I wrote about the Arizona sex abuse case a while back when the AP News article first broke, but it’s made its way back in the news because the Arizona Supreme Court recently ruled in the case that the LDS Church can “refuse to answer questions or turn over documents under a state law that exempts religious officials from having to report child sex abuse if they learn of the crime during a confessional setting.” The Church applauded this ruling in the same breath that it reiterated that it doesn’t tolerate abuse. Umm, sure.

This ruling isn’t surprising to me.

It is also totally irrelevant to the Church’s moral (and arguably legal) culpability here, but I keep seeing people misrepresenting or misunderstanding what’s going on.

What’s going on here is that, according to the bishop who learned about the abuse, Church attorneys (including this guy and this guy) falsely and recklessly advised an LDS bishop that he was not permitted to disclose to authorities abuse he learned about in connection with his responsibilities as a bishop. They falsely and recklessly advised him that he could be legally liable for doing so.

That is not what a legal privilege is. A legal privilege–as was addressed in the Arizona Supreme Court case–is about whether or not the government can require a person (such as a clergy person) to disclose information obtained in connection with that person’s role as a clergy. It is not about whether a clergy person could voluntarily report ongoing abuse in order to protect a victim.

So, to be abundantly clear:

When Church lawyers told this bishop that he was not permitted to voluntarily disclose abuse, they were at best giving terrible, incorrect legal advice that prevented authorities from obtaining voluntarily-provided information that could have been used to stop abuse. They were at worst lying, although why they would lie about this and whom they thought they were protecting is lost on me.

They weren’t protecting the Church, which wouldn’t really have been liable for this abuse because it’s not like it was being committed in connection with Church activities. (In a case where, for example, a Church YM leader was abusing a YM in his class, I can see there being an argument that the Church is protecting itself from liability. Whether or not that’s the right thing to do, at least there is a rationale for the Church protecting its legal interests. In this case, there is no such rationale.)

They weren’t protecting the bishop, who wouldn’t have been in trouble for reporting and in fact would have avoided being on the spot for declining to report. If anything, they’ve done the bishop an enormous disservice by asking him to live with that knowledge, to do nothing about it, to get wrapped up in this legal case, and also potentially to put him in conflict with his mandatory reporting obligations as a physician.

They weren’t protecting the child, whose horrific abuse went on for years. There’s not even the remotest argument they were protecting the child.

The only person they were protecting, and this is what is so baffling, was the abuser. (Even that is debatable, since he ended up arrested and died by suicide. Not exactly a great outcome for anyone.)

I don’t know if these lawyers are stupid or evil or both. But the Church needs to stop defending this position, and people need to stop mischaracterizing the actual issue here which isn’t legal privilege. It’s false, reckless legal advice that prevented a bishop from taking steps to prevent years of horrific advice. Don’t let the legal technicalities of the privilege, which the Church keeps returning to, obfuscate that reality. The reality that the LDS Church’s reflexive response to reports of abuse is to stay silent, regardless of the specific circumstances of the case, the question being asked, or the actual state of the law.

And, lawyer to lawyer, I’m calling on lawyers to stop defending evil stuff. Criminal defendants are entitled to representation and there are important constitutional reasons for that right. But beyond that, no one is forcing you to take the Church’s money to protect abusers. Seriously, just stop it.