In Utah the LDS Church is the law

The LDS Church chooses to ignore the law about reporting child sex abuse

UPDATE: September 4, 2001: LDS Church Pays $3-Million for coverup of child sex abuse

From the Salt Lake City Weekly - March 22, 2001

Law of the Land

by Andrea Moore Emmett

March 22, 2001

After years of dealing publicly with numerous embarrassing lawsuits alleging cover-ups and mishandling of child sexual abuse cases, the LDS church now has a legal ruling to relieve it of such distractions.

On March 9, the all-Mormon Utah Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of Lynette Franco [“Crisis of Confidentiality,” March 9, City Weekly] who alleged that she was sexually assaulted when she was 7 years old by a 14-year-old boy in her Mormon ward. The decision appears to legally shield church leaders from fallout from their counsel to victims of abuse or their abusers.

When Lynette’s parents, Janice and Ralph Earl, reported the alleged sexual assault to then-Bishop Dennis Casaday and then-Stake President David Christensen, they were told to “forgive and forget” and not report the boy to the police. Neither Casaday nor Christensen reported the incident to authorities. But the two clergymen did direct the Earls to a non-licensed therapist with LDS ties, Paul K. Browning, who again told them to forgive and forget and not report to the police. “We were told, ‘What kind of Mormons are you that you want to ruin this boy’s life?’” says Janice.

Utah law requires anyone with knowledge of the sexual abuse of a child to report the crime to police within 72 hours. Clergy are not exempt from reporting, unless the sole source of the information is the perpetrator. In Lynette’s case, the source of information was the victim.

A second therapist without ties to the LDS church later reported the crime to the police. The Earls filed suit against the LDS church, Casaday, Christensen, the boy’s parents, Browning and his employer, Craig Berthold, and Bountiful Health Center. Third District Judge J. Dennis Frederick dismissed the claims based on the time-honored privilege between clergy and parishioners. The Earls dropped the boy’s parents and Browning and Berthold from their complaint but appealed to the Utah Supreme Court.

But LDS church attorneys argued successfully that government has no place in religion. Associate Chief Justice Leonard Russon wrote the high court’s opinion in favor of the LDS church, saying that the Earls’ claim would, “foster an excessive government entanglement with religion in violation of the Establishment Clause, contained in the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Matthew Durrant acknowledged a “tension” between the Establishment Clause, which guards against the establishment of a state church, and the Free Exercise Clause, which guards against government impinging on religious practice.

The Earls’ attorney, Ed Montgomery, was livid with the decision. “They rewrote our complaint saying we were claiming things we never claimed, such as alleging the church knew Browning was not a licensed therapist. We never alleged that the church knew that. They ignored the essential facts,” he said. “In their decision, they just parroted what the church was saying. It’s a bunch of crap.”

San Francisco-based Child Protection Project director Linda Walker was sickened by the implications of the decision, saying people fail to understand how Mormon leaders don’t understand sex abuse. “They give lip service about how they do so much against child abuse but they fight child protection laws throughout the country,” she says. “Pedophiles already flock to the LDS church because of the blind trust and easy access to children, but with this ruling there will be an onslaught of pedophile baptisms in Utah.”

The Earls have asked their attorneys to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although disappointed with the Utah Supreme Court’s ruling, Lynette was not surprised, saying to her mother, “What else did we think would happen?” Janice Earl says the court didn’t do the LDS church any favors. She maintains that when a crime is committed the church needs to learn how to deal with it as a crime rather than offer the cloak of ecclesiastical protection. She says she’s learned an important lesson: “In Utah the LDS church is the law.”

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Page Modified September 27, 2001