(CNN) — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is the largest sponsor of Boy Scout troops in the United States, says the church has strong measures in place to prevent the sexual abuse of scouts, as claims have been made it hasn’t done enough.
In the first interview about allegations of abuse in Mormon church-sponsored scouting troops, Church Elder L. Whitney Clayton told CNN that the church is at the forefront for prevention of child abuse.
“We feel like there is really no other organization that we know of — a church or something like a church — that does as much as we do,” Clayton said. “We have a zero tolerance policy or position with respect to child abuse, and we train our people, we teach our people, we work with leaders, we provide materials online and in hard copy.”
Over several months, CNN examined allegations of abuse that were detailed in at least five lawsuits filed against the church and the scouts.
But Clayton said the church today is proactive, even constructing its buildings “in such a way as to try to avoid any situation where child abuse could occur.”
“For instance, if you walk down the hallway in an LDS chapel, a Mormon church, and look at the Sunday school classes, you’re going to see windows in the doorways into those Sunday school classes so people can look inside and walk by,” he said.
The interview with Clayton followed a CNN investigation into the case of Melvin Novak, who was sexually abused by his scoutmaster, a member of the Mormon Church, beginning when he was 14 years old in 1998, according to the lawsuit Novak filed against the church and the Boy Scouts of America.
The scoutmaster, Vance Hein, had been forced in resign from scouting in the early 1990s after reports surfaced that he failed to report a fellow scoutmaster who was engaged in homosexual activities. That scoutmaster ended up going to prison for sexual assaults on minors.
Hein’s name was added to the Boy Scouts of America’s ineligible volunteer files, which are widely known as the “perversion files.” The documents, which were made public in 2012, are lists of scout leaders suspected of sexual abuse or homosexual activity.
However, three years after being kicked out of scouting, Hein was allowed to rejoin the scouts after getting letters of recommendation attesting to his character. One of those letters was from Hein’s influential Mormon Bishop Jack Moyer, who wrote that Hein was “highly respected and liked.”
Moyer, who is now retired, declined to speak to CNN. But in a deposition taken as part of the lawsuit last year, he acknowledged that he would not have written the letter knowing what he later found out about Hein.
The lawsuit charged that Hein “actively groomed young boys under his charge for later sexual molestation.” Hein eventually was convicted of molesting Novak. He is now in prison for violating probation in the Novak case.
Ken Rothweiler, who is Novak’s lawyer, said what happened in the case is outrageous.
“This case is probably the most egregious of all of the cases against the LDS church, and the reason I say that is because the LDS church knew that Vance Hein, this pedophile, was already kicked out of scouting by the Boy Scouts of America,” Rothweiler said.
However, church attorney David Pittinsky said it was the Boy Scouts organization that should have done something.
“If the Boy Scouts had disclosed to Bishop Moyer the information they had in their files, there is no way that Vance Hein would have ever become a scoutmaster, and he would have been subject to excommunication by the church,” Pittinsky said.
In a statement to CNN, the Boy Scouts of America said Hein was removed from scouting “for reasons unrelated to child abuse.” The group added, “Our efforts to protect youth were plainly insufficient, inappropriate or wrong. We extend our deepest apologies to victims and their families.”
The case ended last year with a confidential settlement paid to Novak, who is now 31. All but one of the five lawsuits filed against the church and Boy Scouts of America have been settled.
Hein was sentenced to probation in 2000 after pleading guilty to indecently assaulting Novak. While on probation, he was arrested for possession of child pornography and was sentenced in 2012 to 15 to 30 years in prison.
“Any case is alarming to me. It’s a tragedy,” Clayton said. “I’m a father. I have seven children, four boys and three girls. I have 19 grandchildren. The thought of one of them as a child or youth being abused is absolutely horrific to me.”
Asked what he would say to Novak, Clayton said, “I say to him and anyone else who has been abused in the church or other churches — I’m sorry that you’ve gone through what you’ve gone through. It’s a horrible thing for anyone to be abused. No child, no youth should ever have to go through that.”
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