UNITED STATES NEWS

Takeaways from The AP’s investigation into the Mormon church’s handling of sex abuse cases

Dec 3, 2023, 10:05 PM

The Salt Lake Temple in Salt Lake City is shown on April 18, 2019. A top Mormon church official lea...

The Salt Lake Temple in Salt Lake City is shown on April 18, 2019. A top Mormon church official learned a former bishop had made a religious confession to details about his relationship with his own daughter when she was a child. Recordings obtained by The Associated Press show that instead of helping prosecutors, the church used a legal playbook that has helped protect itself from sex abuse claims. Today, the former bishop is a free man. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

HAILEY, Idaho (AP) — Paul Rytting had been director of the Risk Management Division at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for around 15 years when a 31-year-old church member told him that her father, a former bishop, had sexually abused her when she was a child.

Rytting flew from church headquarters in Salt Lake City to Hailey, Idaho, to meet with Chelsea Goodrich and her mother, Lorraine, to discuss what he said was a “tragic and horrendous” story.

By that time, Chelsea’s father, John Goodrich, had made a religious confession to a bishop with the church, widely known as the Mormon church, with details of his relationship with his daughter. Following church policy, Bishop Michael Miller had called a church Helpline, established to take calls from bishops about sexual abuse, and John Goodrich was quickly excommunicated.

After the excommunication, Chelsea and Lorraine reported Chelsea’s claims of abuse to Mountain Home, Idaho, police. They backed up their accusations with recordings of conversations with John Goodrich in which he admitted to climbing into bed with his daughter when he was sexually aroused, though he insisted there was no direct sexual contact. Nevertheless, Mountain Home police arrested him and charged him with a variety of sex crimes.

At their meeting with Rytting, Chelsea and her mother had one overarching question: Would the church allow Miller to testify at John Goodrich’s criminal trial?

Over the next four months, during multiple conversations, Rytting told Chelsea, Lorraine and Eric Alberdi, a fellow church member acting as Chelsea’s advocate, that a state law known as the clergy-penitent privilege prevented Miller from testifying without the consent of the alleged perpetrator, John Goodrich. Without Miller’s testimony, prosecutors dropped their case.

Next, Rytting offered Chelsea and her mother $300,000 on the condition that they agree to not use Chelsea’s story as the basis for a lawsuit against the church — and to never acknowledge the existence of this nondisclosure agreement.

Today, Goodrich, who did not respond to questions from the AP, remains a free man practicing dentistry, with access to children.

The Mormon church, in comments to the AP, said, “the abuse of a child or any other individual is inexcusable.” The church also noted that Miller would not be able to testify without the permission of Goodrich, and that the confidentiality agreement with Chelsea and Lorraine did not preclude Chelsea from telling her story.

All the conversations with Rytting, Chelsea, Lorraine, and Alberdi were recorded, and provided by Alberdi to The Associated Press.

Takeaways from the AP’s investigation:

THE CLERGY-PENITENT PRIVILEGE

An earlier investigation by the AP revealed that more than half the states maintain the clergy-penitent privilege, which provides a loophole for clergy who are otherwise required to report child sex abuse to police or local welfare officials. As a result, some child predators who reveal their crimes to clergy in a confessional setting and do not turn themselves in to police are allowed to remain free, able to continue abusing children while presenting a danger to others.

Although child welfare advocates have attempted to change or eliminate the privilege, the AP found that lobbying by religious institutions including the Catholic Church, the Mormon church, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have persuaded state legislators throughout the country to maintain the loophole. Indeed, the AP catalogued more than 100 attempts to amend or eliminate the privilege, all of which failed.

NONDISCLOSURE AGREEMENTS

Nondisclosure agreements, also known as confidentiality agreements, 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. Twenty-one years ago, the Catholic Church approved a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in which it pledged to eliminate the use of confidentiality agreements to settle child sex abuse claims, except in cases where the victims requested anonymity – a recognition of the role NDAs play in the cover-up of child sexual abuse. The Mormon church does not have a similar policy.

THE HELPLINE

The earlier AP investigation found that the Helpline plays a central role in the cover-up of child sex abuse in the Mormon church, even as the church claims its purpose is to provide bishops with guidance about sexual abuse reporting requirements. Initiated in 1995, when financial claims for sexual abuse against religious institutions were on the rise, the Helpline fields calls from bishops about child sexual abuse and directs the most serious cases to attorneys with the firm of Kirton McConkie, which represents the church.

According to the church, all information about child sexual abuse passed from church members to their bishops is confidential under the clergy-penitent privilege, and all information passed from the Helpline to church attorneys is confidential under the attorney-client privilege. Meanwhile, Rytting and other church officials have said in sworn testimony that the Helpline either keeps no records or destroys all records at the end of each day.

Or does it? During his conversations with Chelsea and Lorraine, Rytting said he could find out whether John Goodrich had previously “repented” for his relationship with Chelsea by checking Helpline records, seeming to contradict his sworn testimony in another child sex abuse case against the church.

In its comments to the AP, the church declined to answer questions about the apparent contradiction.

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Rezendes reported from New York.

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

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Takeaways from The AP’s investigation into the Mormon church’s handling of sex abuse cases