The Mormon Scandal

NPR Weekend Edition Broadcast Transcript – Sunday, July 7, 2002

Produced by Howard Berkes, NPR News

Synopsis: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is finding itself the subject of lawsuits alleging sexual abuse. As with the incidents within the Catholic Church, Mormon officials are accused of knowing about the abuse, not reporting it to the police, and trying to contain the information. NPR's Howard Berkes says dozens of lawsuits are now being prepared against the Mormon Church. (8:11)

Narrator: Another lawsuit was filed this past week involving priests and bishops and sexual abuse, but the suite does not target members of the Catholic Church. This suite, and at least two-dozen earlier cases, named the eleven million member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The suites charge that Mormon leaders failed to protect children from abusers. From Salt Lake City NPR, Howard Berkes reports.

Berkes: Seven summers ago, a woman we'll call Kathleen worked in her home office in a quiet neighborhood outside Salt Lake City.

Kathleen: “And it was just after school had let out, my daughter was eleven, my son was seven. They were rollerblading and I just, just this feeling came over me that something wasn't right.”

Berkes: Kathleen asks we not use her real name to protect her daughter's identity. The funny feeling that day, grew out of something she was told when she moved into the area shortly before. A 53-year-old male neighbor had molested kids.

Kathleen: “She came home, I asked, I just asked her if something was going on that she needed to tell me about him. And she said, she just started crying and said ‘yeah' and told me what he had done.”

Berkes: The neighbor fondled Kathleen's daughter and tried to lure her into his hot tub. Kathleen called police. The neighbor called his Mormon bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Bishops are lay leaders of local congregations called Wards.

Kathleen: “and wanted to go to the Bishop. Because this evidently is how this man handled this in the past was to go to the Bishop, tell him that he was sorry, and then they just supposed to let it go.”

Berkes: The neighbor was a High Priest, a designation given to most adult Mormon men. It signifies readiness for leadership. But he was no ordinary High Priest. He's accused in a lawsuit filed last month of hundreds of abusive acts over three decades with a dozen boys and girls. All members of the same Mormon ward, and all before the incident involving Kathleen's eleven-year-old daughter. Some of the abuse was reported to at least three local Mormon officials. None went to police. Kathleen was contacted by her regional leader known as a Stake President.

Kathleen: “He told us that we needed to not press any lawsuits. We needed to keep harmony in the neighborhood. Basically we needed to forgive and forget. And, I had a really hard time with that one…(pause and begins crying) because when your daughter's been abused you can't forgive and you can't forget. This went to court. It finally went to court. And the Stake President showed up at the court to support the perpetrator, not my daughter.”

Berkes: The neighbor pleaded guilty. Was placed on probation and excommunicated from the Mormon Church, but he still attended services. Kathleen and her daughter chose not to sue, but their experiences are familiar to the attorneys involved in two dozen law suites in the last decade. Dozens more are being prepared says attorney Jeff Anderson who filed hundreds of cases against the Catholic Church and says the Mormon Church is next.

Anderson: “The Mormon Church seems to be in a place very similar to where the Catholics were two decades ago. That is they have a practice of keeping secrets, denying responsibility for molestation when it happens, and doing everything they can to prevent it from becoming known, and as a result, the children are not very well protected in that church.”

Keech: “There is absolutely, positively no pattern.”

Berkes: Von Keech is an attorney for the Mormon Church.

Keech: “There is absolutely, positively no not one instance that I have ever found, where a priest leader has been told, or has otherwise come to a conclusion, that he should cover up or not fully report it.”

Berkes: And relatively few law suites, Keech says, accuse the Mormon Church.

Keech: “I've been doing this for twelve years and there are fewer than two dozen cases. A far cry from what the other churches are seeing. We're, we're not a perfect people. There have been blips on the radar screen where local leaders have not handled the situation perfectly. There have probably been a dozen or so of those over the ten years that I've been doing this. Certainly not a pattern.

Berkes: Keech says the problem cases occurred before the church established training programs and a telephone help line for its lay leadership. Bishops and stake presidents receive brochures, video tapes, and opportunities for training every few years. They're instructed to call the Help Line if they have any questions about handling abusive situations. There's also a system for tracking abusers from one Ward to the next. Harold Brown heads the church department responsible for the program.

Brown: “It's a pretty good system. You train them. You have a telephone call. Are we perfect…no we're not. But you, you show me an organization that does what this church does. To, to prevent and deal with child abuse. I'd like to see it.”

Berkes: Critics see the imperfections as significant. Training is voluntary and there's no punishment for failure to train. There's no clear message on the moral or legal duty to report to police. Instead there's advice to research and follow state laws, which aren't necessarily clear even to lawyers. And some clergy seem to view abuse as a religious problem, emphasizing salvation for the abuser rather than prosecution. All this overlooks something fundamentals says Tim Kosnoff, another attorney targeting the Mormon Church.

Kosnoff: “Mormon bishops and stake presidents don't have the authority, the qualifications, or the understanding to be investigating crimes and child sexual abuse is a crime.”

Berkes: It's also a complicated social and psychological phenomenon best handled by professionals and not volunteer clergy says Dave Fowers, a Mormon and sexual abuse therapist.

Fowers: “When I sit here in the office I have to wonder and worry when I see some of the decisions that are made, I'm…I'm heartbroken because I don't think that even with the desire to do right that you can always do that, especially with victims of perpetrators. It's such a complex dynamic.”

Berkes: How complex is it to dial 240-1911…the help line.

(Harold Brown of the Mormon Church)

Brown: “We understand what he is saying, how can a bishop in a year learn everything that I've known in thirty years. He can't, but he can memorize a number. And when he picks it up, he's got the expertise that this man has in thirty years right at his disposal.”

Berkes: That didn't seem to be enough in a case filed last month in Washington State. It involves another high priest who sexually molested his daughter and stepdaughter. The abuse was reported to a church social worker, bishop, and stake president, but they didn't go to police. The church says they didn't have to under Washington law. The prosecutor in the case disputes that, noting to that the church officials were not protected by the First Amendment privilege that keeps confessions to clergy private. Still Mormon Church attorney Von Keech sees mischief in this and other lawsuits.

Keech: “We do it the best way we know how with the best of intentions and that's why allegations, like these, are so outrageous to us. There has been an environment created out there by these lawsuits around the country against other institutions. And I think there are attorneys, who intend to profit from that environment by setting their sights upon organizations like the church. I would say, where, where is the proof?”

Berkes: It'll probably take depositions, discovery, and sworn testimony to sort out the proof and the truth. But details will likely remain secret in lawsuits settled before trial. Settlements today typically include non-disclosure agreements at the insistence of the Mormon Church. Howard Berkes, NPR News, Salt Lake City.

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