt with sexual abuse complaints and suggested Chelsea contact him.

Unbeknownst to Chelsea, who believed Rytting’s main responsibility was to aid victims, at about that time he was deeply involved in defending the church in a highly publicized West Virginia child sex abuse lawsuit. Several Mormon families had accused the church of allowing a Mormon sex abuser, Christopher Michael Jensen, to babysit for their children, whom he allegedly abused. Jensen was sentenced to serve 35 to 75 years in prison after he was found guilty of abusing two of the children.

As revealed by the AP last year, Rytting made sworn statements in that case – which were sealed by a judge and obtained by the AP — describing the management of the secretive church Helpline, a phone number set up by the church for bishops to report instances of child sex abuse. Church officials say that they don’t keep any records of the reports to the Helpline.

Rytting also revealed the lengths to which the church goes to ensure confidentiality for perpetrators who make spiritual confessions.

“Disciplinary proceedings are subject to the highest confidentiality possible,” Rytting said in one affidavit. “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.”

Rytting did not respond to telephone calls or an email with a list of questions. In its statement the church noted that Goodrich’s “communications with his bishop were protected by Idaho state law. Only the perpetrator could release the bishop from his obligation under the clergy penitent privilege and he refused to do so.”

After meeting Rytting’s daughter, Chelsea travelled with her to Salt Lake City and met Paul Rytting while staying at the family home.

At that time, Chelsea didn’t feel ready to discuss her memories and kept them to herself, she said. But she eventually told her mother. And when Lorraine Goodrich confronted her husband in their Idaho home, in July of 2015, John confirmed becoming aroused while around his daughter — but denied any direct sexual contact, according to recordings of the conversations.

In one recorded conversation with Chelsea and Lorraine, he blamed the devil for his decision to climb into bed with his 13-year-old daughter after hearing sexual activity in an adjoining hotel room during the trip to Washington.

“The adversary I’m sure worked on me,” he said, using a church term for Satan. “And that’s when it was going through my mind when I climbed in bed with Chelsea and was really aroused … with the intent of spooning and snuggling you but I didn’t.”

With his family and marriage in turmoil, John revealed details of his relationship with Chelsea to visiting relatives, according to a written statement from the relatives which was ultimately submitted to authorities. They urged him to go to the police. When John said he’d rather talk with a bishop, the Goodrich relatives drove him to Miller’s home, where John made his confession.

Less than a year later, on Sept. 1, 2016, Chelsea and her mother met with Mountain Home police and played the recordings of their conversations with John. The next day, after a nearly two-hour interview at police headquarters, officers arrested him.

“Nothing happened,” John protested, as police cuffed him during a video interview obtained by the AP.

“I’m not ashamed of anything.”

It was then that Chelsea decided to enlist Rytting’s help and began corresponding with him by email to persuade him to allow Miller to testify against her father.

Chelsea and Lorraine also let Rytting know that church officials may have known about John Goodrich and his daughter for years. John told them, in conversations that were also recorded, that he’d “repented” details of his relationship with Chelsea to several local church leaders. Rytting told them that church leaders said they did not recall hearing any such confessions.

Then, 10 days after John’s arrest in Mountain Home, another woman stepped forward with additional allegations of sex abuse after learning of the case against John. The 53-year-old single mother accused him of having nonconsensual sex with her after giving her the drug Halcion, a controlled substance John often used to sedate patients during dental procedures. She alleged that Goodrich drugged her the previous July after she cut off a sexual relationship with him.

The AP is not naming the woman because it does not identify people who make allegations of sexual abuse without their consent.

As detectives investigated the new allegations, John Goodrich, who was still facing charges in Chelsea’s case, called the woman at least four times, in conversations she recorded and which the AP obtained. In these conversations, Goodrich asked her to lie to police while admitting he drugged her even as he tried to minimize his actions and repeatedly apologized.

“It was fun as heck, but it was wrong,” he said in a recorded conversation. “Just out of principle it was wrong, and I’m just mad as hell at myself.”

In July 2017, prosecutors dropped charges against John Goodrich related to Chelsea’s allegations.

Six months later, a prosecutor in a neighboring county was crafting a plea deal in which he again would escape sex crime charges.

In the end, John Goodrich pleaded guilty to distribution of a controlled substance, Halcion, and a judge sentenced him to 90 days in jail and three years of probation.

At the initial meeting with Chelsea and Lorraine, Rytting said the clergy-penitent privilege law made it next to impossible for Miller to testify against John Goodrich. Now, four months later, he was back in Hailey with an offer.

Much had changed for Lorraine and Chelsea in the meantime. They’d begun to feel ostracized by the Mormon community. Miller’s wife had even removed them from a local church community “sisters” email list, they told Rytting.

Miller had been an advocate for Chelsea.

During the first meeting with Rytting, Miller said John Goodrich, before his excommunication, had tried to backtrack on what he’d told Miller in confession.

“John told me one thing, and then kind of toned it way down to the stake president,” said Miller, referring to a higher-ranking church official who oversees several local jurisdictions. “He told the stake president, ‘Well, that’s not a big deal.’ I go, ‘Yeah, it’s a big deal.’”

“So we know he’s lying, and we know he’s lying at every level,” Rytting responded.

Reached by phone by the AP, Miller refused to discuss details. “It’s clergy privilege,” he said. “If I say anything, (John Goodrich) can sue me for millions of dollars.”

With Rytting in town again, Lorraine and Chelsea first made it clear that they were devastated the prosecutor had dropped the criminal case, according to the recordings.

“(The prosecutor) said ‘Too bad the bishop couldn’t testify,’” Lorraine told Rytting.

Rytting sounded surprised. He had not known coming into the meeting that the case was dropped, he said. He told them that the church perhaps could reach out to the prosecutor to help get things restarted.

“The message to this prosecutor is, you’ve got several pretty clear-cut instances where a predator, a sexual predator, has admitted,” Rytting said. “And then the victims have provided information. But you don’t feel any need to protect the general public?”

“She did say that if the bishop could come forward and tell, then we would have had a case. But there’s nothing,” Lorraine repeated.

The prosecutor, Jessica Kuehn, now works for the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office and did not respond to a request for comment. The AP couldn’t determine if the church ever followed up with her about the case.

About an hour into the meeting, Rytting changed the subject abruptly.

“Well, should we talk about why I’m here?” Rytting asked. “I have authorization up to $300,000.”

The offer stunned Chelsea and Lorraine. Months earlier, Rytting told them by email that the church was prepared to pay them $90,000 – an offer the women were considering.

The payment would be made on the condition that Chelsea and her mother sign an agreement in which they promised never to use Chelsea’s story as a basis for a lawsuit against the church – and that they never acknowledge the existence of the settlement.

And there was another key provision: “Second paragraph, I’ll be interested in your response,” Rytting said, while reviewing the document with them.

“The recommendation is that you acknowledge that there’s been some recordings made of all of our communications and that you agreed to destroy those recordings within 10 days of signing this,” he said.

Nondisclosure agreements – or NDAs, as they are commonly known – have been used frequently by the Mormon church and other organizations, including the Catholic Church, as well as individuals, to keep sex abuse allegations secret. In addition to her settlement with the church, Chelsea also settled a lawsuit against her father.

In one of their recorded conversations, Rytting told Chelsea that he could check Helpline records, used by Miller to report details of John Goodrich’s confession, to see whether her father had ever previously confessed to another bishop to abusing her.

But in the West Virginia abuse case against the church, Rytting gave sworn, written testimony in which he said no one at the Helpline keeps records. And another ranking church official testified in a case in Arizona that the records are destroyed at the end of each day. In comments to the AP, the church declined to clarify Rytting’s apparent contradiction about whether the church keeps records on the Helpline.

Still, at their final meeting, Rytting assured Chelsea and Lorraine that church officials denied hearing John Goodrich confess previously to abusing his daughter, a claim the church backed in its statement to the AP. He urged them to accept the funds the church was offering and sign the nondisclosure agreement promising they would never sue the church.

“When John Goodrich engaged in abuse or any other criminal or sexual misconduct, he was acting in an individual capacity and NOT as an agent of the Church,” Rytting wrote, ignoring the fact that Goodrich was a bishop at the time. “Accordingly, any damages arising from such misconduct will be apportioned to Mr. Goodrich and not to the Church.”

Chelsea and Lorraine, distanced from their family and community, and struggling financially, accepted this assessment and signed the agreement, which did not prevent Chelsea from telling her story.

Earlier this year, Chelsea decided to share it with the AP.

She had tried going to the church for help. She’d tried the criminal justice system. But John was free with access to children through his family and dental practice.

“Right now, my main concern continues to be other children,” she said.

——

Rezendes reported from New York.

__

Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org or https://www.ap.org/tips/

–—

The Associated Press collaborated with Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting for a public radio show and podcast that first aired on Dec. 9, 2023. Find the podcast here: https://revealnews.org/podcast/hidden-confessions-of-the-mormon-church/

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Recordings show how the Mormon church protects itself from child sex abuse claims