Woman sues Mormon church alleging rape by leader in 1980s

McKenna Denson, right, receives a hug from supporter Jenea Gillespie, left, after speaking with reporters during a news conference, April 5, 2018, in Salt Lake City. Denson, who accused a former Mormon missionary training center director of raping her in the 1980s and the church of failing to take her allegations seriously, has sued the man and the church in a move that could bring more scrutiny to the religion's handling of sexual abuse reports. | Associated Press photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A woman who says a former Mormon missionary leader raped her in the 1980s and that the church failed to take her allegations seriously has filed a lawsuit, saying Thursday she wants the church to change the way it handles sexual abuse reports.

McKenna Denson stands next to her portrait following a news conference, April 5, 2018, in Salt Lake City. | Associated Press photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

McKenna Denson, 55, said she opted to take legal action after becoming fed up that local church leaders failed to take disciplinary action despite reporting the allegations several times over three decades. She said her experience illustrates systematic problems in the church with sexual abuse claims.

Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for The Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter-day Saints, declined comment on the lawsuit but said the institution has faith in the judicial system. The church has previously said it’s investigating Denson’s allegations and last week updated guidelines for how local leaders should deal with sexual abuse claims.

The church should encourage members to report abuse first to police, not local leaders, and require local leaders to call police when they hear of abuse, not a church hotline as currently directed, Denson’s attorney, Craig Vernon, said at a news conference.

“Nothing happened. McKenna wasn’t believed,” Vernon said. “McKenna was blamed, McKenna was shamed.”

The Associated Press doesn’t usually name alleged victims of sexual assault but Denson has decided to go public with her story.

In the federal lawsuit filed Wednesday, Denson repeated her allegation that Joseph L. Bishop singled her out, groomed her and sexually assaulted her in 1984 when he was president of the Missionary Training Center in Provo.

Bishop, now 85, has denied raping Denson but acknowledged to police who investigated the report this year that he asked her to expose herself, which he says she did. Denson, of Pueblo, Colorado, said that didn’t happen.

Gregory Bishop, an attorney serving as his father’s spokesman, didn’t return a request for comment Thursday.

The case became public last month when a conversation Denson secretly recorded with Bishop in December came to light. In the conversation, Bishop is heard apologizing to Denson after she confronts him about the incident, but he doesn’t say what happened.

In the same conversation, Bishop acknowledged molesting an unidentified second woman and described it as back rub that he says got “too frisky.”

Read more: Former Mormon mission president accused of sexual assault

McKenna Denson, center, speaks with reporters during a news conference, April 5, 2018, in Salt Lake City. | Associated Press photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

“The church takes seriously its responsibility to hold its members accountable for their conduct with respect of the laws of God and man,” said Hawkins, the church spokesman.

It’s not the first lawsuit filed against the church alleging sexual abuse by religious leaders, but Bishop held a much more prominent position than others. As president of the Missionary Training Center from 1983-1986, he was in a position of authority over hundreds of young Mormons preparing to go on proselytizing missions.

Denson said she came from a troubled background and converted to Mormonism as a teenager. She said the attention from a high-ranking leader like Bishop made her feel special.

After the incident, Denson said Bishop told her: “No one will believe you. Look at you, look at me.”

Denson said the #MeToo movement gave her the courage to think she might be finally believed. She posed as a journalist working on a story about Mormon leaders to secretly record the conversation with Bishop.

Denson said she’s not fazed by a dossier prepared by church officials, which was distributed to media by Gregory Bishop, of her criminal record. It includes a shoplifting conviction in 2010 in Utah and a police investigation of a death threat she made against Bishop that same year. She wasn’t charged after police determined she wasn’t serious, a police report shows.

“Maybe five years ago, 10 years ago, discrediting and victim shaming would have worked,” Denson said. “It doesn’t work now.”

“There’s been at tectonic shift really that has caused a ripple,” Denson added, “then a wave and then a tidal wave.”

The allegations have exposed how the church handles sexual abuse while it also deals with questions about closed door one-on-one interviews between local lay leaders and youth, and the sexual questions that sometimes are asked.

About 1,000 people marched to the church’s headquarters last week to demand an end to the so-called worthiness interviews that they argue can lead to unhealthy shaming of youth.

The church last week changed policy to now allow a child to bring a parent or adult with them to the interviews. Parents previously were allowed only in a hallway or adjacent room.

The Mormon church faced more criticism Monday after a top leader during a conference last weekend praised the #MeToo movement but referred to sexual misconduct as “non-consensual immorality,” a remark that some said could be interpreted as victim blaming.

Written by BRADY McCOMBS, Associated Press

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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  • PatriotLiberal April 6, 2018 at 11:44 am

    “Denson said she’s not fazed by a dossier prepared by church officials, which was distributed to media by Gregory Bishop, of her criminal record”

    Yep.Because publicly denouncing a victim in an attempt to excuse or sway negative public opinion away from the church is exactly what Jesus would do.

  • Yvonne April 6, 2018 at 3:02 pm

    I just don’t understand what the church could have done in a case of he said/she said. It’s not guilty until proven innocent-for good reason. She made a claim- he denied it (still denies most of it) and there is no way to prove what she is saying- were they supposed to punish him anyway. Then later, when cops heard the story, they only pursued her murder threat…

    This article also minimizes her past- she has made repeated false accusations against people and false claims to make money grabs- and we are required to believe her whole story??

    • PatriotLiberal April 6, 2018 at 4:02 pm

      and you’ve clearly bought the church version hook, line and sinker. The guy ADMITTED to part of it. To me, that makes him guilty no matter what she did. I wonder who many other women this guy molested over the years.

      If what Ms Densons attorney says about the hotline is true (and i don’t know if it is) WHY is it set up that way? Why don’t church leaders advise victims to call the police? Why don’t they do it themselves? Does the church have some kind of problem with reporting incidents like that?

  • Connor April 6, 2018 at 4:03 pm

    **Stop protecting sexual predators**

  • Sparky April 7, 2018 at 6:38 am

    I’m torn on this one. She has 100% crazy eyes, that being said some of the things SHE is accused of compel me to think she is full of crap, but then the fact that “it happened in the 80’s” and she is still pursuing it after all these years makes me think its true. Crazy situation. He said She said, is always dicey. You would expect if a predator was doing this to one girl in the 80’s there would be band wagoners jumping in and saying he did it to them too, men like this aren’t one time offenders, they get away with it one time then form habits, id wager if another person doesn’t come out against him, this wont be a thing. If more come out, he is obviously guilty, then throw the book at him. Sure glad i’m not a lawyer or a judge on this case.

  • Striker4 April 7, 2018 at 5:32 pm

    This is going to upset ..Prophet Bob

  • Bot April 7, 2018 at 6:15 pm

    Mormons believe in the Christianity of the New Testament era. Catholics and Protestants believe in Fourth Century Creedal Christianity. Here are the differences:

    1. Baptism by immersion by the father (who has the authority) of the family
    2. Lay clergy
    3. Baptism by proxy for deceased ancestors
    4. God and Jesus organized the world, rather than creatio ex nihilo.
    5. Belief in a tripartite anthropomorphic Godhead
    6. Belief in theosis or divinization (that faithful Christians can acquire god-like attributes).
    7. Belief in sacred esoteric ordinances which allow faithful Christians to ascend to the highest heaven. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, administered these ordinances until 350 AD.
    8. Belief in Eternal Marriage, as recorded in the Book of the Apostle Philip.

    Which is the true Christianity? New Testament Era or Creedal?

  • Ladyk April 7, 2018 at 7:38 pm

    I think almost any girl/woman has her own story of some guy having grabby hands. I can tell you that almost every guy I dated tried things repeatedly. And before you say it these were supposedly “good guys” inside and out of the church. I can tell you I said no over and over and over. All of you guys know that you just keep trying until the girl gives in. That’s why you all say you hope your daughters don’t date someone like you. So I have a hard time with men standing in judgement of women who report a man who wouldn’t take no for an answer or used his position or whining to get the girl to do what he wants. I will tell you it didn’t matter if I dated a return missionary or a non member it was all the same.

    So, is every guy suposto to go to jail for this? I don’t know. But no should be no.

    Additionally I can tell you that I was a missionary in the MTC within 6 months of the woman making these accusations and nothing was ever tried with me. I don’t know if her story story is true or not but at his age I doubt he is competent to stand trial, but if he quilty he will stand accountable sooner or later.

    I feel sorry for this woman. If this did happen, no one deserves that from someone she should have been able to trust. The information about her past is troubling but not unlike the same stories of so many other women. We have to be true about our own lives before we can stand in judgment of others. Parents teach your son’s that they don’t have the right to touch something that doesn’t belong to them. Teach your daughters that they are more than just a body to be grabbed at and that they can say no and mean no.

    • comments April 8, 2018 at 12:00 pm

      It goes both ways, buddy. Could it be the types of men/boys you chose to date? NO! it could never be, right?! If you got fondled by every guy you ever dated I’d say PART OF THE PROBLEM IS YOU, AND YOUR CHOICES.

    • Sparky April 9, 2018 at 7:11 am

      If no 100% meant no, all men would die virgins, and the human race would never move forward. That being said, any type of “force” needs to be dealt with as drastically as possible. I am a fan of .223 rounds, lots will say “but what if you kill an innocent man?” I say GOOD, that will deter those that MAY do something like this in the future, of course you will never get rid of the mentally unstable, but .223 rounds will deter the average frat-boy/bro that thinks they can force something that should never be forced.

  • PatriotLiberal April 7, 2018 at 10:29 pm

    Ladyk. While I agree with most of what you said. That said there is no “if” about what happened.

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