LDS Church named in lawsuit alleging sexual abuse of Navajo children in foster program

Posted at 6:14 PM, Mar 24, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-25 01:09:57-04

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. -- Two members of the Navajo Nation have sued The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, alleging the church placed Native American children in Mormon foster homes where they were sexually abused and that LDS leaders did not take adequate steps to protect those children.

The lawsuit, filed in Navajo Nation District Court on March 22, names The Corporation of the President of the LDS Church, The Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the LDS Church, LDS Family Services and the LDS Church itself.

The allegations stem from a foster care program formerly carried out by the LDS Church and its subsidiaries called the "Indian Placement Program" or the "Lamanite Placement Program" (LPP). The two plaintiffs, a brother and sister, state they and another sibling experienced abuse while in the program in Utah from 1976-1983.

“It was kind of a series of ongoing sexual abuse situations of varying degrees while in this program,” said Craig Vernon, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs.

The brother, fictitiously named in the lawsuit as “RJ” to protect his privacy, reportedly suffered abuse that included fondling, sexual molestation and rape during his years in the program.

According to the suit, RJ was placed in an LDS home in Oak City, Utah in 1978 at the age of 10, where he was allegedly sexually molested on several occasions by an older stepbrother. The boy was removed from the home after he disclosed the abuse, and the next year he was placed with another family in Utah--where the lawsuit states he was again molested by an older foster-brother.

After the boy said he again reported the abuse to Church leaders, he was placed with another family in the LPP, where he was again allegedly abused and also witnessed the alleged abuse of a younger sister.

He said he reported the abuse to the Church, but this time, the Church sent him back to live in that same home where the reported abuse occurred.

The sister, fictitiously named "MM" in lawsuit documents, was placed in an LDS home in Utah in 1976. The girl was allegedly raped by a friend of her stepbrother, who was 40 years old at the time.

A few years later in 1983, after being placed in a different foster home in Centerfield, Utah, MM said she was again allegedly abused sexually, this time by her foster-father.

The lawsuit alleges the LDS Church did not take reasonable steps to protect the children--even after abuse was reported.

“The problem is, when they reported this to LDS social services, we don’t believe that the police was ever contacted,” Vernon said. “First and foremost, that’s what needs to happen.”

Other steps would have included removing children from the home where the abuse occurred, and setting up better policies to monitor children, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit further alleges that LDS Church policies are designed to protect the church and its leaders from culpability rather than ensure that abuse is reported to authorities and justice pursued.

The lawsuit cites a policy that states, "'To avoid implicating the Church in legal matters to which it is not a party, Church leaders should avoid testifying in civil or criminal cases or other proceedings involving abuse.' (Handbook 1, Stake Presidents and Bishops 2010, section 17.3.2)." And another policy that encourages church leaders to contact an LDS Bishop about abuse first rather than the police.

“We want clear policy changes… that the Church is not going to investigate its own sexual abuse, it’s going to report it immediately and direct its members and leaders to report it immediately to police,” Vernon said.

The lawsuit also asks the Church to create a policy to remove any leader named in abuse allegations from contact with children. Plus, the attorneys request that the LDS Church change their policy about directing leaders not to testify in civil or criminal cases involving abuse.

The lawsuit seeks damages for the injury caused to the plaintiffs, though no amount is specified. And, Vernon said, the plaintiffs want to see the LDS Church write a formal apology for harms caused and to restore Navajo culture, which they allege was damaged by years of efforts to assimilate native children into white, Mormon culture.

The LDS Church released a statement Thursday in response to the lawsuit through spokeswoman Kristen Howey:

"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has zero tolerance for abuse of any kind and works actively to prevent abuse. This lawsuit was filed earlier today [sic]. The Church will examine the allegations and respond appropriately."

Another attorney on the case, William Keeler, said the Church has 30 days to respond to the lawsuit.

The LDS Lamanite Placement Program ran from about 1947 to the 1990s. Lamanite is a term used by the LDS Church to refer to Native Americans, who the LDS Church believes are descended from a group that fled Israel in 600 B.C.

The lawsuit states Mormons believe Native Americans were "cursed" with dark skin for wickedness, and the lawsuit alleges Mormons felt a cultural and religious duty to convert Native American children and immerse them in white, Mormon culture as a way to redeem their prophetic destiny. As such, thousands of Navajo children like the plaintiffs were baptized into the LDS Church and relocated to live with white, Mormon families through the LPP.