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LDS Church Settles Suit, Paying $3M

Child-molestation case was allegedly covered up

Wednesday, September 5, 2001


In the first disclosure of its kind, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said Tuesday it will pay $3 million to settle an Oregon lawsuit that had accused its leaders of failing to protect members from pedophiles within the church.

The lawsuit had sought more than $1.5 billion in damages for Jeremiah Scott, a 22-year-old California man who was sexually abused as a child by a church member in Portland in 1991.

Scott's allegations echoed claims made by more than 40 plaintiffs in past lawsuits against the LDS Church: that church leaders knew children were being molested or ignored warning signs that a member was a pedophile and did not warn the victims' families or alert authorities.

The church's past settlements in such cases have been confidential; Tuesday's announcement marked the first time the church had agreed to reveal a dollar amount. Scott's attorneys said they settled the case on the condition they could discuss the amount paid to Scott and the evidence they would have presented at trial.

"The church has learned, or at least it feels in this case, that this is a case that is going to get into the public arena one way or the other," church attorney Von Keetch said. "It has something to say about this case."

The church denies Scott's allegations. It points to measures it has since taken to safeguard children, including an internal system that flags church membership records if a follower is convicted of or confesses to child sexual abuse.

Scott's attorneys settled "because it was in Jeremiah's best interests -- a chance for him to close this chapter and move on with his life," lawyer Jeffrey Anderson said. "Hopefully, this payment will get their attention and change the way they do business."

Scott's attorneys and his mother, Sandra Scott, will hold a previously scheduled news conference in Salt Lake City today. The church's announcement Tuesday caught them by surprise. The church said it decided to settle the case after weighing a series of adverse rulings by a Multnomah County judge and the potential cost of a long court battle.

The legal setbacks for the church included an order to give Scott's attorneys copies of church disciplinary records for child molesters in the Portland area between 1980 and 1995. The judge had also allowed Scott to sue the church for punitive damages, but had not yet ruled on the church's request to keep its financial records, including tithing revenue and property values, confidential.

Keetch called Judge Ellen Rosenblum's rulings a "travesty of justice . . . things went wrong in this case that should not have gone wrong."

Forcing the church to disclose its finances, which have been kept secret since 1959, would have violated its First Amendment right to operate free from government entanglement, church attorneys had argued. They said they could afford to pay punitive damages of $162 million, or twice the amount of the largest punitive damages award in Oregon history, and argued no further information was necessary.

Scott filed suit in 1998, four years after the late Franklin Richard Curtis was convicted of repeatedly sexually abusing him. The suit alleged that then-LDS Bishop Gregory Lee Foster knew Curtis had a history of sexually abusing children dating back to the 1970s, but didn't warn the Scotts before they took him into their home.

Sandra Scott consulted with Foster after the 87-year-old Curtis told her he wanted to live his final days in a home setting, rather than his retirement home, the lawsuit said.

Church records show Curtis was excommunicated in 1983 for sexually abusing children, but was rebaptized one year later. Scott's attorneys claimed they had discovered more than 200 cases involving the church's alleged mishandling of child sexual abuse reports. They hired a licensed clinical psychologist as an expert witness, and he would have testified he saw a pattern of the church failing to report, warn members about, and prevent the sexual abuse of children. Attorneys who have sued the church in similar cases have argued its lay male clergy is insufficiently trained in preventing child sexual abuse.

But the church denies Foster ever knew about Curtis' history as a pedophile. "The church still strongly believes it is right," Keetch said. "It is paying a great deal of money. It is paying too much money." A church handbook for clergy says those whose memberships have been flagged should not be placed in positions involving children. The church began offering training to clergy in the late 1980s, and in 1999, produced a training video dealing with child abuse reporting issues and methods for ecclesiastical leaders to help victims.

The church has also established a hot line for clergy if they have information that abuse has occurred. Keetch said LDS family service counselors, lawyers and other specialists answer questions and determine what steps should be taken to comply with child abuse reporting laws and to help victims.

"As far as a cover-up goes, that's ridiculous," Keetch said. "These are the future leaders of the church. These children are our future."

South Carolina attorney Michael Sullivan, who launched a high-profile lawsuit against the LDS Church in West Virginia in 1996, argues the church's past secret settlements have been a deliberate strategy to avoid the publicity of a trial and the legal precedent it might provide. Efforts by attorneys to show a pattern of alleged misconduct in subsequent cases are thwarted by the confidential settlements, he said.

Sullivan's lawsuit demanded $750 million for a girl molested by her father, who had allegedly confessed years earlier to his stake president that he was abusing his children. The case settled for
an undisclosed amount last year. The church denied wrong-doing.

Texas attorney Clay Dugas, who has sued the church on behalf of nearly a dozen child sexual abuse victims, said he believes the litigation is making the church "much more proactive when they learn of suspected child abuse." In one of the rare cases to go to trial, Dugas persuaded a Texas jury to award more than $4 million to a boy who alleged LDS Church leaders ignored complaints about his molester, a popular baby sitter in the ward. However, the case settled for a confidential amount after the 1998 trial.

"The LDS Church is very interested in the bottom line," Dugas said. "You can't convince me they would continue to do the same thing without change."



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 2001-09-05 — 2002-11-23