AP gives voice to victims and reveals a “help line” that enabled the Mormon church to conceal child sex abuse.
This groundbreaking project began when AP investigative reporter Mike Rezendes learned there were 12,000 pages of sealed records from a settled West Virginia lawsuit that could reveal important details about sex abuse in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Rezendes obtained the documents from a source, then spent months poring over the pages and starting his reporting.
A tip ultimately led him to evidence from a separate lawsuit filed in Arizona by three child sex abuse victims. The result was a stunning story reported in all formats: A so-called help line that diverted calls to church lawyers and had been used by Mormon leaders to cover-up the sexual abuse of a 5-year-old girl by her father. And not just that: Two Mormon bishops and church officials in Salt Lake City were aware of the abuse and allowed it to continue for seven years, until federal agents arrested the father with no help from the church.
Lawyers for the victims and their families said they wanted to go on the record; Rezendes met with them in Arizona, then returned with video journalist Jessie Wardarski and photojournalist Dario Lopez. The team wanted to tell the story in the victims’ own voices; they captured interviews of the individuals and their families with care and sensitivity. Still, the next several months would be a delicate time as the families changed their minds several times about whether to go public.
The story also raised ethical questions. At one point a decision had to be made about whether to name the adoptive parents of two of the children and risk identifying the child victims. The decision was especially difficult because the father of the girl, who also abused her 6-week-old sister, had posted a nine-minute video of the abuse on the internet. And the video, or slices of it, were still circulating online.
Rezendes talked with the families to make sure they were prepared for the inevitable publicity the story would generate and worked out exactly how, and how much, they wanted to be identified.
The story — a horrific tale of abuse and resilience — protected the victims as it revealed a systemic effort to cover up child sex abuse in the church community.
The piece was further elevated by strong visuals — Wardarski’s video and Lopez’s photos — as well as distinctive illustrations made from the case’s legal documents by digital storytelling producer Peter Hamlin.
The resulting package, including a sidebar examining four key takeaways, was one of AP’s most-viewed investigative projects of the year, with more than 500,000 pageviews and a remarkable average engagement time of four minutes. Investigative editor Alison Kodjak led the project with help from producer Jeannie Ohm and investigative researcher Randy Herschaft. AP’s audience team, led by Sophia Eppolito with help from Alex Connor, Ed Medeles and Elise Ryan produced a unique multiday social media campaign that included Facebook, Instagram and Twitter Spaces to keep the story in the public eye.
For sourcing built over years and deep commitment to report a story with both impact and sensitivity, Rezendes, Wardarski, Lopez, Hamlin and Herschaft earn AP’s Best of the Week — First Winner honors.