Published in the Gallup Independent, Gallup, N.M., Aug. 16, 2017
By Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola
GALLUP — Three more sex abuse lawsuits have been filed against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on behalf of Native Americans who allege they were sexually molested as children in the Indian Student Placement Program.
Two of the lawsuits were filed Friday in Window Rock District Court on behalf of two Navajo women, one of whom was identified as a Gallup resident. The third lawsuit was filed in Chelan County Superior Court in Wenatchee, Washington, on behalf of a member of the Crow Tribe of Montana.
Attorneys Billy Keeler, of Gallup, and Craig Vernon, of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, held a news conference announcing these latest lawsuits in Phoenix Tuesday. Keeler and Vernon , along with co-counsel Patrick Noaker, of Minneapolis, have previously filed four other lawsuits against the LDS church.
The first lawsuit was filed in March 2016 on behalf of two adult siblings, a brother and sister, from the Navajo Nation. With these latest lawsuits, a total of six women and two men allege they were sexually abused as children while residing in Mormon foster homes during their participation in the now-defunct Indian Student Placement Program. Seven of the eight plaintiffs are Navajo.
Some of the plaintiffs have alleged they reported their abuse to church or placement program officials at the time of the abuse, but those reports were not forwarded to law enforcement officials.
One of the latest plaintiffs, a Navajo woman identified in court documents as “AH” claims she reported her abuse as a teenager to church authorities. In her lawsuit, AH, who lives in Gallup, states she was taken from her home on the Navajo Nation in August 1978, when she was 15 years old, and placed with a Mormon foster family in Mesa, Arizona.
AH alleges she was sexually molested several times by her foster father, who is named in the complaint.
“AH disclosed the sexual abuse she suffered her sophomore year in high school to agents of LDS defendants while at church,” the lawsuit alleges. “AH was urged to stay silent and not discuss the abuse. She was told that it would be handled. Despite this disclosure, the LDS defendants never contacted the authorities, or inquired on AH’s well-being.” The lawsuit claims AH continued to suffer sexual abuse after this disclosure.
AH, who attended Tuesday’s news conference, issued “a message of hope” for other survivors of sexual abuse in her attorneys’ news release: “Understand that you are not alone. It is not your fault. The shame is not yours, rather the shame belongs to those who abuse, as well as those who allowed the abuse to happen.” AH said she sought legal representation after learning other Navajo individuals had similar experiences.
“I think that’s an important step in healing,” Vernon said. “For some it might not be, but for most people, it is.”
The second Navajo plaintiff in this latest round of lawsuits is identified as “JC.” In her lawsuit, JC states she participated in the placement program during sixth grade with no incident. However, she alleges that in August 1970, at the beginning of her seventh grade year, she was placed in a Mormon foster home in Enterprise, Utah. JC claims she was sexually molested several times by the foster father, who is identified in the legal complaint.
The third plaintiff, from the Crow Tribe, is identified as “Jane Doe 1.” She states she participated in the placement program from third through 10th grade and lived with two different families. In her first foster home in Wenatchee, Washington, Doe alleges she was sexually molested by the foster grandfather three times when she was 9 years old and once when she was 13.
In addition to seeking monetary damages, the lawsuits against the LDS church are seeking a change in church policy regarding the reporting of abuse allegations. They are also seeking the implementation of measures to bring healing to Native people harmed by the placement program.
Eric Hawkins, an LDS church spokesman, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. When responding to previous sex abuse lawsuits, church officials have stated the LDS church has zero tolerance for abuse of any kind and works actively to prevent abuse.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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