Mormons caught up in wave of pedophile accusations

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Church deals with abuse cases without reporting them, critics say
By PAUL McKAY         Copyright 1999 Houston Chronicle May 08, 1999 

The church that is known for placing a spiritual premium on family values is
under increasing attack for an alleged failure to protect its children from

Therein lies the irony of a barrage of lawsuits and general complaints alleging
that -- in an effort to protect its wholesome image -- the Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly called the Mormon church, has failed to
root out child molesters in its midst.

The fast-growing institution, with 10 million members worldwide, is not the only
church that has been plagued in recent years by embarrassing cases involving
sexual abuse of children.  But while Mormon officials maintain that they have
eliminated most of the problems that may have once existed, lawsuits and
criminal charges linking the church to pedophiles have continued to mount.  For

Last year in Montgomery County, a jury found the national church liable in a
$4 million verdict -- $1 million more than the plaintiff had sought -- for
failing to protect an 8-year-old boy who was sexually assaulted in 1993.

The pedophile, Charles M. "Chuck" Blome, who already had been convicted of
criminal charges and sentenced to prison before the lawsuit trial, was active in
the Magnolia ward that the child and his mother attended.  (Local congregations
in the Mormon faith are called wards; the wards are grouped in districts known
as stakes.)

The church is appealing that verdict and is fighting other, similar lawsuits in
which Mormon representatives are accused of shunning young victims or, in some
cases, even blaming them.

In Beckley, W.Va., a woman whose two children were sexually abused by her
ex-husband, a Mormon, maintains in a $750 million lawsuit that representatives
of his church could have stopped the abuse when they first became aware of it,
five years before his arrest.  The man is now in prison. That case, being
watched by lawyers across the country who have similar lawsuits pending against
the church, is scheduled for trial in October.

Officials at the church's home base in Salt Lake City admit they were
embarrassed in late March when a group of Mormon leaders in Utah helped a
convicted child molester gain early release from prison so he could go on a
church mission to Chile.  High-ranking church officials intervened to withdraw
the mission, but the man remains free.

Despite those and scores of other cases, Salt Lake City lawyer Von G. Keetch
contends that the real irony of attacks on the church lies in the very progress
it has made in combating sexual child abuse.

 Exaggerated allegations, high-dollar demands

Keetch, a Mormon affiliated with the firm that defends the church in lawsuits
involving such cases, insists that the church is at the forefront among
religious and social institutions in dealing with victims and their molesters.
He says allegations in the lawsuits usually are exaggerated or manipulated by
lawyers who are more concerned with cashing in on high-dollar demands than with
the best interests of their young clients.

Keetch says the church will not stand still for lawsuits such as the one in West
Virginia, which he cites as an example of such gold-digging.

The case is among a litany of accusations that local Mormon leaders violated
laws and ignored church policies in not reporting a known pedophile to police.

"That's the kind of cases we see," Keetch said.  "Those are the kinds of cases
where we're not talking anymore about getting the victims the kind of help they
need to get whole again, and what they may be entitled to -- not just for
counseling, but for general damages, as well, for pain and suffering.  We're
talking about plaintiffs' counsels who seem to believe that this (church) is
their retirement plan or this is their gold at the end of the rainbow.  Those
kinds of cases, the church is
going to aggressively defend to its last breath."

The church has never officially disclosed its financial records, but published
estimates have put its wealth at $5 billion or more -- an amount the church
calls exaggerated.  Still, the Mormon church's vast holdings include investments
in stocks, real estate and businesses, including the largest resort in Hawaii.

Much of the criticism comes from disenchanted members or former members, Keetch
said, who never seem satisfied with any progress or changes the church makes in
response to sexual child abuse -- a problem, he noted, that infiltrates all
churches and all segments of society.

"We get criticized for what we do and criticized for what we don't do."

Keetch said the critics apparently don't know or don't care what the church has
done to emerge as a leading force in the battle against child molestation -- a
plague that has cost the Roman Catholic Church millions of dollars in punishing

Keetch said the lawsuits against the Mormon institution cannot be compared to
the highly publicized ones alleging offenses by Catholic priests.  The lawsuits
against the Mormon church are different in that they attempt to blame the sexual
crimes of church members on clergy who did not participate in the abuse, he

Despite allegations that the clergy were parties to the abuse by not reporting
and by generally protecting confessed molesters, Keetch said that in most cases
-- including the West Virginia case -- the church was under no legal obligations
to report abuse.

While acknowledging that "some clergy have made mistakes," going too far in
helping perpetrators by testifying as character witnesses for them, Keetch said
state laws that address the confidentiality of confessions to clergy vary

Harold Brown, director of the Mormon church's global network of welfare
services, points out that a pedophile is often a charmer who can win the
confidence of parents and caretakers before taking advantage of a child.  It
seems that critics expect church leaders to somehow be able to see through the
deception, he said.

"These people fool a lot of people," Brown said.  "A person who abuses is always
a deceiver, always a liar."

Brown, who acknowledges that, at best, pedophilia can be managed but seldom
"cured," said the church's accusers don't seem to understand or appreciate the
high value that Mormons place on women and children.

"We have nothing to gain by having abuse in the church," said Brown,  who
oversees a church network that provides many kinds of professional counseling in
65 cities.  "Our children, our women, our families are especially precious to

Terry Jennings, a Mormon who prosecutes accused child molesters in Maricopa
County, Ariz. -- a Mormon stronghold -- said the perception, if not the reality,
that child sexual abuse is more common in the Mormon church may be because those
of the faith tend to have large families.

The family is considered so sacred in the church, Jennings said, that Mormons
believe families literally will live together in eternity.  That may be one
reason that some bishops and other church leaders try to counsel known or
suspected molesters in-house and fail to notify police, he said.

"I'm not trying to defend what they do, but in a lot of cases, they are trying
to do everything they can to keep a family together and get the family healed so
that they can live (together) in eternity."

Trying to `cure' with counseling

But some critics say the true motive for trying to keep abuse reports quiet is
the desire to preserve the church's image.

All too often, they add, the leaders try to "cure" pedophiles with counseling
that relies on prayer and repentance, without professional help or police

"The church will go to great lengths to protect its image and reputation," said
Clay Dugas, a lawyer in Orange who has sued the church on behalf of numerous
child-abuse victims and their families in Texas and Mississippi.

Dugas, who led a team of lawyers in winning the $4 million verdict in the
Montgomery County case, said he believes that pedophiles are attracted to the
Mormon church because of its structure.

"A pedophile will have all kinds of opportunities to go into the homes of
members or have easy access to children so he can build trust with the kids and
families," Dugas said.  "Men are empowered in the church very quickly.  Females
don't get that empowerment.  The men have all the real authority.

"The church is very patriarchal, very secretive.  Why would you preach to the
membership of a church not to discuss a case of child abuse when it becomes
known?  They do that.  The whole belief is that the men, the leaders who are all
men, can take care of everything.  If someone in a family is abused, the family
won't go to the police.  They'll go to the bishop."

Dugas has teamed with Michael G. Sullivan, a lawyer from Columbia, S.C., in
finding other incidents of child abuse that they contend the church failed to
report.  They say they may join forces in filing more lawsuits to halt what they
consider church cover-ups similar to those that went on in the Roman Catholic

Sullivan, who leads the team of plaintiff's attorneys in the Beckley, W.Va.,
lawsuit, said he has no idea whether pedophilia is more prevalent in the Mormon
church.  Nor does he have evidence, he said, that the church attracts

"I do know that there is a pattern in the Mormon church, dating back years and
years, in which the church does not report cases of sexual child abuse to the
police or proper authorities," he said.

Sullivan maintains that the church is trying to hide behind the veil of freedom
of religion in asserting that confidential confessions to clergymen are legally

"The safety of kids trumps even religion every time," he said.

Keetch, the Salt Lake City defender of the church, says the 41-year-old mother
who is suing the church in the Beckley case on behalf of her son and daughter --
now teen-agers -- accepted financial aid and other welfare from the church even
after filing the lawsuit.  The children were sexually abused from 1989 until
1994 by their father, who is serving prison terms totaling 173 years.

The father first told several Mormon ward leaders and members in Beckley that he
was abusing his children in 1989.  Church attorneys contend, however, that he
downplayed the severity of the abuse and conned those to whom he confessed,
convincing them that he would never again touch the children.

Keetch speculates that the mother, who is not a Mormon, dropped the church's
financial assistance on advice from Sullivan, who Keetch says was more concerned
about the lawsuit than ensuring that she and her children got help.  It is a
further measure of Sullivan's insincerity, Keetch suggests, that he announced to
the National Press Club in 1996 that he had filed the $750 million lawsuit.

Sullivan, however, says he welcomes publicity because it is needed to force the
church to change its ways.

As for ceasing church welfare to the mother, Sullivan has a sharply different
recollection.  He said Keetch was unwilling to have the church spend $2,500 to
have the children evaluated to determine what kind of professional therapy they

"Anybody who takes on the church with a lawsuit on this kind of stuff usually
gets discouraged and gives up, because the church has all those billions for
lawyers like Von Keetch who will fight the victims' families every step of the
way instead of just doing what's right," Sullivan said.

'Scorched-earth' legal strategy

"It's a scorched-earth legal strategy.  The typical pattern, when a suit is
filed, is for the church to fight right up until a jury is picked or about to be
picked.  And then they settle for an amount that is confidential at the
courthouse steps."

The mother in the Beckley case -- whose name has been withheld to protect her
children's identities -- says she had anticipated that she and her attorneys
would be accused of greed.

That, she says, is not the motivation.

"People can believe what they want, but the church leaders in Beckley could have
stopped the abuse of those kids in 1989, when my ex-husband told them he was
abusing," the mother said.  "They didn't do anything about it except try to help
him every step of the way while he was doing horrible things to those kids.

"(The church) did nothing to help my children.  I didn't even know he had told
(church leaders) that he was abusing the kids until 1994."

William Watson, a West Virginia lawyer who will defend the church in the trial,
said the mother had to have known about the abuse when she was still married and
living with the father in Alaska.  In one case, Watson said, the boy was taken
to the hospital with an injured penis.

"After that, the mom says to him, `You take the kids to West Virginia,' " Watson
said.  "She sent them off to live with him.  She wasn't an exemplary mom."

The woman gave up custody to the father in 1988 to pursue her military career,
although she later left the Army and regained custody.

The mother, her lawyers say, will stand firm in what is sure to be a grueling
trial.  She insists that her only motivation is to keep other children in the
church from being abused while officials look the other way.

"The only thing that's going to stop this is for (the church) to have to pay a
huge amount of money," she said.

To the extent that a problem with pedophilia within Mormon ranks ever existed,
Keetch said, the church largely corrected it in 1995.  That's when it
established a national toll-free help line that allows local church leaders to
call for advice from Mormon social workers and lawyers on how to handle abuses.

At the same time, the church stepped up training about pedophilia for the
bishops who supervise the 23,000 wards.  Training emphasizes the need to make
sure a suspected pedophile is reported -- if that state's laws require it -- and
to ensure the victim's safety by removing him or her from the suspected abusers,
Keetch said.

The victim's safety is the priority for the trained counselor who will take the
call, he said.

The help line and training have been promoted by top-ranking Mormons, including
church president Gordon B. Hinckley, who, along with other church leaders based
in Salt Lake City, has strongly denounced child abuse in speeches dating to

But Lavina Fielding Anderson, an excommunicated Mormon who co-wrote a book
documenting what she describes as widespread "ecclesiastical and spiritual
abuses" by the church in cases of child abuse, said she was not surprised
recently when a development in the case of convicted child molester Shonn M.
Ricks made the news in Utah.

Ricks, 23, was found guilty by a Salt Lake City jury of molesting a 6-year-old
girl in February 1997.  Citing Ricks' severe heart condition, the judge reduced
his two second-degree felony convictions to third-degree felonies, which carry a
maximum sentence of five years rather than the 15 years he could have received.

Then when Ricks, a Mormon, came up for parole in a hearing last August, his
friends, relatives and church leaders reportedly filled the room.

The reason: Mormon leaders contended that Ricks was sufficiently rehabilitated
after less than two years in prison to receive a church "call" to a mission in

The parole board chairman, also a Mormon, pushed for the early release -- which
the full board later approved -- and Ricks was freed over the objections of the
victim's father, who also is a Mormon.

Ricks remains free, although the church scrapped the mission assignment after a
high-ranking Mormon official in Salt Lake City intervened.

Church leaders declined comment but issued a written statement saying: "The
church does not call convicted child sex abusers on missions.  In this case,
normal procedures appear not to have been followed.  The call has been

Salt Lake City prosecutor James Cope said Ricks has never admitted his guilt and
obviously has convinced friends, relatives and his local church leaders in a
small northern Utah community that he is innocent.

Missions and molesters: the church's guidelines

Cope, a Mormon, noted that the church's own guidelines prohibit convicted
molesters from being among the 55,000 members, between ages 19 and 26, who are
called for mission assignments every year.

"The church is trying to train its local leaders not to do stuff like this, but
every once in awhile I still get a horrendous story like this that comes across
my desk," Cope said.

"It's like the military in that there's always somebody who doesn't read the
manual on how to handle the rifle, and sure enough some private comes along and
shoots himself in the foot.  In this particular case, somebody clearly did not
follow the church's own directives in its handbook of instructions. There's
always that 10 percent of ecclesiastical leaders, just like in the military, who
don't bother to read the manual."

Anderson, the Salt Lake City writer and church critic whose father was a bishop
for 13 years, said handbooks and guidelines for church leaders on how to handle
abuse reports date back to 1985.  In all too many cases, they have been ignored,
she said.

"There is still this tendency, after all these years of speeches and the church
putting out publications and everything else, for them to believe the
perpetrator and blame the victim," she said.

"One problem with the training they talk about so highly is that men do the
training," Anderson said. "Another problem is that the help line is for the
bishop to call.  Very often it's the bishop who's the problem.

"He'll get a report of abuse and never call the help line, never call police,
never do anything but try to help the perpetrator.  Men are the problem.  Women
are not included."

She cites the Ricks case, in which local church leaders rallied to support a
known molester, as one that underscores the mindset among the male leadership.

"They want very much to believe that the perpetrator is innocent," Anderson
said.  "The victims and their families see this kind of thing happen and they're
revictimized all over again."

The Salt Lake City Tribune reported that the father of the 6-year-old victim
felt so isolated after Ricks was accused that he moved his family to another

Number of incidents considered relatively few

Still, Keetch says such incidents are relatively few.  He said no more than
about 30 lawsuits have been filed against the Mormon church in the past 10 years
alleging improprieties by clergymen.

A third of those were dismissed outright without any payments by the church, he

"Another 12 or 15 have been settled for what I would term less than nuisance
value, which is less than it's going to cost the church to defend," Keetch said.
"And about another five or six have been settled for more than what I would term
to be nuisance value over the 10-year period."

Anderson said lawsuits are never filed in many cases because it takes a strong
person to withstand the backlash that results from criticizing, much less suing,
the church.  She has documented cases in which Mormons have been excommunicated
for reporting child abuse to bishops.

"Not many victims or their families are willing to take on a church that is this
powerful," she said.

In 1992, Anderson was excommunicated after writing an article critical of what
she calls "ecclesiastical and spiritual abuses" by Mormon leaders.

She still attends the Salt Lake City ward from which she was excommunicated, a
disciplinary action that allows her to attend church but bars her from certain

The development in the Ricks case notwithstanding, Keetch maintains that
lawsuits and the cases cited by Anderson and other critics are aberrations in
which almost all of the abuses occurred in the 1980s or early 1990s, before the
church set up its national toll-free phone line and stepped up the training of

Emphasizing that "one case is too many" and granting that some bishops and stake
leaders may have ignored church policies in years past, Keetch said the problem
amounts to no more than "a blip here and a blip there."

The foreman of the jury that awarded the $4 million verdict in the Montgomery
County case, however, said jurors wanted to send the church a message that it
does have a problem with the way it handles, or mishandles, cases of child

"We were unanimous in that we didn't feel the church had any great big
conspiracy going on," said Vincent Perregrino, 39, of Spring.  "But we were also
unanimous that the church was negligent.  We wanted to go for a big number
because we felt maybe they need to start thinking about this when they hear from
people who go to them and tell them there's abuse going on.  You can't just
sweep this stuff under the rug and act like you don't hear it.

"Besides that, we felt like (the victim) was entitled to the reimbursement."

Perregrino and several other jurors said it bothered them that a bishop
testified on behalf of Blome, the pedophile, in a bail-reduction hearing.

Blome's bail was reduced from $100,000 to $15,000 after the bishop testified.
Before being convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison, Blome went back to
the Magnolia ward and attended Sunday services.

While noting that he still admires much about the Mormon church, Perregrino said
he tends to agree with those who say that there is a problem with the dominance
of males in authoritative positions.

"It's like a good-old-boy system on a grand scale," he said.

Monday: A church flap over research into the sexual abuse of children.

Reprinted pending permission.

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