Lawsuit accuses Mormon church of failing to protect Navajos

Associated Press/March 24, 2016

By Felicia Fonseca

Flagstaff, Arizona — Two Navajo siblings sued the Mormon church, alleging they were sexually abused during their time in a now-defunct church program that placed them with foster families in Utah in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The lawsuit seeks written apologies, unspecified damages, changes in church policy to ensure that sexual abuse is reported first to authorities and the creation of a task force to address any cultural or social harm to Navajos in the Indian Student Placement Program. The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Navajo Nation court.

Attorney Billy Keeler said at least two program leaders were told of the abuse but nothing was done to protect his clients, who were 10 and 11 when they were baptized into the Mormon church and moved from Sawmill, Arizona, on the reservation to live with foster families for the school year.

Thousands of American Indian children participated in the church program from the late 1940s to around 2000. Some Mormon families sought to convert American Indians, others raised Native children to be household servants and some worked to maintain the children's Native heritage while providing better opportunities for school, food and clothing, said Jan Shipps, an expert on the Mormon church.

The two Navajo siblings — a brother and sister — lived with 10 other siblings when their mother volunteered to put them in the Indian Student Placement Program for a better education, Keeler said. The lawsuit says the sexual abuse started in their first foster families and continued as they were moved to other homes.

They also witnessed the abuse of other siblings by members of their foster families or associates, the lawsuit says.

"Our clients' cries for help fell on deaf ears as they were placed in homes where they were abused again," Keeler said.

Kristen Howey, a spokeswoman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the church doesn't tolerate abuse of any kind. She said the church will examine the lawsuit and respond appropriately.

A posting on the church's website regarding child abuse hints at the viability of such cases.

"No court in the United States has held a religious institution responsible for failing to protect its members from abuse by other members," the posting reads. "To do so would turn religious institutions into police instruments, its leadership into law enforcement officers."

The church said it has settled a small number of child abuse cases and offers counseling to victims. It also has been tracking members since 1995 who are found to have harmed children so that they can be kept away from kids, according to the website.

Keeler said the siblings have suffered emotionally, physically and spiritually over the years. He said the Navajo Nation is the proper jurisdiction for the lawsuit because decisions on placement of the siblings were made on the reservation.

The Associated Press generally does not identify people who say they were sexually abused.

Children participated in the Indian Student Placement Program at a time when the church believed that American Indians were the sole descendants of Israelites who fled their country in 600 B.C. to escape the destruction of Jerusalem, said Matthew Bowman, author of the 2012 book, "The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith."

Bowman said the church believed it had a duty to restore the heritage of American Indians who were referred to as Lamanites, or the wicked of two civilizations that emerged when God guided families to the Americas.

The church changed the introduction to the Book of Mormon a few years ago to say that Lamanites are among the ancestors of American Indians, Bowman said.

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