A leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said he is "disgusted" by an Arizona elected official accused of running a multi-state adoption scheme, marking the first time a church official has commented on the case.
"We're just as disgusted with it as anybody," Ronald Rasband, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, told The Arizona Republic when asked about Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen. "The details of this case are sickening."
The church also plans to review Petersen's membership after his criminal case is resolved, he said.
"The fact that he's a Latter-day Saint does not exonerate him," Rasband said.
The Quorum is the church's highest governing body after the president. The faith also widely known as the Mormon church has approximately 17 million members worldwide.
Prosecutors in Arizona, Utah and Arkansas say Petersen recruited women from the Marshall Islands who were paid up to $10,000 to come to the United States. Upon arrival, they were crammed into houses to wait to give birth and provide their babies for adoption. He is accused of falsely registering the women for state Medicaid and then arranging adoptions with American families for thousands of dollars.
Authorities believe he was operating the adoption scheme since 2015 and exploited at least 70 women.
Since 2003, citizens of the Republic of the Marshall Islands have been prohibited from traveling to the U.S. for adoption purposes.
Petersen is facing federal charges in Arkansas and state charges in Arizona and Utah. He has pleaded not guilty in Arizona and Arkansas. He is scheduled to appear in a Utah court on Friday.
Both Petersen and his attorney declined to comment on Rasband's remarks.
Petersen is also contesting his job suspension. The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors declared in October that the Republican assessor had neglected his duties. He was suspended without pay for 120 days.
Lynwood Jennet, a Marshallese woman who has worked with Petersen for six years, was also indicted as a co-conspirator. Prosecutors say she would connect women with Petersen and served as a translator. So far, there are no indications Jennet had any ties to the church.
Petersen and attorney Matt Long, who does not plan to represent him in this case, completed missions in the Marshall Islands with the church in the late '90s. They later worked in the islands on behalf of an international adoption agency. They continued working with the agency while both were in law school in Arizona.
Text messages and interviews indicate Petersen often matched children with families in the church, the newspaper reported. But church officials say his adoption operation had no connection to the church's own family services agency.
"Family Services was not contacted by Petersen for endorsement, nor did Family Services refer to him," church spokesman Doug Andersen said. "Clients reported their contact was through word of mouth from other couples."
The agency has since ceased offering adoptions because of high demand.