Mormon Church faces more abuse suits
By Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola
Gallup Independent correspondent
June 9, 2016
GALLUP – Two more Navajo individuals have filed lawsuits against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints alleging they were sexually abused as children in the church’s now defunct Indian Student Placement Program.
The two lawsuits were filed recently in Window Rock District Court on the Navajo Nation by attorney William Keeler, of Gallup. Keeler, along with attorney Craig Vernon, of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and Patrick Noaker, of Minneapolis, filed a similar lawsuit in March on behalf of two Navajo siblings, a brother and sister, who said they were both sexually abused in Mormon foster homes in Utah while enrolled in the church-sponsored placement program, also known as the Lamanite Placement Program.
“Religious organizations and programs should be places where children are safe from harm, not places that protect sexual predators,” Noaker said in a news release last week that was followed up with a news conference by Keeler and Vernon in Salt Lake City Tuesday.
Stories of abuse
With these latest filings, three personal injury lawsuits have been filed in Navajo tribal courts against the church on behalf of four plaintiffs, two women and two men.
The third plaintiff, identified in court records only as BN, said she entered the program in the fall of 1964, when she was in the fifth grade. She alleges she was sexually molested and raped the next school year by her foster father in River Heights, Utah. The following school year, she said, she was raped in a church facility during a medical exam by a health care provider hired to examine Native American students in the placement program.
Finally, BN alleges, she was repeatedly raped during her senior year of high school by her foster brother in a home in Orem, Utah. BN said she reported those sexual assaults to her foster parents and to LDS church officials.
The fourth plaintiff, LK, is a Navajo man living in Utah. According to LK’s lawsuit, he was baptized into the LDS Church in 1976, at the age of 9, in order to enroll in the placement program. He attended school during fifth and sixth grade in the program without incident. During his seventh-grade year, LK alleges, his foster father in Roy, Utah, repeatedly sexually molested him.
Although LK said he reported the abuse to his placement program caseworker over the Christmas break, LK was not removed from the home. During that school year, LK alleges, he was also subjected to “physical, emotional and cultural abuse” by his foster mother and father, including “being pushed down stairs, being struck in the face, having his face slammed into a countertop, being whipped with a belt, and being pushed into wooden shelves.”
In addition to seeking monetary damages, the lawsuits seek a change in church policy regarding the reporting of abuse allegations and the implementation of measures to bring healing to Navajo people harmed in the placement program.
Within days of BN's lawsuit being filed, attorneys for the church filed an amended motion for a temporary restraining order in U.S. District Court in Utah.
One of the church’s attorneys, David J. Jordan, of Salt Lake City, a former U.S. Attorney for the District of Utah, argued, “These claims far exceed the well-established jurisdictional limits of tribal courts. Simply put, because the claims involve nonmember activity outside the reservation, the tribal court has no jurisdiction.”
Because of that, Jordan also asserted the church “will suffer irreparable harm if forced to litigate” in Navajo Nation courts.
Jordan also emphasized that placement decisions took place in Utah – not the reservation – and students participated in the program “voluntarily with the agreement of their families.”
In a phone interview Tuesday, Keeler said attorneys for the alleged abuse survivors disagree with Jordan's views about jurisdiction. Keeler, who along with Noaker filed three clergy abuse lawsuits against the Diocese of Gallup in tribal courts, cited decisions by the Navajo Nation Supreme Court as laying out the criteria for such suits.
“Under that case, we believe the court does have jurisdiction,” Keeler said.
In the news conference Tuesday, Vernon said the lawsuits were not filed in Utah because of the state's statute of limitations.
“We would file it,” he said, “and it would be thrown out of court before the ink even got dry.”
Vernon said all the plaintiffs were recruited to the placement program while living as children on the Navajo Nation, and some of the abuse disclosures were made to LDS placement caseworkers on the reservation.
When contacted Wednesday , the church’s media office released a lengthy statement, attributed to church spokesman Eric Hawkins, that is being distributed to the media in response to questions about the Navajo lawsuits.
Promising to “examine the allegations and respond appropriately,” the statement's first sentence – “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has zero tolerance for abuse of any kind and works actively to prevent abuse” – and first paragraph were almost identical to the statement the church released when the first lawsuit was filed in March.
Church officials did not answer specific questions regarding whether the church had background checks to screen families who volunteered to host children in the Indian Student Placement Program, if the program had a system to investigate complaints, and when the church implemented a policy to respond to sexual abuse allegations.
Church officials also did not say if the church has made settlement agreements in the past with Native Americans who have claimed they were sexually abused in the placement program.
Officials pointed to a statement from its Newsroom resource page: “When the Church has faced claims of child abuse at the courthouse, the great majority of these claims occurred decades ago, when society and the Church understood far less about abuse. The Church has always been concerned for the welfare of children: and as awareness of the scourge of child abuse has grown in society, the Church has been at the forefront of efforts to combat it.”
David Clohessy, the director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, also attended the news conference Tuesday. Clohessy offered his support to Native American abuse survivors and also offered his perspective of the Indian Student Placement Program.
“Quite frankly,” he said, “the program, while no doubt well-intentioned, would have to be considered a pedophile’s dream.”