Ask A Mormon: What’s your reaction about allegations of the LDS church covering up the Michael Jensen sex abuse scandal?

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Q. What is your reaction to the lawsuit against the LDS church for covering up the child sexual abuse scandal with Michael Jensen?


SPO-House-ad_Ask-A-Mormon_0823139A. Because of the timely nature of this question, I’m leap-frogging it over the other two questions still in the queue.


As every person in his or her right mind would be, I’m horrified and disgusted at what Michael Jensen did. Those who were in a position to stop him from hurting children reportedly chose not to.


I just heard about this myself on Sunday — the day before I received your question — so for those who aren’t aware of the details, here’s some background information to the best of my knowledge: In February 2013, a 22-year-old named Michael Jensen, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was convicted on three charges relating to the sexual abuse of two children in 2006. In July, he was sentenced to 35 to 75 years in prison, with an additional 50 years of probation in the unlikely case that he is ever released, and in August, he was excommunicated from the church.


This month a lawsuit was filed naming five individuals, all of whom were allegedly aware of either actual incidents or allegations of abuse and did not report it or take steps to protect the children: Michael Jensen, his parents (both of whom held leadership positions in their local congregation or ward), his bishop (who presides over the local ward) and his stake president (who leads the local stake, which is made up of several wards).


Two corporations, legal entities which hold ownership of the property of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were also named as defendants because the individuals named (except for Jensen himself) were acting as “agents” of the Church by virtue of their leadership positions for at least some portion of the time between 2006 and 2012. Four families, in addition to the one mentioned above, joined this civil suit, alleging sexual abuse of at least 10 additional children between 2007 and 2012.


I am horrified and disgusted that the bishop and stake president were reportedly aware of reports of abuse as early as 2007, dismissed them as “hearsay” and did not report them to the authorities. In West Virginia, where the abuse took place, members of the clergy are mandatory reporters and are legally obligated to report suspected child abuse. Their first responsibility is to “help those who have been abused and to protect those who may be vulnerable to future abuse” (according to the official church handbook). Instead, these leaders apparently neglected to follow church policy or demonstrate basic human decency. They minimized the incidents to those who were aware of them, refused to disclose them to others who were then made vulnerable because of that lack of disclosure and allowed Jensen to continue as a member in good standing, even sending him on a mission for the church in early 2012.


I am horrified and disgusted that Jensen’s parents, who were prominent members of their local congregation, used their positions and influence to not only keep him from any consequences for his heinous actions, but also to provide him access to more children even after they had been told of the abuse, according to the lawsuit. His mother was the ward’s Relief Society president — the spiritual leader of the women in the congregation — and encouraged families to use him as a babysitter. It was during these babysitting sessions that much of the abuse occurred. I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like as a parent to find out that your child is capable of such evil, but I also can’t imagine allowing it to continue once I was aware of it, much less enabling it.


I firmly believe that the vast majority of leaders in the church — and people in the world, for that matter — are good men and women who truly want to do what’s right and simply can’t fathom someone they know doing something so horrible. Whether they were intentionally trying to protect the accused abuser or were simply in denial, there is no excuse for turning a blind eye to this kind of evil. These individuals failed in their pastoral responsibilities to the children, to the families and, yes, even to the perpetrator.


The Church needs to do better at training its leaders and members about abuse. We need to make improving training and safeguards a priority across the board. We have part-time lay clergy instead of paid ministers and there are a lot of benefits to that approach, but one of the weaknesses is that leadership training is often not as thorough and consistent as it should be.


While the Church has published manualspamphletstalks by church leadersarticlesofficial statements, and videos regarding abuse, implementation and training is largely left up to the discretion of local leaders. Over the past 15 years I have worked with the children and youth in my church in many capacities, from being a Sunday school teacher for five-year-olds to serving as the president of the Young Women organization in two different wards. Other areas may differ, but the only time I can recall having anything resembling training regarding child sexual abuse related to my church service was when I volunteered for my son’s three-day Cub Scout day camp (his pack is sponsored by our ward). The Boy Scouts of America — not the church — required that I complete an online course.


The resources I mentioned above should be regularly reviewed by local leadership, and anyone who is called to work with youth or children should be required to review it frequently as well. It should be absolutely crystal clear that every allegation must be taken seriously, regardless of the leader’s relationship to the perpetrator or his or her opinion about the families involved. Period. Any report of abuse should be dealt with promptly, including being reported to the proper authorities, and with sensitivity to the victims. That’s simply the right and moral thing to do.

About Emily Geddes

Emily H. Geddes was born to two physicists and grew up as a Navy brat. Born-and-raised as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she holds a bachelor's degree in theatre from Brigham Young University, and earned an MBA from Eastern Washington University.

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  1. Emily, well put. This is disgusting behavior by any human regardless of their religious affiliation. I am a member of the LDS church and have held leadership positions, including Bishop. It was very clear to me by reading the Church Handbook that abuse of any kind is not tolerated and that it is to be taken seriously. There are many resources available through the Church to assist in this training. I agree we can do a better job. It sounds like the Bishop notified the Stake President. This is as it should be. There is an 800 number the Bishop is to call immediately upon the report of abuse. This is a Church resource to give legal advice as well as to advise how to proceed from the church and repentance side. One of the ramifications would certainly be that the abuser would not hold a position in the church involving the demographic of those whom were the target of the abuse.
    Sadly policies and procedures broke down.
    I hope the abused and those involved can heal quickly.

  2. Emily, and Bart
    I would like to commend you both. I grew up in LDS church, and was sexually abused at the age of 13. The abuse WAS reported to our Bishop, and for me and family, that is where the church’s action stopped. He went on to abuse many more 20 miles down the road. He was caught and went to prison. He now has a home with family for many years, 20 doors down from an elementary school. I went on to live a very painful life. At the age of 42, I have finally come to full realization and received intense therapy for trauma. I wonder what my life would have been like, had I received proper acknowledgement at some point over the last 29 years…..
    As for my family, and the Church, they still seem very concerned about the Image of the Mormon church. I believe when you take right action, your Image will take care of itself.
    Again, I would like to commend you both. You may be the first two folks who had the courage to take this subject on. Maybe, someday the church will follow your great example! Love, Tommy

  3. I am also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. While my abuse was not at the hand of a church member I do have strong feelings of how the church handles such allegations. I have served in many leadership capacities and have read the church manuals described in the response above. The first issue I have is that the church provides an 800 number for bishops to contact for advise. There isn’t a recommendation to involve law enforcement and that is troubling. In my 16 years serving in various leadership positions within the church I never had any training regarding sexual abuse of children nor heard of any such training occurring. The only training regarding sexual abuse is provided by The Boy Scouts of America and that is provided to those involved in scouting positions. That leaves a huge gap. If the church is truly against the abuse of children then their actions need to represent that position. Regular training of all leadership should be conducted at least annually. Church manuals should include not only the 800 number but the express instruction that law inforcement should be contacted. If the perpetrator desires to repent then the consequences faced as a result of law inforcement involvement should be part of that process and not avoided. Also, many times church leaders prescribe rehabilitation in the form of prayer and scripture reading and while those may be appropriate those that have sexually abused children need extensive psychological counseling over many years to hopefully rehabilitate the abuser. I am not aware of any training that would help a bishop or stake president to recommend that type of treatment.

    I also find it troubling that the accusations include intimidating the families of the victims. Part of repentance, that the church promotes, is to make full restitution where possible. In that case shouldn’t the church make restitution to the victims in the form of monetary compensation? The lack of training of the leaders, the culture that allowed the cover up to happen and the accusation that leadership from Salt Lake have tried to get the families to stop the lawsuit seem contradictory to the prescribed steps if repentance. These children will need extensive therapy over their young and adult lives. They will love with the damages done to them for the rest of their lives. They will need significant monetary resources to pay for a lifetime of therapy. If you think I am overstating this you are wrong. The scars of abuse will resurface many times throughout their lives and as they do they survivors will need to readdress the scars and seek treatment.

    The church should willingly seek settlement and pay what is agreed and do so before forced to by a court. An open willingness to resolve the issue will show that the church is truly committed to a zero tollerance policy of child abuse. After paying the settlement the church should do a full review of policies that lead to the coverup and then make appropriate changes worldwide. Until these things happen I have trouble believing the church is truly committed to a zero tollerance policy. I don’t expect the church to be perfect but I do expect it to learn from it’s mistakes and in this case it seems they are more interested in denying responsibility than taking ownership and addressing the problem.

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