Published in the Gallup Independent, Gallup, N.M., March 25, 2016
By Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola
GALLUP – Attorneys representing two adult siblings from the Navajo Nation filed a childhood sexual abuse lawsuit against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Navajo Nation’s Window Rock District Court Tuesday.
The brother and sister, referred to in the complaint as RJ and MM, allege they were sexually abused in several Mormon foster homes in Utah while participating in the church-sponsored Lamanite Placement Program, also known as the Indian Placement Program, between 1976 and 1983. Their attorneys are Bill Keeler, of Gallup, along with co-counsel Leander “Lee” James and Craig Vernon, of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and Patrick Noaker, of Minneapolis.
“We want justice, and we want other kids not to be abused,” MM said during a news conference at Keeler’s law office Thursday.
MM and her brother were accompanied by Keeler and Vernon. In addition to seeking monetary damages, the lawsuit is seeking a change in LDS Church policy regarding the reporting of abuse allegations and the implementation of measures to bring healing to Navajo people harmed by the placement program.
Vernon said the lawsuit was filed in the Navajo courts because RJ and MM were recruited for the placement program while they were children on the Navajo Nation, and RJ alleges he repeatedly disclosed the abuse to LDS Church representatives on the reservation.
Keeler and Noaker previously filed three clergy sex abuse lawsuits in tribal court against the Diocese of Gallup and two Franciscan provinces on behalf of three Navajo men who alleged they had been sexually abused as minors by a Franciscan priest.
Although all three plaintiffs eventually settled their cases, the first plaintiff saw a legal victory when the Navajo Nation Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s dismissal and remanded the case back to district court. In its decision, the Navajo Nation Supreme Court stated, “Our courts have a duty, in parens patriae, to ensure allegations of harm to our children are fully heard and not dismissed on mere technicalities.”
Keeler said that decision “kind of set the parameters” for this new case against the LDS Church.
Vernon, a former Mormon, said the Lamanite Placement Program, which operated from 1947 to the mid-1990s, was rooted in church doctrine in the Book of Mormon. According to Mormon belief, he said, Native Americans are the descendants of Lamanites, people who fled Israel 600 years before Christ and hardened their hearts to God, causing them to be cursed with dark skin.
“That is really at the core of this Lamanite Placement Program,” Vernon said. In the church, he explained, native children were taught they had dark skin because of this “curse doctrine,” and they could “literally break the curse” by becoming Mormon and assimilating into a Mormon Gospel centered life.
The lawsuit details RJ and MM’s allegations of abuse. RJ, who entered the program at age 10, alleges he was sexually abused in his first Mormon foster family. After reporting the abuse to a couple who had served as missionaries on the Navajo Nation, RJ was removed from that home. He alleges, however, he was repeatedly abused in subsequent foster homes. RJ claims he disclosed the sexual abuse to his LDS placement program caseworker on the Navajo Nation each summer.
In MM’s case, she alleges she was 11 years old when she was raped by an adult man, a friend of her foster family, during her first placement. From sixth grade to 10th grade, MM did not experience any further sexual abuse. However, during her junior and senior years she was placed with her brother in a home where she claims their foster father sexually molested her.
In Thursday’s news conference, RJ said he didn’t think he was believed as a child when he disclosed the abuse. He said he also had to deal with Navajo reluctance to discuss sexual abuse.
“In the Navajo culture, we consider it taboo,” he said. “You’re not supposed to talk about it. You’re supposed to leave it hush-hush.”
RJ and MM agreed the circumstances of their large family posed further difficulties. Their father was an alcoholic, RJ said, and their “desperately poor” mother put at least five of her 12 children in the placement program with the hope that they would get a good education and have a good life. According to RJ and MM, four of the children were abused in the program.
Change in policies
“I believe this is really the tip of the iceberg in this program,” Vernon said of RJ and MM’s allegations of being “circulated from one bad family to another bad family.”
With the lawsuit, the plaintiffs and their attorneys are advocating for a change in LDS Church policies regarding the reporting of suspected child sexual abuse.
Citing published church policies, Vernon said LDS Church leaders are instructed to contact their Mormon bishop with reports of abuse rather than contact law enforcement, and Mormon bishops are instructed to call a church helpline to learn about local reporting requirements and securing legal advice. According to Vernon, the church’s written policy discourages Mormon officials from contacting law enforcement.
“Where is calling the police?” he said.
The lawsuit also calls for the LDS Church to acknowledge and address the “social and cultural harm” caused by the Lamanite Placement Program. The lawsuit seeks letters of apology to the plaintiffs and the Navajo Nation from church officials, and it calls for the LDS Church to establish and fund a task force to work with the Navajo Nation to encourage people who were harmed by the program to come forward and receive help.
Vernon said the lawsuit has yet to be served on the LDS Church. However, he said, church officials are aware of the allegations and have already interviewed RJ and MM.
According to Utah news reports, Kristen Howey, an LDS spokeswoman, released the following statement Thursday: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has zero tolerance for abuse of any kind and works actively to prevent abuse. This lawsuit was filed earlier today. The Church will examine the allegations and respond appropriately.”
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