By MICHAEL REZENDES and HELEN WIEFFERING
The video of a man raping his 9-year-old daughter was discovered in New Zealand in 2016 and triggered a global search for the little girl.
Investigators contacted Interpol and the pursuit eventually included the FBI, the U.S. State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Months later, investigators raided the Bisbee, Arizona, home of Paul Adams, arrested him and rescued the girl in the video along with her five siblings.
While Adams can no longer physically hurt his daughter — he died by suicide in custody — the videos live on, downloaded and uploaded by child pornographers across the U.S. and around the globe, growing ever more popular even as as police, prosecutors and internet companies chase behind in a futile effort to remove the images.
The number of times the Adams video has been seen soared from fewer than 100 in 2017 to 4,500 in 2021, according to data provided to The Associated Press with the permission of the girl and her adoptive mother, Nancy Salminen. The tally was produced by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nonprofit that tracks child pornography on the internet and works with law enforcement agencies throughout the world.
“That’s the horrendous part about it,” Salminen said. “You can’t just say that’s in the past and shut the door and move on. She will never be able to turn her back on what’s happened.”
The ongoing victimization of the child could have been avoided.
Six years before the video surfaced in Auckland, Adams, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon church, confessed to his bishop that he abused his daughter, identified by the AP as MJ.
But a prominent church lawyer told the bishop to keep the abuse secret. And as a result, MJ was brutalized for seven more years. Today, she continues to be victimized almost daily in a different way, as the video, and others Adams took, circulate on the internet. Details of the Mormon officials’ cover-up of the Adams rapes were reported in an AP investigation in August.
The data provided to the AP also shows that police in the U.S. referred the Adams video, or portions of it, to NCMEC for identification 1,850 times since it was discovered, contributing to nearly 800 arrests on federal child pornography charges last year alone.
Those arrested comprise a coast-to-coast catalog of men — women rarely traffic in child pornography, the data shows — that defies economic or geographic boundaries.
LIMITS OF COMPUTER SLEUTHING
The seeming immortality of the Adams video underscores the limits of computer sleuthing by a global network of investigators racing to stop internet child pornography, and it reveals how advances in data storage and video technology have outpaced efforts to stop it.
Permanently removing the images from the open internet is nearly impossible, child sex abuse experts say, because pornographers throughout the world are constantly downloading the images, storing them and reposting them.
“That’s what makes the whole crime type so abhorrent,” said Simon Peterson, the New Zealand customs agent who discovered the Adams video, during an interview with the AP. Victims of online child pornography, he said, “have to wake up every morning knowing that there’s imagery of those terrible times in their lives still out there, and that people are accessing it for their own gratification.”
The Adams case has also highlighted a glaring loophole in state child sex abuse reporting laws. Adams, a member of the Mormon church, confessed he was abusing his daughter to his Bishop, John Herrod, in 2010. In Arizona, clergy are among the professionals required to report child sexual abuse to police or child welfare officials.
But when the bishop called the church’s “help line” for advice, Merrill Nelson, a lawyer representing the church, directed him to withhold the information from police and child welfare officials.
According to legal documents, Nelson, who was also a Utah legislator, pointed to an exception in the state’s mandatory child sex abuse reporting law that allows clergy to keep information revealed during a confession to themselves. The so-called clergy-penitent privilege is on the books in 33 states, the AP found.
Behind this veil of church secrecy, Adams continued molesting MJ and, five years later, started raping her younger sister as well, beginning when she was just 6 weeks old. He was also taking videos and photographs of the abuse and posting them to the internet, including the nine-minute video that was eventually his undoing.
It was November 2016 when Peterson and his team of agents in Auckland raided the home of a 47-year-old farm worker whom they’d been watching online for months.
“He knew what we were there for,” Peterson recalled. “And by the end of the morning we’d arrested him, interviewed him and charged him for exporting and possessing child sexual abuse material.”
Peterson found the Adams video among the farmers videos. He soon realized the video might be new, and the child depicted might still be in danger.
He could also see obvious clues that could help identify the rapist and his victim.
“We could see both their faces for a start,” Peterson said. “And they were talking throughout it, as well. We could tell from the accent if it wasn’t Canadian, it was American. So we could narrow it down pretty quickly.”
Interpol sent the video to NCMEC, which acts as a clearinghouse for agencies investigating child pornography throughout the world. The investigation involved several other agencies until the U.S. State Department matched the face in the photos to in a database of visa and passport photos.
About six weeks after Peterson discovered the video in New Zealand, Homeland Security agents arrested Adams on the job at the Naco, Arizona, border crossing while federal agents raided his home, seized electronic devices and rescued his six children.
“It was quite emotional,” Peterson said. “We don’t get success often.”
In the six years following the discovery of the nine-minute Adams video, law enforcement agencies in the U.S. have seized thousands of images of MJ’s abuse and have referred the material to NCMEC for positive identification. In turn, NCMEC has cataloged the identities of those arrested who may have possessed or trafficked the images and given the information to MJ’s lawyers, who can sue each perpetrator for up to $150,000 in restitution under federal civil law, in addition to restitution that may be available through criminal proceedings.
Lynne Cadigan, one of several attorneys representing three of the Adams children, said MJ will seek compensation from the child pornographers.
But she and Salminen, the girl’s adoptive mother, lay most of the blame for the sexual abuse on officials of the Mormon church, who knew Adams molested MJ as early as 2010 and did nothing to stop it.
“She went to church with people who didn’t help her and as a result thousands of people are looking at the video and there’s nothing she can do about it,” Cadigan said.
AP investigative reporter Jason Dearen, video journalist Jesse Wardarski and data journalist Justin Myers contributed to this story.
To contact AP’s investigations team, email firstname.lastname@example.org