- The Mormon Church has been accused of using a sexual assault victims hotline to protect the church from lawsuits, VICE News reported Thursday night.
- The way the church’s hotline works was revealed in a lawsuit and other documents obtained by the outlet.
- VICE said the documents show that local Mormon leaders were forwarded to the church’s law firm instead of being instructed to report allegations to the police.
- In a lengthy statement to INSIDER, Mormon Church spokesman Eric Hawkins accused VICE News of “misreporting” the story.
- Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been accused of using its sexual abuse hotline to cover up accusations and protect the church from lawsuits, according to a new VICE News report.
Since 1995, the Mormon Church, as its more commonly called, has operated a 24-hour hotline for bishops or other leaders to call if they hear reports of abuse. Bishops are leaders for congregations of Mormons, but are not full-time clergy.
According to VICE, church officials insist that the hotline is used to advise bishops about local abuse reporting laws.
But through a recent lawsuit and other documents obtained by the outlet, VICE reported that the hotline is really used to snuff out complaints and protect the church from potentially costly lawsuits.
Last year, the church settled a lawsuit raised by six families connected to a Mormon congregation in West Virginia. According to VICE, at least three of the families said their children were molested by Michael Jensen, the son of a prominent local Mormon family, and that the church knew he was a predator but didn’t report him to the police.
The lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed sum while the case was in the middle of trial, so lawyers at the church’s outside law firm explained how the sexual assault hotline operates in now-sealed depositions.
Timothy Kosnoff, a lawyer who represented the victimized families, recalled to VICE what was said in these depositions, and VICE News also obtained other documents that shed light on other details about the system that they report is rigged against victims.
Kosnoff told VICE that a lawyer named Joseph Osmond, who works for the Mormon Church’s law firm, Kirton McConkie, said during a pretrial deposition that the firm uses the information from helpline calls to identify cases that might pose a financial risk to the church if they resulted in lawsuits.
When someone calls the helpline, a staffer at the offices for LDS Family Services, an agency of the Mormon Church, picks up the call, according to VICE.
But Osmond said bishops are never told to report sexual abuse allegations to the police, though they are legally required to in many states. And staffers are instructed to transfer all calls to Kirton McConkie, Kosnoff recalled.
“It’s a helpline for the lawyers, not for the children or anybody else,” Kosnoff told VICE. “It gives them an opportunity to get involved, to quickly send lawyers out there. Talk to victims. Silence them if they can.”
VICE also obtained a Kirton McConkie document from 2012 that reportedly lists several sexual abuse cases involving the church at the time.
One of those cases involved an 18-year-old “elder” on a mission in Arizona, who admitted that before he left his home in Texas, he exchanged sexually explicit photos with a 15-year-old girl, according to the document VICE obtained. The elder also said that since arriving in Arizona, he kissed and touched another 15-year-old girl.
It’s reportedly noted in the document by Kirton McConkie lawyers that church officials would be required to report his alleged actions in Texas, which are against the law. A Mormon Church spokesman and a lawyer at Kirton McConkie were provided a copy of the document, but did not respond to questions about it, including whether that man was reported to the authorities, according to VICE.
Neither the Mormon Church nor Kirton McConkie agreed to be interviewed for the VICE News story. McConkie did issue a statement through their outside PR firm saying that they adhere “to standards that are consistent with the practices of law firms” and always advice “compliance with relevant laws.”
INSIDER reached out to Kirton McConkie for a statement Friday afternoon but did not immediately receive a response.
In a lengthy statement to INSIDER, Mormon Church spokesman Eric Hawkins accused VICE News of “misreporting” the story.
“Abuse is a matter taken very seriously by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is not tolerated, and the Church has invested heavily in resources and training, including the help line, to prevent, combat and address abuse,” the statement reads in part.
You can read the church’s full statement below:
“In short, VICE News chose to misreport this story. Since 1995 (long before much of the world was aware of or addressing the serious societal issue of abuse), The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has operated a 24-hour help line to prevent abuse and to ensure it is appropriately reported. The Church has been recognised and lauded for its help line by local and national child advocacy experts and organisations. Contrary to the story run by VICE, the Church complied with every reporting requirement, and in years of investigation and legal process, no Church leader was ever charged with a failure to report or to comply with the law.
Abuse is a matter taken very seriously by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is not tolerated, and the Church has invested heavily in resources and training, including the help line, to prevent, combat and address abuse.
Specific details about the help line, this case and our efforts are below.
We are deeply disappointed by VICE News’ irresponsible mischaracterization of the Church help line. The Church is an international organisation. As such, the fundamental guiding principle behind the Church’s approach to child abuse is that Church leaders must follow the law in the states, or countries, in which they function. Those laws dictate when a religious leader should report and when a religious leader must abide by the laws of confidentiality. Since 1995, the Church has operated a free and confidential abuse help line, established for local leaders (bishops and stake presidents) in the United States and Canada.
- This help line is available for bishops and stake presidents to call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, when addressing situations involving any type of abuse.
- The bishop or stake president is required to promptly call the help line about every situation in which he believes a person may have been abused or neglected or is at risk of being abused or neglected.
- When bishops or stake presidents call the help line, clinical and legal professionals are available 24/7 to answer their questions and provide instructions about how to assist victims, comply with local laws and requirements for reporting abuse, and protect against further abuse.
- Whether reporting is required by local laws or not, Church leaders are strongly encouraged and assisted when they call the help line to ensure that the suspected abuse is reported to law enforcement, either by the individual, a family member, or some other source.
The help line is particularly helpful given that, in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, clergy are temporary, lay volunteers. They are not professional clergy. The help line provides an effective means to make sure that these individuals are aware of their reporting obligations if and when an abuse situation arises. The help line has been lauded by leading experts as a one-of-a-kind resource that demonstrates a commitment to report abuse in accordance with the law and protect victims, and the Church has been recognised and lauded for its help line and efforts to combat abuse by local and national child advocacy experts and organisations, including the National Children’s Alliance and the Children’s Justice Centres. Other organisations have followed the Church’s lead in establishing similar help lines.
The Church also provides guidelines for handling situations involving abuse in a handbook that lays out the duties and responsibilities of stake presidents and bishops, which in the Church is referred to as Handbook 1. In regard to the case at the center of VICE’s news story, in spite of years of discovery, litigation, and investigation by the police in this case, no church leader was ever charged with failure to report child abuse or any other violation of the laws of West Virginia. The case was handled in strict compliance with those laws.
We disagree with many of the statements made by the plaintiffs in this story, and are frustrated that no fact checking appears to have been done to verify what individuals told VICE. Their statements to VICE are wildly different than their own police reports, depositions and court testimonies. Most egregious is that a key fact was withheld from the story – the case in West Virginia is actually a positive example of how the help line works in practice. VICE When a mother of a victim couldn’t reach her bishop, she instead called another local leader (the first counselor in the bishopric). She testified in court that when she reported the abuse to him, he told her, “this is a crime,” and provided her with the phone number so that she could call the police. The church leader then called the Church help line, and the Church then called the police to make sure a report had been made.
To be very clear, the case in West Virginia is very different from the types of cases where churches have been held liable for not preventing or even covering up abuse. None of the abuse happened on Church property or during a Church activity. None of the abuse was committed by a Church officer or leader. Tragically, a number of children were abused by a teenage member of the Church, Michael Jensen, while babysitting or vacationing or temporarily residing in their or his homes. Jensen is in prison, as he should be, for a very long time.
If you have any additional questions, the Church’s Newsroom offers a wealth of information regarding the how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints approaches abuse. You can find more here and here.”
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