Clergy Ignores Victims, Allege LDS Plaintiffs

The Salt Lake Tribune, October 17, 1999
By Sheila R. McCann

As lawsuits filed by child sexual abuse victims against Catholic dioceses have grabbed headlines and reaped controversial multimillion-dollar awards, similar litigation against the Mormon Church has proceeded quietly, usually ending in confidential settlements.

But a $750 million lawsuit set for trial next spring in West Virginia promises to shine a national spotlight on how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints responds to cases of child sexual abuse among its members.

James Doe Jr., a divorced X-ray technician, was sexually abusing his 5-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son in 1989. When the children told a baby sitter, Doe [a pseudonym used in court documents], feared exposure and confessed to New River Virginia stake president Blair Meldrum.

Meldrum counseled Doe and believed he had repented -- and reformed. Meldrum did not report the abuse to state authorities, nor did he talk to or arrange counseling for the children.

Five years later, Doe was arrested after he videotaped himself molesting the same children. He pleaded guilty to abusing them over several years and is serving a 185-year prison term. The daughter, now 15, and her mother have sued the LDS Church, charging years of abuse inflicted on the girl could have been prevented had Meldrum acted to protect her. The trial had been scheduled for next week but was recently postponed until April.

The Doe suit reflects the trend in litigation against the LDS Church. Rather than accusing its clergy of abuse, as has been the case in litigation against other faiths, more than 40 plaintiffs have alleged church officials knew of molestations or ignored warning signs and failed to alert either victim's families or authorities.

Although the cases have rarely gone to trial, last year a Texas jury awarded $4 million to a boy molested at age 8 by LDS Church member Charles Blome, who was a trusted baby sitter in the congregation. The child's attorney, Clay Dugas of Texas, argued church leaders had received complaints about Blome, who is now serving a prison sentence for his crime.

Attorneys who have sued the LDS Church argue its lay clergy is insufficiently trained, and fails to heed accusations or evidence of pedophilia, especially in popular, well-liked church members. Eager to avoid embarrassing the church, this lay clergy also fails to realize a child molester will not stop without professional therapy, lawyers allege.

Instead, past litigation shows church leaders often focus on an offender's repentance, neglecting the needs of victims or leaving children at risk, attorneys said.

"Once they learn of it, they don't ever report the abuse" to authorities, charges South Carolina attorney Michael G. Sullivan, who represents the Doe daughter and mother. "Clearly, it puts blinders on where you focus solely on the pedophile. Victims are ignored."

Adds Bellevue, Wash., attorney Timothy Kosnoff, who is suing the church on behalf of a boy molested in Oregon: "There's been this long historical tradition of separation from secular society and they want to do it their own way . . . They don't want to believe their fellow priesthood holder is a [child molester.]''

Church representatives, in a lengthy interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, conceded the faith's community leaders occasionally have made mistakes in handling reports of child sexual abuse.

But, they counter, the church has made dramatic changes since 1989, providing training to its clergy and a hot line for them to call, plus distributing educational pamphlets. These efforts, plus condemnations of child abuse by church leaders, virtually have eliminated lawsuits based on handling of reports after the hot line's inception in 1995, said Von Keetch, a Salt Lake City attorney who represents the church.

The hot line staff tells clergy to protect and arrange help for victims, and to ensure abuse is reported to authorities, said Harold Brown, director of LDS Family Services. Training emphasizes the need to refer abusers to treatment, he added.

''The church would never try to cure a true pedophile with repentance," Brown said.

West Virginia Claims: The West Virginia lawsuit contends stake president Meldrum and others decided to respond to a pedophile with prayer, focusing on spiritually healing Doe while failing to help his molested children.

But church attorneys explain in court filings: "President Meldrum took [the father] at his word, believing that he truly intended to forsake his past conduct and gain repentance in the eyes of God." After 18 months, Meldrum decided Doe had "sufficiently repented," they said.

But the lawsuit alleges the abuse continued until February 1994, when Doe videotaped himself sexually assaulting both children and forcing them to perform sexual acts with each other. The son told his former stepmother. She called the children's mother, serving in the military, who called authorities. Police seized the tape and arrested Doe.

Sullivan, the victim's lawyer, argues Meldrum should have obeyed West Virginia's child abuse reporting law. "The real issue is, in a civilized society, when you learn a child is being abused, can you do nothing?'' asked Sullivan. "We think the answer will be a resounding no."

With sufficient training or supervision, Meldrum would not have taken Doe "at his word," Sullivan added. Instead, Meldrum would have known pedophiles -- no matter how repentant -- minimize their sexual abuse of children and do not stop without therapy, he said.

Keetch said Meldrum will testify Doe hid the scope of the abuse. "I believe President Meldrum honestly believed in his heart that those kids were not in any further danger from their father."

A church Relief Society member later reported her suspicions the children were neglected and physically abused, Keetch notes. But investigations by child welfare officials failed to detect the sexual abuse, which had not been reported by the baby sitter.

The LDS Church argues it should not be required to abide by child abuse reporting laws when it learns of abuse via a member's confession. The First Amendment protects the free exercise of religion, the church reasons, and the church requires its leaders to keep "confessions'' confidential. Indeed, a clergy-penitent shield formally is recognized in some states.

The church also contends it was not covered by the 1989 version of West Virginia's reporting law, which required "religious healers" to report. Members of the clergy were added in 1992.

Raleigh County Circuit Judge H.L. Kirkpatrick has dismissed some claims, citing the First Amendment in refusing to probe whether the church followed its own policies for handling reports of child sexual abuse cases. However, the judge said the state's interest in protecting children outweighs the LDS Church's interest in keeping Doe's confession secret, allowing other claims to proceed to trial.

"This court will not make the protection of children from physical and sexual abuse subservient to free exercise interests of the LDS Church defendants," the judge wrote. "This court can think of no greater compelling interest than the expectation of a child to be free from the horrors of physical and sexual abuse."

The judge also said jurors should decide whether Meldrum was a "religious healer" required to report. Church defendants have asked him to reconsider.

Requiring Reports: Child abuse reporting laws and legal privileges vary from state to state. According to Utah's law, "any person" who has reason to believe a child is being abused or neglected is required to report to authorities.

However, Utah law says a clergy member who learns of abuse during a confession by a perpetrator can keep the confession confidential. If the clergy member learns of the abuse from any other source, such as a victim or concerned friend, he or she is required to report.

About nine states, including West Virginia, have child abuse reporting laws that "purport to abdicate" or overrule clergy confidentiality, Keetch said. Appellate courts have not yet definitively resolved the conflict between those specific laws and freedom of religion arguments, said Rev. Raymond O'Brien, professor of law at Catholic University.

O'Brien argues the clergy privilege should be respected by the courts. "Say you're a pedophile -- where can you go, if everyone must report, to talk, get help, turn yourself in, or at least end the behavior?"

Mandatory reporting laws arose in the 1970s as child welfare advocates challenged a traditional view that abuse was a family matter. A sense developed that professionals who work with children should be required to watch for abuse and report it, said Paul Chill, a law professor at the University of Connecticut.

Without such laws, "Everybody is thinking it's somebody else's job," adds Kathryn Harding, acting director of research for Prevent Child Abuse America.

To ensure a clergy exemption from such laws serves society as a whole, O'Brien acknowledges, and clergy must recognize the seriousness of child sexual abuse and the necessity of guiding offenders into professional treatment.

An untrained clergy response is often "to tend to hide it or ignore it, because the person [offending] is the one you would least expect," or due to discomfort with discussing deviant sexual behavior, he said. Catholic seminaries today include such training. But extending such education to volunteers or a volunteer lay clergy is a challenge, he said.

Keetch asserts most perpetrators who are willing to confess to an LDS leader have been willing to accept urgings to report the abuse themselves.

"If not, often there will be a wife, or a mother, or a family member, or some other victim, or someone else where a bishop can work through the process and get the report made without violating the confidence," he said.

But Sullivan argues LDS Church officials have not adequately followed up on the occasional training sessions to ensure bishops are following written policies encouraging reporting -- which would allow authorities to hold offenders accountable for their crimes. Past lawsuits routinely complain clergy did not obey reporting laws.

In Utah, professionals who work with abused children -- from therapists to police -- say bishops in Utah still occasionally fail to report abuse when they learn of it outside a confession.

Confidential Settlements: A shield of privacy surrounds the LDS Church's resolution of complaints about its handling of child sexual abuse, making it impossible to define the total number of claims, informal and formal, and the amount of money paid by the church.

Not even the amounts paid to resolve publicly filed lawsuits can be ascertained, because confidentiality is a routine requirement for a settlement. Even the end result of the lawsuit that snared a $4 million jury award last year is not public. The church initially said it would appeal, then negotiated a confidential settlement with the molested boy.

In 1993, after a California jury found the LDS Church liable and decided it should pay punitive damages in the molestation of a 13-year-old girl, the trial was halted and the case settled before jurors considered how much to award.

The secret settlements are "a very well-crafted legal strategy," Sullivan said. "They [lawsuits] simply disappear off the public's radar."

Of the more than 40 plaintiffs, Keetch contends the church has either won dismissals or paid limited settlements -- equivalent to the legal expense of defending the case -- in nearly all cases. Only about seven settlements have been in amounts higher than that benchmark, he said.

Attorneys who have researched and been involved in past litigation dispute his accounting, contending the church has spent millions in settlements and legal defense costs. The payment of only defense costs to settle cases "is completely inaccurate in every single case we had," said Dugas, who won the $4 million verdict and has sued the church on behalf of a half-dozen other victims in Texas.

Keetch argues critics should consider the relatively small number of lawsuits filed: With more than 11,000 Mormon congregations in the United States, the suits represent claims against a tiny fraction of the church's clergy.

But solely examining claims made in filed lawsuits gives a deceptively narrow impression of the scope of the problem, Kosnoff retorts.

First, victims' families have made additional, informal claims directly to the church. Keetch did not provide a number of such claims, but said he is personally involved in handling "three or four" a year.

Second, many families are understandably reluctant to pursue legal action against their church, even if they feel mistakes were made. Oakland attorney William Johnson represented several families who sued a California Little League and Babe Ruth organization after their sons were molested by a popular coach.

Some families also sued the LDS Church, contending it had known of sexual misconduct by the coach, a Mormon, and failed to report it. The coach had been previously excommunicated for sexual misconduct, but later was reinstated.

Other families declined to sue the church. "They didn't think they could continue to worship in the church with that going on," Johnson said.

Kosnoff said he has talked with Mormon families who decided against suing their church, believing "it's the true church, and that would be like suing God, and you can't do that."

LDS families often make the church the center of both their spiritual and social lives, and suing would place extraordinary stress on them, Kosnoff adds. The Oregon youth represented by Kosnoff has left the church, sending him into a version of culture shock, the attorney said. "There never was a non-Mormon in their [the family's] house."

Even the church's response to lawsuits is in dispute. Keetch argues the number of suits has dropped in recent years because the church is compassionate. When it learns of an allegation "a church leader didn't do all that he could . . . [it] immediately goes in and offers counseling for as long as it takes," he said. It also offers money for tutoring and other family needs. "When attorneys especially are willing to [accept] that, we simply don't have a problem with the lawsuits," Keetch said. Los Angeles psychologist Paul Lees-Haley, who has evaluated victims bringing claims against several churches, said the LDS Church "has a surprisingly generous attitude toward the people suing them. [Representatives say] 'Don't be bashful about telling us ways we can help them.' "

Some attorneys counter they have faced aggressive litigation tactics from the church. Indeed, Keetch draws a distinction between claims from families willing to settle for counseling and other assistance, and lawsuits that demand hefty punitive damages. He condemns such suits as "attorney retirement plans," because lawyers usually receive a third or more of any award as their fees.

"The problem we run into is when we have an attorney say, 'I want $750 million, or I want $100 million, or I want $50 million.' " Such a suit, he adds, "the church will fight until it is dead . . . because all of a sudden it's not anymore about helping the child. In fact, it's about hurting the child."

But lawyers argue such suits are aimed at benefiting children in general, by driving improvements in the church's training for clergy and its response to child sexual abuse. "Nobody's going to take it seriously until one of these cases hits it big," Kosnoff said.

Rebecca Doe, the mother of the children abused in West Virginia, agrees.

"We'd like to prevent this from happening to other kids," she told The Tribune. Her own children are angry their abuse continued, both for their own suffering and because the long-term abuse led to the virtual life sentence imposed on their father, she said.

If church officials had reported the abuse in 1989, "they would have stopped it a lot sooner," she said, "and the children wouldn't have so many scars now."

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