Paul Petersen's property, bank accounts frozen in $1.5 million seizure warrant
An investigation by The Arizona Republic, based on contracts, texts, emails and internal documents, found Petersen treated birth mothers and their children like monetary transactions.
He moved multiple women in and out of homes he owned in Mesa and Utah, took cuts for living expenses out of money he promised birth mothers and made every effort to enroll them in Medicaid programs.
The Republic found Petersen was connected to at least three other adoption agencies in Arizona and Colorado.
Petersen's adoption practice was rooted in his 1998 mission to the Marshall Islands for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A top church official this month said he was disgusted and sickened by the details of Petersen's case.
Latter-day Saints Apostle Ronald Rasband calls Paul Petersen's adoption scheme 'sickening'
|Ronald Rasband, a general authority of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaks on Oct. 18, 2019, to The Arizona Republic Editorial Board. (Photo: Brady Klain/The Republic)|
A top leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints denounced Paul Petersen's adoption scheme as "sickening."
Ronald Rasband, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said Petersen's membership in the church does not exonerate his conduct nor excuse any wrongdoing.
“We’re just as disgusted with it as anybody," Rasband told The Arizona Republic in a recent interview. “The details of this case are sickening.”
The Quorum is the second-highest governing body in the church, after the president, and helps set worldwide policy for its 17 million members.
Rasband's comments mark the first time the church has taken a public position on the case, which is reverberating with political, cultural and legal implications.
He acknowledged the church will review Petersen's membership.
Petersen is the elected Maricopa County assessor. He was indicted on human trafficking charges last month in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas related to his private adoption practice in Mesa.
Authorities say Petersen illegally transported pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to the U.S., fraudulently enrolled them for Medicaid and orchestrated adoptions of their children to American families for up to $40,000 each.
Neither Petersen nor his attorney would comment on Rasband's remarks.
Petersen has pleaded not guilty to charges in Arizona and Arkansas and is scheduled to appear Friday in a Utah court.
A church mission to the Marshall Islands
Latter-day Saints officials acknowledged Petersen's practice was rooted in his 1998 church mission to the Marshall Islands, where he said he learned the language and began facilitating adoptions.
They said a recent inquiry found that individuals within the church community previously had expressed concern about Petersen "and sought to distance" themselves from him years before his arrest.
Rasband said Petersen's alleged conduct was not sanctioned by the church and said no overlap was found between Petersen's adoption practice and the church’s Family Services arm.
“The fact that he’s a Latter-day Saint does not exonerate him,” Rasband said.
He questioned if Petersen's religious ties would undergo rigorous scrutiny if he was not a church member.
Church Elder Paul Pieper said missionaries can develop strong ties with members of the communities they serve. An unscrupulous person might take advantage of those ties, he said.
Text messages and interviews obtained by The Arizona Republic show Petersen frequently placed children with Latter-day Saints families.
WHAT WE KNOW: How Paul Petersen's Marshall Islands adoptions worked
Adoptive parents said Petersen was regarded as a family man and a trusted source for adoptions, particularly among the Latter-day Saint community in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas.