An appellate court has ordered officials of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to disclose whether they knew for years that a now-excommunicated church member confessed to molesting children.

Thursday's 3-0 ruling by the Court of Appeals came in connection with a lawsuit filed against the church by the mother of a child the man admitted he had molested.The lawsuit says the church failed to report Kenneth Ray to state authorities until 1984, thus leaving children vulnerable to abuse. The suit claims Ray had told three church bishops as early as 1968 that he had been having sexual contact with children.

Ray was excommunicated by the church on March 13, 1984, for conduct unbecoming a member and later pleaded no contest to child molestation charges.

The plaintiff, Cynthia Brown, brought a personal injury suit against Ray, his former wife and the LDS Church on her daughter's behalf.

Her attorneys sought to force three LDS bishops to disclose whether Ray told them he had been sexually abusing children. However, the church objected, saying the bishops were protected by the clergyman-penitent privilege.

Trial Judge Cheryl Hendrix of Maricopa County Superior Court ordered the bishops to give depositions, and the Court of Appeals agreed.

The mid-level court said Ray had waived his privilege by disclosing to police what he had told the bishops. The court, in a 3-0 opinion written by Judge Noel Fidel, said the LDS Church may not claim a special privilege for its bishops once the confessor has waived his right to secrecy.

Attorneys for both sides did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The Episcopal Diocese of Arizona filed a brief contending that such protection should be granted to Episcopal and Catholic priests because they must take a vow of silence for any formal confessions they receive.

However, the Court of Appeals said there was no proof that the LDS Church requires the same vow of silence, noting that eventually a Mormon bishop reported Ray and helped authorities get information about the alleged molestations.