Lawyer ready to fight LDS
By Angie Welling
A Minnesota attorney known for suing the Roman Catholic Church in sexual-abuse cases has set his sights on Utah and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Jeffrey Anderson, along with Washington attorney Timothy Kosnoff and Salt Lake attorney Mary Corporon, sued the LDS Church and former church member George Tilson in Salt Lake's 3rd District Court Tuesday afternoon.
Their client, a Salt Lake County woman, claims Tilson, a convicted sex offender, sexually abused her in 1976 and molested her 5-year-old son nearly two decades later. LDS Church leaders allegedly knew of the abuse, but failed to report it to the proper authorities.
Utah law requires clergy members to report abuse if they learn about it from any source except the perpetrator. A priest/penitent privilege allows information that comes directly from the perpetrator to remain confidential.
Von Keetch, lead counsel for the LDS Church, told the Deseret News late Tuesday he had not yet seen a copy of the lawsuit but is familiar with some of the background of the case. He said church officials first learned of the alleged abuse six months ago when the woman called church leaders and asked for help.
The church paid counseling bills for the woman and her son, as well as some of the boy's treatment expenses, for several months, but the woman recently said she no longer wanted the assistance, Keetch said.
"This suit was a surprise to us, and we're very disappointed that rather than being able to minister to her" the church now finds itself in an adversarial position with the woman, Keetch said.
The lawsuit comes after Anderson was quoted in an April 27 New York Times article as saying, "We're launching a major assault on the Mormon church."
In the past 20 years, Anderson has represented more than 400 people who claim they were abused by their priests and has won more than $60 million in settlements against the Catholic Church, according to the article.
Anderson previously procured a $3 million settlement with the LDS Church in a similar case filed in Oregon. Church officials denied wrongdoing and characterized the settlement as "litigation economics" to save the church from a protracted and potentially more expensive legal battle.
The suit may be the first of many filed in Utah. Kosnoff told the Deseret News that he and Anderson are "looking at" other cases and expect more lawsuits in the future.
"As people perceive that the environment is not hostile to them, that the community is friendly and will not shun them, ridicule them or further victimize them, then I think it is inevitable that more victims will come forward," Kosnoff said.
Keetch said the church will "aggressively defend itself and its leaders in cases like these no matter how old they are or how difficult it is to come up with the evidence" because "we know we're right."
Tuesday's 15-page filing describes Tilson as a "dangerous serial predatory pedophile" who sexually abused at least 11 underage members of his Salt Lake County LDS ward from 1963 to 1996, when he was convicted of abusing an 11-year-old girl in his hot tub. He served six months in jail after pleading guilty to attempted sexual abuse of a child, a third-degree felony.
He was excommunicated from the church in 1995, Keetch said, and has not been a member since that time.
Tilson, 60, declined to comment Tuesday when contacted by the Deseret News.
Parents of Tilson's victims allegedly reported the abuse to various church leaders, including a Young Women's president, a stake president, a bishop and a stake high council member. But rather than report the abuse, the suit states, LDS church officials continued Tilson's church appointments and allowed him to serve as a Boy Scout leader.
"This allowed Tilson to avail himself of the church's implied representations . . . that he was 'worthy,' chaste and honorable, thereby empowering Tilson to entice, induce, direct and/or coerce children to engage in various sexual acts with him," the suit states.
Except for one instance 30 years ago, Keetch said he had "absolutely no knowledge" of other abuses by Tilson.
In 1970, a young girl and her parents told their bishop that Tilson had grabbed the girl's breasts on one occasion, Keetch said.
"The bishop counseled with the family and suggested possible reporting," Keetch said. "The family said no, and saw his conduct as juvenile rather than predatory . . . The bishop did get him some counseling."
Keetch noted that at no time did Tilson have a responsibility to serve the woman and her son, nor did the abuse occur on church property.
According to the lawsuit, the woman was "subject to extraordinary pressure" from church leaders not to report her son's abuse to police and not to file the lawsuit. She reportedly denied a requested meeting with the church's First Presidency.
Keetch characterized that accusation as "absolutely false."