Mormon church sued by fourth Navajo alleging sexual abuse

AP News
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Posted: Jun 07, 2016 6:26 PM

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A fourth Navajo is suing the Mormon church, alleging religious leaders didn't do enough to protect him from sexual abuse he endured by his foster father in a now-defunct church program that placed thousands of American Indian children with Mormon families.

The man says in a complaint filed this week in Navajo Nation court that he reported the abuse that occurred in the late 1970s in northern Utah to workers in the Mormon program, but he was told to remain at the home.

The man, who is identified as L.K. in the lawsuit, said he felt relief to discover that he wasn't alone when he read an article in March about two Navajo siblings who filed the first lawsuit making similar allegations. He has spent most his adult life trying to avoid facing the abuse, struggling with feelings of inferiority, he said Tuesday after a news conference held by his attorney and sexual abuse prevention advocates.

"It's horrible. You relive it. You see the person who did this. You see their silhouette," he said about abuse that occurred when he was a seventh-grader. "It broke me. When a Native American is broken, he has to fix himself."

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

Attorney Craig Vernon said the foster father who allegedly abused the man has died. Vernon, who is also representing another woman who has sued, hinted that more lawsuits could be coming. He declined to say how many, but he said other possible victims have come forward. He and attorney Billy Keeler are in talks with those people to determine if they want to file lawsuits.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints isn't commenting on the specifics of the lawsuit. But church spokesman Eric Hawkins said in a statement that the religion doesn't tolerate any kind of abuse and works to prevent it. He noted that none of the alleged perpetrators are church leaders, but people associated with host families.

Hawkins said that the alleged abuse of the four victims occurred in the 1970s before the religion created a proactive program to identify, address and report abuse. "As awareness of the scourge of child abuse has grown in society, the church has been at the forefront of efforts to combat it," Hawkins said.

Thousands of American Indian children participated in the church program from the late 1940s until it declined in the 1990s and ended around 2000, he said. The church didn't' give an official reason for closing the voluntary program, Hawkins said. The program's closure may have been linked to better educational opportunities for American Indians and increased sensitivity to native cultures, Hawkins said.

Children participated in the Indian Placement Program at a time when the church believed that 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, Mormon scholars say.

Vernon said he's seeking monetary compensation for his two clients and for the Mormon church to change its policies to ensure members and leaders always report suspected abuse to authorities. He also wants a formal apology from the religion to Navajos for the program.

David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the program might have been well-intentioned, but he called it a "pedophile's dream" and said he expects more victims to emerge. He cautioned that perpetrators could still be alive and in positions to be molesting children.

"Church officials often try to make all this about the past. But those of us who are survivors believe it's about the present and the future," Clohessy said. "We're talking a very real threat to the safety and well-being of boys and girls today."