Lawsuit filed against church claims abuse

Accused missionary may not even be alive

Arugus Leader, Diou Falls SD/September 11, 2006
By Dan Haugen

Ferris Joseph was heading to church with his sister when he says the first flashback struck.

He saw a tall, slender man in his mid-20s with dark-framed glasses who called himself a missionary with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The man gained his family's trust by taking Joseph and his siblings to the park and other activities in Sioux Falls.

On or about 1967, the trips began leading to the missionary's apartment, where Joseph repeatedly was raped and sexually abused, according to a federal lawsuit filed last month.

Joseph filed the complaint in U.S. District Court in South Dakota against the Corporation of the President Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, both of Utah.

Joseph, 51, is a Native American who lived with his family in Sioux Falls from 1966 to 1968, when he was 10 to 12 years old, according to the lawsuit.

Though the abuse allegedly took place in the '60s, the lawsuit states that Joseph had no memory of it until he had a flashback in October 2004.

A judge gave the church until Oct. 12 to respond to claims made in the lawsuit, and a lawyer for the church said they would have no comment.

"There will be a response coming," said Chris Madsen, a Sioux Falls lawyer hired by the church.

Meanwhile, Joseph said he wants help from the church and an assurance that the man he says abused him isn't allowed contact with more potential victims.

A doctor diagnosed Joseph with post-traumatic stress syndrome after the memories surfaced, he said. He's struggled to hold down a job since, he said.

"I kind of turned off," Joseph said. "I was in a zombie state."

He said he approached the church in Alberta, Canada, where he was visiting his sister. They advised him to talk with a bishop in South Dakota.

"I want them to help me get my life back on track," Joseph said.

Church leaders in Sioux Falls referred him to a therapist in Minneapolis who visited with him about once a month, he said. He quit after a few sessions because he was uncomfortable with the therapist's ties to the church.

The missionary was assigned a Northern Indian Mission in Flandreau, according to the lawsuit. The abuse was "open and long lasting," it says, so that church officials should have known about the abuse.

"The Church's policy and practice at all relevant times was to ignore indications and warnings of abusive behavior by its missionaries and to fail to report such conduct to the authorities," the lawsuit says.

Joseph's lawyers include a team from a Miami law firm that specializes in clergy abuse cases. Herman & Mermelstein have taken on more than 100 clergy cases nationwide, including a few in South Dakota.

Lawyer Adam Horowitz said the missionary is not named as a defendant in the case because they are not sure of his location or if he is still living. Joseph said he remembers he had family in California and probably would be in his mid-60s today.

But the focus of the lawsuit is on the church, Joseph's lawyer said.

"One of the things the lawsuit seeks to correct is an institutional failure. It was as much their fault as anybody's in allowing this to happen," Horowitz said.

Horowitz said they are aware of other victims linked to the same missionary, but Joseph's is the only active lawsuit about the abuse.

It's not the first clergy abuse lawsuit against the Mormon church, Horowitz said, though Catholic Church accusations have received more attention.

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