The Growing Mormon Sex Abuse Scandal

Jeff BreinholtMormon 43 Comments

The chagrin would be immediate from reading these words in a law book:

For five years, in defendant’s capacity as a schoolteacher, neighbor, and secretary to the Bishop of the Mormon Church, defendant molested numerous boys in Santa Clara County. As charged in this case, he touched the private parts of four boys who knew him variously as a family friend from church, a teacher in kindergarten and grades two and three, and a home-school religion teacher.

So starts People v. Harward [1]. It’s no joke. This language, taken from a real court case, likely sent shivers down the spines of the Mormons who read it, not to mention Church leaders. Is there a reason to worry? Is Mormon leadership bound to contend with the same public relations nightmare that plagued the Roman Catholics over the last decade?

To answer this question, I set out to look at the extent of any LDS sex abuse that has reached American courtrooms. I then did the same for religions with whom the Mormons are commonly confused – the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Christian Scientists, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Here’s the quick answer: the LDS Church has a problem, as do the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Adventists and the Scientists, not so much. In fact, the Mormons and the Witnesses are suffering from a similar trajectory. They are bound to keep their lawyers very busy over the coming years. It will probably get darker before it is light again. The amazing thing is that most of this litigation is occurring outside of Utah, which makes you wonder whether word has reached LDS Church Headquarters.

Here’s the scoop: the LDS Church is a defendant in 10 cases, which have given rise to 15 written opinions. Most are outside of Utah.

The hotspot seems to be Washington State, where a Mormon scoutmaster named Jack LaHolt allegedly abused children in the 1970s. His activity alone generated a third of the written opinions in Mormon civil cases – five opinions [2]. The LDS Church heavily litigating these cases on evidentiary grounds. Also in Washington was a case by the wife of a sex abuser who sued her bishop for granting her a Temple Recommend in order to get married, despite indications that her husband had such proclivities [3], and another case against the Church filed by one of the child victims, where the Church litigated whether it had to turn over its internal report [4]. The other cases are in South Dakota [5], Kentucky [6], California [7], and two in Oregon [8]. Utah had only one civil case involving Mormon sex abuse, and it was quickly dismissed, based on the notion that the Church had no duty to warn [9]. As will become clear, the Church obviously is not having as easy of a time in the cases outside of Utah.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses [10] have slightly more civil sex abuse cases in the courts as the Adventists [11], and far fewer than the Mormons. If so, why do I claim that the Jehovah’s and the Mormons have a problem, whereas the Adventists do not? The simple answer: the criminal cases.

For both he Mormon and the Jehovah’s Witness, the situation might not be so bad if the civil cases represented the entire inventory of bad news. However, there’s naturally a lag between criminal case and their civil counterparts. Criminal cases go first and move quicker, and are generally resolved before the parallel civil cases are kicked into gear. For this reason, every criminal case involving child sex abuse can be considered a warm-up act for the civil cases that might follow. Remember O.J. Simpson?

I counted 20 criminal prosecutions of Mormon defendants for sex with children [12], and 19 of Jehovah’s Witnesses [13], with most of them coming in the last ten years. Amazingly, none of the Mormon criminal sex abuse cases were in Utah.

Putting these two types of cases – the criminal and the civil cases involving sex abuse – together, here is a chart showing the frequency of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses cases, by decade:


See what I mean about the common problem, and similar trajectory? Like the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have one criminal case that starts with language that should pull its members up short:

On several occasions during the years 1999 to 2000, Jose W. Portillo performed sex acts with 12-year-old Felix M. (the minor), including oral sex, anal sex, and masturbation. Portillo was a married man in his mid-thirties. Portillo and his wife knew the minor and his family through their memberships in a local Jehovah’s Witnesses church [14].

One can almost hear the groans coming out of the Kingdom Halls.

It is interesting to see what the Mormon Church’s role is in its cases. In the civil cases, they are the actual defendants, which means they had a right to contest whether they had a legal duty – a big issue – and whether their notice was generated by communication covered by the clergy privilege. This has been their typical litigation strategy. In the criminal cases, it is surprising how many the Church has provided character witnesses on behalf of the defendant [15], though there were other cases where the Mormon Church assisted the authorities [16].

Are any of the current civil cases on a path to break open the LDS Church, like what happened with the Catholics in the 1990s?

The Washington State case involving scoutmaster Jack LaHolt resulted in a jury verdict for the plaintiff, based on negligence by the LDS Church [17]. The Church settled with other victims [18]. The Church got hit with another plaintiff’s jury verdict, in the amount of $1.2 million, in Washington [19]. This one involved two sisters who were abused by their father, and the jury found the LDS Church liable both for the failure of a bishop to report the abuse of the older sister and for the subsequent abuse of the younger sister. The jury also found the LDS Church liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress, due to intimidating statements made by the bishop to the victim. The Utah case, as noted, was dismissed [20], and the Kentucky case (which involved an LDS missionary) was similarly thrown out [21], as was one of the Washington State cases [22].

All indications are that the South Dakota case (which also involved a missionary), and the two Oregon and California cases are still being litigated – though one of the Oregon cases was transferred to Idaho [23]. The California case involves abuse that allegedly occurred in the 1960s, which gives you an idea how far these cases can go back. Ominously, there were several criminal cases where the LDS Church clearly put the defendant and the victim together. Thus, the question if these cases ever get to the civil courts is whether the Church owed a fiduciary responsibility to the victims to warn them about proclivities they knew, or should have known, about the defendant. That’s how negligence cases work.

Because of the paucity of these cases in Utah, I raised the issue above as to whether Church Headquarters is even aware of them. That question, on further reflection, was rather naïve. Of course the brethren in Salt Lake City know about these cases. Is there any indication that they are worried about them? For example, are there signs that they engaged in strategic litigation in 1990s Catholic cases, where the LDS Church was not a party? If so, this might be a sign that the LDS Church leadership knew exactly what the future might portend.

In the course of my research, I stumbled on Martinelli v. Bridgeport Roman Catholic Diocesan Corp [25], a case in which a former parishioner brought action against the Diocese in the late 1990s, seeking compensation for child sexual abuse by priest. Following the jury finding that Diocese had breached fiduciary duty it owed to parishioner, the Diocese moved for judgment as a matter of law. Guess who filed an amicus curae brief? You got it – the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, along with six other religious denominations.

What does that brief argue? It took issue with the court’s use of an official church document to decide that there was indeed a fiduciary relationship between the priest and the victim. Doing so, according to the church’s lawyers, “creates a substantial chilling effect on the teaching and preaching of religious entities that must be corrected.” According to the brief:

Religious language and imagery is by its nature imprecise. It invites the person seeking to know and do God’s will to some deeper understanding of his relationship with the divine through prayerful study and prudent application. The undisputed Scripture text or a pastoral metaphor is only the beginning of the inquiry from a religious perspective. It addresses a religious, not a civil legal, concern. It was beyond the imagination of the Diocese, or any religious body, that civil consequences would follow from an individual’s interpretation of theological text and be imprinted on a church body, or that its own agreement with doctrinal and liturgical positions would create liability. Using religious language and imagery to provide a civil rule of decision is enough to entangle the courts “excessively” in a religious matter.

Beyond their imagination? Perhaps. But not after the Catholic Church started getting hit. Here is an expression of a very real concern that civil consequences would flow from religiously-mandated relationships that create liability for a religious organizations that heretofore had never stared into the abyss. That’s exactly what happened with the Catholics since then. It seems to be happening now in Mormondom ten years later. More cases will likely to follow. Be very afraid.


[1] 2004 WL 1282850 (Cal.App. 6 Dist. 2004).

[2] Fleming v. Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 2006 WL 691331 (W.D.Wash. 2006); Fleming v. Corporation of President of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 2006 WL 753234 (W.D.Wash. 2006); Fleming v. Church of Latter Day Saints, 275 Fed.Appx. 626 (9th Cir. 2008); R.K. v. Corporation of President of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 2006 WL 2506413 (W.D.Wash. 2006); R.K. v. Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 2006 WL 2661055 (W.D.Wash. 2006); R.K. v. Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 2006 WL 2661059 (W.D.Wash. 2006).

[3] Flanigan v. McCrea, 93 Wash.App. 1085, 1999 WL 58767 (Wash.App. Div. 1 1999).

[4] “Jane Doe” v. Corporation of President of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- Day Saints, 122 Wash.App. 556, 90 P.3d 1147 (Wash.App. Div. 1 2004).

[5] Joseph v. Corporation of the President Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 2008 WL 282163 (D.S.D. 2008);

[6] Olinger v. Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 521 F.Supp.2d 577 (E.D.Ky. 2007).

[7] Kathleen B. v. Corporation of President of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 2009 WL 2438419 (Cal.App. 4 Dist. 2009).

[8] Jack Doe 1 v. Corporation of Presiding Bishop of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 2008 WL 4549075 (D.Or. 2008);Doe v. Corporation of The Ass’n of the Presiding Bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Slip Copy, 2009 WL 2132722 (D.Or. 2009).

[9] Doe v. Corp. of President of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 98 P.3d 429 (Utah App. 2004).

[10] The Jehovah’s Witnesses sex abuse civil cases are Bryan R. v. Watchtower Bible and Tract Soc. of New York, Inc., 738 A.2d 839 (Me. 1999); Meyer v. Lindala, 675 N.W.2d 635 (Minn.App. 2004); Berry v. Watchtower Bible and Tract Soc. of New York, Inc., 152 N.H. 407, 879 A.2d 1124 (N.H. 2005); Beal v. Broadard, 19 Mass.L.Rptr. 114, Not Reported in N.E.2d, 2005 WL 1009632 (Mass.Super. 2005).

[11] The Seventh Day Adventists civil sex abuse case are Byrd v. Faber, 57 Ohio St.3d 56, 565 N.E.2d 584 (Ohio 1991); Byrd v. Faber, 1992 WL 330189 (Ohio App. 5 Dist. 1992); Hustwaite v. Montana Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, 303 Mont. 539, 18 P.3d 1033 (Table)(Mont. 2000); Mills v. Deehr, 2004 WL 1047720 (Ohio App. 8 Dist. 2004); Doe v. Oregon Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, 199 Or.App. 319, 111 P.3d 791 (Or.App. 2005).

[12] Mormon child sex prosecutions are People v. Willoughby, 164 Cal.App.3d 1054, 210 Cal.Rptr. 880 (Cal.App.5.Dist); State v. Foster, 467 So.2d 1254 (La.App. 2 Cir. 1985); State v. Cox, 87 Or.App. 443, 742 P.2d 694 (Or.App.,1986); Com. v. Montanino, 27 Mass.App.Ct. 130, 535 N.E.2d 617 (Mass.App.Ct. 1989); Gillespie v. State, 549 So.2d 640 (Ala.Cr.App. 1989); State v. Hildreth, 267 Mont. 423, 884 P.2d 771 (Mont. 1994); State v. Davis, 670 A.2d 786 (R.I. 1996); State v. Burrell, 1997 WL 53455(Tenn.Crim.App. 1997); Rodriguez v. State, 1997 WL 527843 (Tex.App.-Dallas 1997);Snider v. State, 238 Ga.App. 55, 516 S.E.2d 569 (Ga.App. 1999); Guinn v. State, 2001 WL 1466816 (Tex.App.-Dallas 2001);State v. Teters, 321 Mont. 379, 91 P.3d 559 (Mont. 2004); People v. Harward, 2004 WL 1282850 (Cal.App. 6 Dist. 2004); People v. Lind, 2004 WL 1427134 (Cal.App. 5 Dist. 2004);
State v. Parks, 2004 WL 1936404 (Tenn.Crim.App. 2004); In re Grant O., 2004 WL 2251747 (Cal.App. 5 Dist. 2004); People v. Hettiger, 2005 WL 2143640 (Cal.App. 3 Dist. 2005); People v. Blanchard, 2007 WL 1653098 (Cal.App. 4 Dist. 2007); Archibeque v. Lee ex rel. County of Maricopa, 2007 WL 5517452 (Ariz.App. Div. 1 2007); People v. Perez, 2007 WL 1776210 (Cal.App. 2 Dist. 2007).

[13] The Jehovah’s Witnesses child sex prosecutions are Com. v. Doe, 8 Mass.App.Ct. 297, 393 N.E.2d 426 (Mass.App. 1979); State v. Halcomb, 1 Neb.App. 681, 510 N.W.2d 344 (Neb.App.,1993); State v. Koelling, 1993 WL 150497 (Ohio App. 10 Dist. 1993); State v. Koelling,1995 WL 125933 (Ohio App. 10 Dist. 1995); Pascoe v. State, 1997 WL 61484 (Tex.App.-San Antonio 1997); Guzman v. Lacy, 1998 WL 512954 (S.D.N.Y. 1998); State v. Eisenhouer, 40 S.W.3d 916 (Mo. 2001); Smith v. State, 2001 WL 1608142 (Minn.App. 2001); State v. Blackstock, 147 N.H. 791, 802 A.2d 1169 (N.H. 2002); People v. Halverson, 2002 WL 1733247 (Cal.App. 4 Dist. 2002); U.S. v. Brown, 330 F.3d 1073 (8th Cir. 2003); People v. Wolfenbarger, 2003 WL 22391135 (Cal.App. 3 Dist. 2003); People v. Johnson, 2004 WL 909242 (Cal.App. 5 Dist. 2004); People v. Scott, 2004 WL 2351590 (Cal.App. 6 Dist. 2004); People v. Portillo, 2004 WL 2361583 (Cal.App. 2 Dist. 2004); People v. Atencio, 2005 WL 2461918 (Cal.App. 2 Dist. 2005); State v. Patterson, 2005 WL 3475740 (Ohio App. 5 Dist. 2005); State v. Bagley, 101 Conn.App. 653, 922 A.2d 1128 (Conn.App. 2007); People v. Simental, 2009 WL 2426334 (Cal.App. 4 Dist. 2009).

[14] People v. Portillo, 2004 WL 2361583 (Cal.App. 2 Dist. 2004).

[15] State v. Foster, 467 So.2d 1254 (La.App. 2 Cir. 1985); Com. v. Montanino, 27 Mass.App.Ct. 130, 535 N.E.2d 617 ((Mass.App.Ct. 1989)., 1997 WL 527843 Tex.App.-Dallas,1997. People v. Lind, 2004 WL 1427134 (Cal.App. 5 Dist. 2004).

[16] Rodriguez v. State,1997 WL 527843 (Tex.App.-Dallas 1997); State v. Teters, 321 Mont. 379, 91 P.3d 559 (Mont. 2004); In re Grant O., 2004 WL 2251747 (Cal.App. 5 Dist. 2004).

[17] Fleming v. Church of Latter Day Saints, 275 Fed.Appx. 626 (9th Cir. 2008).

[18] R.K. v. Corporation of President of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 2006 WL 2506413 (W.D.Wash. 2006).

[19] Doe v. Corporation of President of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 141 Wash.App. 407, 167 P.3d 1193 (Wash.App. Div. 1 2007).

[20] Doe v. Corp. of President of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 98 P.3d 429 (Utah App. 2004).

[21] Olinger v. Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 521 F.Supp.2d 577 (E.D.Ky. 2007).

[22] Flanigan v. McCrea, 93 Wash.App. 1085, 1999 WL 58767 (Wash.App. Div. 1 1999).

[23] Joseph v. Corporation of the President Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 2008 WL 282163 (D.S.D. 2008); Doe v. Corporation of The Ass’n of the Presiding Bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Slip Copy, 2009 WL 2132722 (D.Or. 2009); Doe v. Corporation of The Ass’n of the Presiding Bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Slip Copy, 2009 WL 2132722 (D.Or. 2009); Kathleen B. v. Corporation of President of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 2009 WL 2438419 (Cal.App. 4 Dist. 2009).

[24] People v. Perez, 2007 WL 1776210 (Cal.App. 2 Dist. 2007); People v. Hettiger, 2005 WL 2143640 (Cal.App. 3 Dist. 2005); People v. Harward, 2004 WL 1282850 (Cal.App. 6 Dist.,2004); State v. Davis, 670 A.2d 786 (R.I. 1996); Com. v. Montanino, 27 Mass.App.Ct. 130, 535 N.E.2d 617 (Mass.App.Ct. 1989).

[25] 196 F.3d 409 (2nd Cir. 1999)

Comments 43

  1. Jeff, thank you for this post. It brings up some very interesting issues. It seems very clear that none of us would want someone who has confessed proclivities for sexual abuse to be called into a position working closely with our children, for example. But what about those more nebulous cases? Would or wouldn’t a woman want to be warned by the Bishop before marriage that her intended husband had been viewing porn? What, exactly, IS the Bishop’s responsibility in these cases? Does the Church have a specific policy? All these are issues of growing importance.

    1. I wasn’t abused as a youngster, but I am a unique case in that the Stake President’s first cousin was engaged to me. It became
      very clear very soon into the engagement that “Cousin,” despite his ordination was REALLY BAD NEWS,. I spoke with
      other women, poor souls whom he had also stalked, battered, raped, kidnapped, threatened with death, etc. At that point, I immediately broke up with him, at which time I realized I was hooked up to a monster. I went to MY bishop (who was his brother-in-law, his first cousin-stake-president, and his bishop.) I got an advocate from our local “Women’s Resource Center,” who told
      my dear friends and leaders at church that a stalking order was a must, considering the depth of danger I was in. And the
      discussion started between the church leaders, I don’t suggest this, but I moved home, had my dear deceased Dad dust off
      his favorite shotgun, and stopped going to Church. This was in the 1990’s and I believe the Church has developed enhanced
      programs and attitudes towards battery and abuse of adult women by their significant others . I hope so ……C.H.

  2. I refuse to “be very afraid.”

    I have never been a Bishop. I have never read the General Handbook. But I do know that if a Bishop is aware of certain situations, he is required to call a “hotline” at Church Headquarters and, essentially, must follow instructions from there. I hear about these legal cases of sexual abuse and it seems to me that the abuse happened at a time when Bishops were allowed to “wing it” in ways which aren’t permitted anymore.

  3. I really hope the church is taking these issues seriously. One of the things that made many people mad about the Catholic scandals was that, the church knew about many of the molesters and they then kept them in positions where they would still interact with children. One thing the LDS church should learn is that, when a bishop or other leader does something inappropariate, they should be punished by the church, and never be allowed in a similar position again. The church is about forgiveness, but you can still forgive and use common sense. This is something that the Catholics had (have) a hard time learning.

    I would like to echo the questions that Bored in Vernal asked. What is the Bishops responsibility, and what are church policies in these types of situations?

  4. People know the church has deep pockets. I don’t know about those other religions, but I would imagine that has something to do with the number of cases.

  5. Unfortunately, the Church is in a dilemma with these cases. If they don’t take action against a bishop or other leader because because of reported abuse, they find themselves potentially liable to the victim. On the other hand, if they take action against that leader because of that reported abuse, the find themselves potentially liable (for defamation, for example) to that leader.

    At least that is the way it was explained when someone I was close to reported abuse to her therapist, who then reported it to the Church. The therapist reported to my friend that the name she gave was not unfamiliar to the Church, but the Church was unwilling to act unless the witness came forward in a non-private manner–to law enforcement, rather than to a therapist. What they did do, in my friend’s case was pretty clever, I thought. A couple of years after she made the report, there was an article in the Ensign about abusive relationships in marriage. The man in the accompanying photographs was my friend’s abusive bishop. So in at least one small way, the Church identified this man as abusive to the world, but did it in a way that did not leave them open to any legal liability.

  6. #1 – Sigh. Here we go with the “porn as prelude to sex crimes” sentiment again. Come on, BIV. First of all, the bishop should not even be at liberty to tell a woman that her intended husband was viewing porn, even if he wanted to. Viewing porn is not a criminal activity and there’s no reason why a bishop should be compelled to share it with anyone in the same way he would if someone admitted to molesting chilren. Secondly, and I’m sorry to revive this debate, I think it’s a huge mistake to equate what Jeff is discussing with men (or women) who view pornography. We’re talking about leaders who had prior knowledge that these people had raped and molested in the past, yet either did nothing to curb it, or in some cases protected them or even put them directly in a position to continue such behavior or perpetrate it on new victims. This is a million miles removed from someone who has looked at pornography.

  7. I’m saddened that we are faced with these types of circumstances, I hope that this is not the start of such cases however I feel we won’t suffer as the Catholic Church did due to proactive actions and the appointment of lawyers in many positions of leadership within the Church.

    However I think there is evidence that as a Church we were not proactive enough, we needed these protective policies that we see today in the D&C just before the WoW.

    Also many of the Church policies are initiated to protect the church from claims rather than preventative measures such as historical criminal checks

  8. I don’t know if you’ve seen the “Safeguarding Children” [PDF file] directive that came from the First Presidency three years ago, but it lists a series of explicit changes to Church policy and practices, both in terms of protecting youth and reporting possible abuse.

    The idea of a court finding a fiduciary responsibility for an LDS bishop over a member of the ward would be quite chilling — not just for child abuse cases, but for any matter (marriage, employment, personal worthiness) in which a bishop attempts to provide counsel to a ward member. It would to a large extend reduce the function of a bishop to administrative duties. It would also seem to have a profound chilling effect not only on most churches but on just about any organization that attempts to provide personal counsel and advice to its members.

    I’m curious as to the ultimate legal decision in Martinelli v. Bridgeport, that is, did the court (or an appeals court) uphold or overturn the jury’s finding of a fiduciary responsibility? ..bruce..

  9. Recently in England I think a law was just passed which requires these historical checks for anyone who is required to work with children in any organisation. I waiting to see what the Church does with this, as yet I have received no letter.

  10. Bruce – the relevant portion of Martinelli was affirmed, which meant that the Catholic and Mormon positions were rejected and the jury verdict of liability stood. Incidentally, the Mormon brief was also signed by the Adventists, which do not (in my opinion) have a problem with sex abuse liability yet. This fact somewhat takes away from the force of my argument in the last few paragraphs – that the LDS Church knew what it was facing even back then. It is possible that they were just weighing in on the issue of ecclesiastic autonomy.

  11. Bro Jones #6– I know, I AGREE with you, and I also agree with bfwebster about fiduciary responsibility. However, I must confess to feeling a few chills when my son returned from Scout camp at the age of 12 with tales of the pornographic magazines under the pillow of one of the leaders. And later to discover that the Bishop was aware of this man’s involvement with pornography. When things strike so close to home, it’s more difficult to look at them objectively.

  12. I was involved in non-LDS scout troops growing up (I was raised Catholic). The occasional Playboy or Hustler sometimes found its way into camp and was passed around. Some of us ignored it and some were eager viewers. But none of us were scarred or suffered lasting damage. It was just plain old curiosity and not a major deal.

    Of course, I recognize that porn has become much more prevalent in our society since then due to different avenues of distribution. But I think the over-reaction to natural boy curiosity creates more harm than just letting it pass. If you teach your children to avoid such things in FHE, then they will make the right choice.

    IMHO, we have just gotten entirely TOO paranoid about controlling every risk factor in a child’s life. Most things are not as damaging as we make them out to be.

    NOTE: I am not equating serious sexual abuse with more minor items such as viewing a Playboy. Totally different things. So please do not re-interpret my comments to conclude that I am totally devoid of understanding or minimize true abuse.

  13. I find this idea of the “chilling effect” of fiduciary responsibility quite interesting. Perhaps I am misunderstanding the concept since I am neither an attorney nor a church official, but it seems to be saying that if religious leaders were actually held accountable for giving bad counsel, they might stop giving it, and that would be a Very Bad Thing, so they must not be held accountable.

  14. #11 – Hmm, I have to admit that is pretty disturbing. I think that’s a lot different than the boys having dirty magazines, as Michael discussed in #12. I think in that instance there are additional concerns about having that kind of person be in a position to be around kids.

    With respect to your original comment, BIV, I’m not even saying I necessarily disagree with you that that’s something a woman should be concerned about, or even that it should be a red flag when considering marrying someone. I would not tell another person they are silly for thinking pornography is a really big deal. I was just pointing out that within the context of a church leader having an obligation to take preemptive steps to prevent criminal behavior before it happens, I don’t think porn usage would really rise to that level. I do think your example raises some very interesting issues, though.

  15. Bored in Vernal –

    There is a difference between a Bishop being aware of someone’s involvement with Pornography, and knowing that this leader was planning to take such material to a scout camp. It is a little unfair to lay fault at his door. unless your believe that no one who has seen a naked image should be around children.

    I am alarmed at the leak of information; had this bishop not heard of confidentiality.

  16. Right. I wouldn’t want any church leader to be legally forced to reveal things that were told to them in confidence, especially the milder things like porn use. Kuri, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held accountable if they made bad decisions with the knowledge that they had. I still think there are going to be lots of gray areas–I was thinking especially of the case Jeff cited above:

    “Also in Washington was a case by the wife of a sex abuser who sued her bishop for granting her a Temple Recommend in order to get married, despite indications that her husband had such proclivities.”

    I just see that there is a need for the Church to have some sort of policy in place, and yet there is going to be a substantial difficulty in making and interpreting such policies.

  17. #13 – kuri, I can’t tell whether you were being sarcastic in your last comment, but that’s a fair representation of the idea of the chilling effect. Obviously the argument is that the counsel and advice given by religious leadership is critical, and if the court starts wading in and making qualitative judgments about the kind of advice that is given, then religious leaders will be forced to stop giving any advice at all in order to protect themselves, which is not a good outcome. I would agree that it is a little bit of a self-serving argument, although I understand what they’re arguing. It seems like a better position to just adopt zero tolerance policies and make completely sure that any time something like this happens, the church can know with surety that it was a rogue individual and not the result of a lax or ambiguous policy. On a bigger scale, though, religions just want to be able to do whatever they want without having to answer to anyone but god. Oh, and also not have to pay taxes.

  18. brjones,

    Yes, I was being somewhat sarcastic. If I were being even more sarcastic, I might have summarized the argument as, “You can’t expect us to be accountable for our advice; it’s only religious advice after all.”

  19. On the issue of Churches paying taxes (#17), that’s a subject of one of my future posts (The Church and the IRS). A preview: the Church’s seemingly never-ending and unsuccessful quest to be treated as exempt from property taxes, and the large number of Mormon militant tax protestors. Guess which Mormon took the most aggressive tax position with the IRS? Ernest Wilkinson. Plus, I am now absolutely convinced that the blacks and the priesthood “revelation” was driven by tax concerns.

  20. My understanding of the Washington case in which the Church received a $1.2 million verdict against it was that the Washington court held that the bishop was functionally a social worker, and therefore subject to the higher duty to disclose. I believe the bishop in that case was an engineer, and I disagreed strongly with the court’s finding at the time. That portion of the decision was reversed on appeal, although other portions were affirmed.

    My feeling is that many jurisdictions are unsure how to deal with the lay ministry structure of the Mormon Church. In most denominations you have clearly defined pastors or priests that can be accurately considered agents of the church. It’s harder within Mormonism, where even 12-year-old kids have certain degrees of authority. Most courts seem to struggle with the structure of Mormon congregations. This might even partially explain why few of these sex-abuse cases arise in Utah, if courts there are familiar with the structure of the Mormon Church and limit liability as to congregation members in spite of callings or assignments.

  21. Yes, imagine the following headline: “Mormon Priest Has Pregnant, Teen Girlfriend.” The average Latter-day Saint probably knows someone who, as a teenager and a priest, had a pregnant girlfriend. But if you’re not familiar with the LDS priesthood structure, such a headline would seem shocking.

  22. but it seems to be saying that if religious leaders were actually held accountable for giving …any … counsel is how the suits I’ve seen have attempted to go in this neck of the woods.

    Though as Peter has noted, there is a real problem in dealing with hierarchical churches and dealing with lay ministries. The local cases have held people responsible for their professional skills, stepping away from religious doctrines and clashes.

    So, try to escape professional licensing and other duties by calling it church services? Bammm.

    Engage in an historic religious function: immune.

    The real question is who gets second guessed and how. Such as what about liability for the acts of someone who used to home teach a family five years before who then commits a crime against them (thinking of a real case)? Does that impose some sort of duty on the bishop who has no actual knowledge to have been aware?

    Lots of really interesting issues continue to develop, jurisdictions vary widely.

  23. I think it’s fair to say the Church is caught in a tough situation when leadership knows about sex abuse from confession: disclose and violate the clergy privilege, or don’t and risk being sued later. Kind of like banks, who must protect customer information while reporting suspicious transactions. When I was a private lawyer, we learned that an alcoholic commercial pilot was flying drunk, but it was protected by attorney-client privilege. Still, I think laying off the blame to “lay leadership” is a cop-out. Also, I’m not convinced that Peter’s explanation for why these cases haven’t advanced in Utah – more familiarity with Church leadership structure – is as likely as a (my) more cynical theory.

  24. As a matter of policy, the LDS Church does not claim a privilege against reporting sex abuse from confession. It is a matter of criminal law in most states.

    Our local JRCLS had Mark Romney give a presentation for leaders about what they needed to know, aimed at immediate reporting, the 800 numbers, etc. It was very useful, the sort of thing I should have saved for a post on Mormon Matters (except it predated Mormon Matters).

    That gives me some ideas …

  25. Our Washington case has had exactly the impact it should have had. Increased vigilance by all parties and better scrutiny. Also, we all have a duty to exercise reasonable care in our relationships and to appropriately report criminal behavior. I would suggest that social factors may be part of the reason there is a paucity of Utah cases. Who wants to be the lawyer that brings that lawsuit and who wants to have the pain of being the plaintiff in any state, let alone in a State where you are more likely to face social ostracization for doing so.

  26. Why, in this day and age does the LDS church not run criminal back round checks on those who are involved with their lay ministry? Especially those in their youth and children’s programs. I can not believe that with the clout the LDS church has and the financial status they have they do not run criminal back round checks. I find this irresponsible with the size of church they have and the number of children and youth going thru their programs.

    Any one want to answer why they do not do this???

    I always found it disheartening to send my kids off to primary to be taught by a total complete stranger, whom I had no idea who they were and what their back round was.

    Most large churches run criminal back round checks. Why not the LDS?


  27. Anon here (#5), as someone who used to work for the Church magazines, I can assure you that Church leaders do not choose the models used in articles. The designers do that. If you saw a connection between a model (your friend’s bishop) and an abuse case, that connection was purely coincidental. The Church never subtly announces anything “to the world” through the models used in the Church magazines.

  28. Another anon (#29),

    If it is the case that Church leaders do not choose the models in articles, then I guess I can just chalk up the fact that my friend’s abuser was picutred as an abuser as a happy coincidence. Regardless of the reason he was chosen as the model, I still get some satisfaction knowing how this guy was used in the Ensign.

  29. You can’t choose who walks in the door or who says that their part of your religion, however you can monitor how their able to talk to inside, I once visited a Jehovahs Witness meeting with my three young daughters there was a blind man there with a seeing eye dog so as children do, they went over and talked to him and pet his dog, all of the sudden 2 elders pulled me to the side and told me that if I wanted to have the girls talk to them that was fine but keep an eye on them because he is a registered child molester, thats the differance, they did’nt move him to another congragation or sweep it under the rug, the people that have a past of child molesting our closely watched and they can never hold anykind of position in the hole organization thay can not even go out from door to door without a elder. It does’t mean their not forgiven but for their sake and the childrens it has to be done like that. If it does happen in the congragation they will talk to every child that they know has had any contact with them and provide counceling and as with everything else of coarse at no charge

  30. #25 – I would be interested to know exactly what the church’s policy is. I think one of the problems encountered when there is an ambiguous policy is that leaders have too much discretion in how to handle the situation. I know of a circumstance where there was a very credible allegation of abuse by one child against another child (they were older primary age children). The bishop instructed those who knew of it, including the primary president, to keep it quiet because he was concerned about the welfare of the perpetrating child and that child’s family. The leaders were instructed to keep an eye on the child, but none of the other ward children’s parents were informed about what had happened. Furthermore, the child’s mother, who held a position that involved primary aged children, kept her calling and continued to have unwitting primary children come to her home for functions. In that situation, the bishop obviously has to have concern for everyone involved, including the family of the perpetrating child. However, because he wasn’t given specific instruction of exactly what protocol to follow, it was left to his discretion and he basically chose to protect the perpetrator’s family’s privacy over the safety of every other child in the ward. I’m sure that’s not what he intended, but that was the result, in my opinion.

  31. For the record, the Handbook of instructions states the following on page 186.
    “Members who have abused others are subject to church discipline. They should not be given church callings and may not have a temple recommend. Even if a person who abused a child sexually or physically receives Church discipline and is later restored to full fellowship or readmitted by baptism or confirmation, leaders should not call the person to any position working with children or youth unless the first presidency authorizes removal of the annotation on the person’s membership record.”
    Also, on the same page:
    “In the United States, Canada, and selected other countries, the church has established a help line to provide guidance to bishops and stake presidents in cases of abus. (numbers listed). If one of these leaders becomes aware of physical or sexual abuse involving Church member, or if he believes that a person may have been abused or is at risk of abuse, he should call the help line. He will be able to consult with social services, legal specialists, and other specialists who can help answer questions and formulate steps that should be taken.”
    “If confidential information indicates that a member’s abusive activities have violated applicable law, the bishop or stake president should urge members to report these activities to the appropriate government authorities. Leaders can obtain information about local reporting requirements through the helpline.”

  32. Pingback: From the Blawgernacle – September 30, 2009 « LDS Law

  33. 33. it would seem from that quotation that no bishop or higher leader in the church is without the access to advice or seeking counsel on how to handle something legally, or morally or both on such matters in question. I would hope that most are using this.

    I find it interesting that they urge members to report things to authorities, but they don’t state any clarification on when or if they themselves are obligated to do so. Perhaps because of the church’s worldwide presence now which would mean in every nation or area the case or situation may be different?

  34. Doesn’t it shock you to have a viable nominee for the Republican Party presidency in 2012 that is a firm believer that the Mormon church can do no wrong?

  35. Can someone please direct me to an attorney in slc who might be able to help me through the process of bringing charges against a Utah school district for a case involving a 3rd grade pedophile teacher? Please Help! There countless victims. We need justice, healing and closure. The pain of the abuse has all but destroyed my life. I know without a doubt, that when this case is brought to light, other victims will start coming out. We have carried the shame for too long. Did not anyone hear the children cry? We are still torn up and silently weeping.

    Thank you to anyone that might be able to help.

  36. Interesting stats. Did you compile the figures for the first three years of this decade? Might be interesting to see the trend.

  37. I think it’s disgusting that the tone of this article is worrying about public opinions of the Mormon Church, instead of worrying about the well being of children. If there is something about the LDS church that is resulting in trends of sexual abuse, focus on stopping the abuse from happening.

    Worry about the safety of the possible victims before worrying about public image. Make sure any abuse is reported right away. Train Bishops on how to report abuse. Screen and do background checks on church members that work with children.

  38. No matter what if you suspect child abuse you call the police. You do not need to go to the Bishop first. Do you go to the Bishop first for house invasions, no call the police, do you call your Bishop if your car is broken into, no call the police. If afterwards you want to talk to your Bishop by all means do so.

    The 800 number it to decide on how to handle it. Yes! But in most states they do not have to report on what the child rapist did. They want the family to keep quit. We can handle it ourselves. Very important people they don’t want to report.

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