LDS Church Settles Suit, Paying $3M
Child-molestation case was allegedly covered up
Wednesday, September 5, 2001
BY ELIZABETH NEFF
THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
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
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
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
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,
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."