Mormon sexual abuse cases to continue in Navajo tribal court
By Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola
Gallup Independent correspondent
November 17, 2016
GALLUP – Four Navajo Nation tribal members who filed sexual abuse lawsuits against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints won an important legal victory Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby rejected LDS Church arguments that Navajo tribal courts don’t have jurisdiction over the cases. Instead, Shelby ruled the church “must first exhaust their remedies” in the Navajo Nation courts before seeking redress in the federal courts.
Attorneys for the LDS Church had filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Utah in May after the church was named as a defendant in several personal injury lawsuits filed in Window Rock District Court.
“The issue is not whether the Navajo Nation District Court ultimately enjoys jurisdiction” over the claims, the judge said, but instead whether church attorneys “have met their substantial burden at this stage of the proceedings” to show that the tribal court lacks jurisdiction.
The individuals — two men and two women — have said they were sexually abused as children in Mormon foster families while enrolled in the now-defunct Indian Student Placement Program, also known as the Laminate Placement Program. They are being represented by Gallup attorney Bill Keeler, along with Craig Vernon, of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and Patrick Noaker, of Minneapolis.
The first lawsuit was filed in Window Rock District Court in March by two adult siblings from the Navajo Nation. Two more individuals — a Gallup area woman and a man residing in Utah — filed additional lawsuits in June.
In response, attorneys for the LDS Church filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Utah seeking a declaration that the Navajo Nation courts lacked jurisdiction.
“These claims far exceed the well-established jurisdictional limits of tribal courts,” church attorney David J. Jordan argued. “Simply put, because the claims involve nonmember activity outside the reservation, the tribal court has no jurisdiction.”
In subsequent months, Keeler and Vernon filed a motion to subpoena LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson, the church filed a motion to quash the subpoena, and the Navajo Nation filed motions asking to intervene in the case and requesting the court dismiss the church’s complaint for failure to exhaust tribal court remedies.
In his decision Wednesday, Shelby addressed the church’s arguments in a detailed analysis, noting the court found none of the arguments persuasive.
Although church attorneys asserted none of the actionable conduct related to the alleged sexual abuse took place on tribal land, Shelby noted that attorneys representing the Navajo individuals “have alleged that actionable conduct underlying at least some of their claims occurred on the Navajo Reservation,” including the alleged negligent failure by church officials to report the abuse or disclose the abuse to Navajo parents.