ST. GEORGE — Members of the Navajo Nation have filed suit against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The suit alleges church leaders did not take adequate steps to protect Native American children from sexual abuse they claim to have endured after being placed in Mormon foster homes.
In the lawsuit filed Tuesday in Navajo Nation Tribal Court, a fourth Navajo accused the LDS Church of making him remain in a Mormon foster home in northern Utah after he reported abuse – which occurred in the late 1970s – to workers in the Mormon program.
The man said in the complaint that he continued to be sexually abused by his foster father after being told to remain in the foster home until the school year ended.
The man is the fourth alleged victim suing the church – including 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 – alleging sexual abuse in the program and accusing the church of not reporting the abuse to the proper authorities.
The allegations stem from a church program called the “Indian Placement Program” or the “Lamanite Placement Program” involving thousands of American Indian children from the late 1940s until it ended around 2000.
Plaintiffs in the suit say they were taken from their Navajo Nation homes as children, baptized into the Mormon religion and placed with host families under the program.
According to the lawsuit, it was “the LDS Church’s desire to convert Native American or ‘Lamanite’ children and assimilate them into their culture reflects teachings in the Book of Mormon, a book of canonized scripture unique to the Mormon religion.”
Two Navajo siblings filed the first lawsuit March 22 making similar allegations. The brother and sister plaintiffs state they and another sibling experienced abuse while in the program in Utah from 1976-1983.
The brother claims in the lawsuit that he was fondled, sexually molested and raped during his years in the program.
According to the suit, at the age of 10, the boy was removed from the first foster home he had been placed in after he disclosed he had been sexually molested on several occasions by an older stepbrother. The next year, he was placed with another foster family in Utah, where he alleges he was molested by an older foster-brother.
The suit continues to allege that the boy again reported the abuse to Church leaders and was placed with a third family, where he was again allegedly abused and also witnessed the alleged abuse of a younger sister. After reporting the abuse a fourth time, the boy was allegedly sent back to live in the same home where his reported abuse occurred.
The sister, who was placed with a Mormon family in 1976, said she was raped by a 40-year-old friend of her stepbrother, according to the lawsuit. After being placed in a different foster home in 1983, the girl said she was sexually abused by her foster-father.
The lawsuit contends that the LDS Church did not take reasonable steps to protect the children and failed to implement reasonable safeguards, even after the sexual abuse was reported.
In a court filing Friday morning, lawyers for the LDS Church asked a federal judge for a restraining order to prevent the cases from being litigated in the Navajo Nation Tribal Court.
The church contends in court documents that since the alleged abuse took place in Utah, the proper forum for the case to be heard is in Utah’s federal court.
LDS Church attorney David Jordan wrote in the motion for an injunction:
Defendants have filed claims against these Plaintiffs in the Navajo Nation District Court (the ‘Tribal Court’) seeking damages for alleged acts of child abuse occurring while they were living with nonmember host families in Utah cities and towns outside the Navajo reservation. These claims far exceed the well-established jurisdictional limits of tribal courts. Simply put, because the claims involve nonmember activity outside the reservation, the Tribal Court has no jurisdiction.
Lawyers for the alleged victims are trying to keep the cases in tribal court, acknowledging that it would be difficult to maintain a case in Utah under the existing statute of limitations.
While the LDS Church has yet to release an official statement on the specifics of the lawsuit, the church states on its website that it condemns harming or abusing children and that it has become stricter on its reporting requirements and how it tracks people accused of abuse.
“Child abuse is a societal plague that we have learned more about in the last several decades,” the church states on its site. “When the Church has faced claims of child abuse at the courthouse, the great majority of these claims occurred decades ago, when society and the Church understood far less about abuse.”
The church said it has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to abuse, and when child abuse occurs, the church deals with it immediately and directly. The church said it cooperates with law enforcement to report and investigate abuse.
Church members convicted of child abuse risk losing their church membership, even if the individual has not been convicted in a court of law, according to the church.
“Child abuse is despicable and heinous. It is not just a social malady and a criminal act; it is absolutely forbidden by the commandments of God,” according to the Mormon newsroom. “Protecting and nurturing children was a priority for Jesus Christ in His life, and it is a priority in His Church today. No child should have to endure abuse. Even one case is one too many.”
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