Mar 24, 2016

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

MARCH 24, 2016

RJ and MM, plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the LDS Church, with their mother. Image courtesy of the family.

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 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 carried out by the LDS Church and its subsidiaries from about 1947 to the 1990s called the “Indian Placement Program” or the “Lamanite Placement Program.” 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 who were baptized into the LDS Church were relocated to live with white, Mormon families through the LPP.

The lawsuit lists two plaintiffs. “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 also suffered physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his stepmother. The boy was removed from the home after he disclosed the abuse, but the next year he was placed with another family in Utah–where he was again molested by an older foster-brother.

After repeated disclosures of abuse, the boy was again placed with a family in the Laminate Placement Program, where he was again allegedly abused and also witnessed the alleged abuse of a younger sister. In later years, the boy witnessed further abuse of his siblings.

The second plaintiff, “MM” 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. She was removed from that home and then participated in the LPP for four more years without incident, but between 1981 and 1983 she was again allegedly abused sexually, this time by a foster-father in Centerfield, Utah.

The lawsuit alleges the children were either abused by people who were under the authority of the LDS Church or who were known by those who are in authority in the LDS Church, and that the LDS Church did not take reasonable steps to protect children–even after abuse was reported. Those steps would have included removing children from the home where the abuse occurred, notifying law enforcement, 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.

The lawsuit seeks damages for the injury caused to the plaintiffs, though no amount is specified. The lawsuit also seeks changes to LDS Church policy, including a policy of removing any leader named in abuse allegations from contact with children. Other measures sought by the plaintiffs include making it mandatory to report abuse to law enforcement first, and making every church leader a mandatory reporter of child sexual abuse, even where not required by law. They also request that the LDS Church change their policy about directing leaders not to testify in civil or criminal cases involving abuse.

In addition to those steps, the lawsuit outlines steps the plaintiffs want to see the LDS Church take to apologize 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 trough 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. The Church will examine the allegations and respond appropriately.”

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