Lawsuit: Mormon Church leaders in San Diego turned a blind eye to a report of an elder molesting his daughter

A new lawsuit demands the LDS Church take responsibility for refusing to report the molestation by the woman's father, who was an elder at the time.

CBS News 8, San Diego/November 14, 2022

By Dorian Hargrove, Carlo Cecchetto and Jon Stinebaugh

Lawsuit: Mormon Church leaders in San Diego turned a blind eye to a report of an elder molesting his daughter

Warning: This story contains graphic accounts of the sexual abuse of a minor. Some of the details are disturbing.

Elizabeth P says her father, an elder at a San Diego-area chapter of the Mormon Church, told her that he became sexually aroused the first time he held her as an infant.

Sexual abuse by her father, who served at a ward in Lemon Grove, is all she ever knew from the days after she was born in 1983 to when she was a teenager.

Her father, Maynard McFarland, was convicted of molesting his daughter and spent 15 years in a California prison. He was released in 2020 and now lives in a small home in Chula Vista.

Now, Elizabeth wants answers. She says she wants to know why local church leaders in Chula Vista willingly turned a blind eye, discouraging her and her mother from going to the police after her mother caught her orally copulating with him at just five years of age.  

Elizabeth is one of many victims of child sex abuse around the country who are now attacking the policies and procedures that they say religious institutions, including the Latter Day Saints, use to dissuade victims from going to authorities in hopes of fending off negative publicity. Many of the accounts are mirror images of the abuse and the alleged failure by local church leaders to report it to authorities.

Elizabeth, like other victims, says instead of action, church leaders told her father to read more scripture and go to counseling, essentially allowing the abuse to continue unabated for 13 years.

Elizabeth - CBS 8 does not use the full name of those sexually assaulted as minors - hopes to get those answers through a lawsuit she has filed against the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints. In her lawsuit, Elizabeth claims the church is responsible for not reporting the abuse when they discovered it and for failing to ensure her safety as well as the safety of other potential victims.

Now, nearly two decades after the abuse, after years of self-harming behavior, cutting herself, and attempts at suicide in an effort to suppress what she has gone through, Elizabeth says she is still haunted by statements her dad made to her about his desire for young girls.

"My dad knew his predilection long before he was even married to my mom. He admitted that he had molested a girl when he was a teenager," said Elizabeth. "I don't know how old the child was or who the child was, but that's what he told us."

"He knew even before I was born that he couldn't have a girl. He would tell my mom, 'we're having a boy; we are having a boy.' He would not hear anybody talk about possibly having a girl because he absolutely knew that if he had a girl, then he would molest her. He admitted this as I got older that he knew as soon as I was born that it would happen."

My very earliest memories are of abuse. I cannot remember a time when I wasn't being abused by him. He started abusing me as soon as they brought me home from the hospital," Elizabeth told CBS 8 in a September interview.

"I didn't even know that it didn't happen in other houses, that daddies and daughters didn't show each other that that was how they love each other. When I got older, he used the teachings of the Church to get me to comply. He would say things like; this is how daddies and daughters show that they love each other. He would say that Jesus wants us to love each other. And I needed to show him that I loved him, so I did."

The first time that Elizabeth's mom went to church leaders to report the abuse was shortly after she found a five-year-old Elizabeth performing a sex act on her father at their home.

"I thought I was in trouble. I didn't understand I did not understand why she was so mad. I thought I had done something wrong, and I was in trouble because she just started screaming, and I remember running and hiding," said Elizabeth.

Elizabeth says her mother did the only thing she knew to do; go to priest-holders to seek guidance. Elizabeth says they told her mom not to report the issue to the police and that they would handle it through the church.

The elders, says Elizabeth, ordered her father to go through church counseling and to read more scripture. The church leaders also ordered Elizabeth's mother to work on the couple's relationship so that the abuse would not continue.

Less than a few days passed before the abuse continued, said Elizabeth.

"It didn't stop there," she said. "There was no period of, like, rest, in between. It started up again; it just continued."

For the next five years, Elizabeth says, not only did the abuse continue, but it intensified.

"It progressed and was a much more violent experience, and I was older, and the older I was, the more I realized that what was happening was wrong, and I wanted it to stop."

During that time, Elizabeth grappled with her devotion to her father and her dedication to the church.

"My dad was the one who baptized me at eight years old, when he had probably molested me the night before. I watch that home video of myself on what was supposed to be the most special day of my life at the time."

"Thinking back on the things that he was doing to me, the most horrific, depraved acts that a person could possibly do to a child, and then appear before everyone the next day as if nothing happened. It makes my blood boil. The fact that his priesthood leader knew what he was doing and just allowed him to baptize me. I can't..."

When she was ten years old, her mother caught her husband once again molesting their daughter.

Again, Elizabeth's mother went to church leaders with nearly an identical result.

Church leaders in Chula Vista decided to ban McFarland from taking the sacrament. He was still allowed to attend and participate in church and vote on church measures, but he was no longer allowed to partake in the sacrament until he repented for his sins.

Meanwhile, at home, the rape and sodomy did not stop.

Instead, Elizabeth says the same church leaders she and her mother told about the molestation asked McFarland to become a troop leader for the chapter's Boy Scouts troop.

In 1993, the family moved from Chula Vista to Minnesota, where Elizabeth's grandparents lived.

Elizabeth says the assault turned more psychological than physical as she got older.

"There was still sexual abuse," said Elizabeth. "It wasn't quite as severe as it was when I was younger. But it as I got a little bit older, there was a shift, especially after I hit puberty. I don't know if he was afraid he'd get me pregnant or what, but there was a shift."

Days after turning 21, Elizabeth said she decided to call the San Diego Police Department to report her father.

She says she wanted to reclaim what was taken by her father and by her church.

"The indoctrination runs so deep. It just blinds you to any fault or any flaw that the church could possibly have. I didn't realize that they were hiding my father from the authorities until I was able to take a step back. I was finally able to ask, 'How is this right? How is it right, that so many people knew what was happening, and just let it happen?"'

Audio and pictures provided by Elizabeth through her attorney.

ELIZABETH: "You don't remember anything?"

McFARLAND: "Yes, of course, I remember things, but I don't remember everything."

ELIZABETH: "What do you remember? It's really hard for me to get past this. At times, I think that you don't even care and that you don't even think that you did anything wrong..."

ELIZABETH: "Do you remember when mom caught us?"

McFARLAND: "The first time? Sure."

ELIZABETH: "How old was I?"

McFARLAND: "I don't remember..."

ELIZABETH: "Come on, Dad..."

McFARLAND: "I honestly don't remember..."

During the taped phone call, Elizabeth recalls one occasion when she was abused.

"I was probably like eight years old. I knew what you were going to do to me and I came up and I said daddy I don't want to do this...

"You said, 'Well, I guess if you don't love me, I guess if you don't like your father then you don't have to do it and you tried to get up and I did it for you anyway."

San Diego Police arrested McFarland in 2004.

He was later charged with eight counts of Lewd Acts on a Child.

The following year, in 2005, he pleaded guilty to four felony counts and was sentenced to 32 years in prison.

In 2020, McFarland walked free from prison after serving less than half of his sentence. He now lives in Chula Vista and is listed as a "very low-risk" sex offender on the state's website.

Now, Elizabeth hopes to hold the church accountable.

On August 11, 2022, she filed a civil lawsuit naming her father and the San Diego chapter of the Church of Latter-Day Saints.

"What we're looking for in this lawsuit is some accountability, some responsibility to be taken by the church for all the things that they did wrong," said Sam Dordullian, a former Los Angeles County prosecutor who now represents sex abuse victims. "Elizabeth could have been saved, gotten into therapy, and maybe that would have impacted her life. And she would have had a different life than what she ended up experiencing."

Dordullian says the LDS Church and other religious institutions can no longer hide from failing to report sexual assaults to the police.

"Their response always is, 'we have nothing to do with it. We can't stop a perpetrator like this from doing these bad things.' That's utterly untrue, says Dordullian.

"All they had to do with all the knowledge and information they had is simply call the authorities. Or at least at a minimum, don't tell the mom not to call the authorities. Let her go and report so somebody can give Elizabeth the help that she desperately needed."

LDS Church Says It Is Working to Prevent Abuse

In response to the lawsuit, a spokesperson for the Latter Day Saints told CBS 8, "Our hearts ache for victims of abuse, and the Church is committed to addressing incidents of abuse wherever they are found. "

The spokesperson said, "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has zero tolerance for abuse of any kind and works actively to prevent abuse."

As for Elizabeth's complaint, the church "is still reviewing this complaint regarding abuse that occurred more than two decades ago, but disputes the allegations that Church leaders advised the family not to report the father's abuse to authorities.”

That complaint will make its way through the court system.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth says she still has a long road to recovery if she can truly reach that goal.

"I've spent a very long time suppressing my emotions around it. Sometimes, I catch myself smiling or laughing when I talk about it because it is hard to connect to the trauma of it," said Elizabeth.

"I've spent so long trying to suppress it. But it has if it has affected every aspect of my life almost daily. It's just it has affected me to my core. And I am still working to undo the damage."

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