-- Read the 66-page suit document HERE
Named as defendants are the Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the church; Don Fishel, who was the bishop of the Hedgesville Ward for the Martinsburg stake of the church between 2007 and 2013 and who also served as a member of the Stake High Council for Martinsburg; Steven Grow, stake president in Martinsburg; Jensen, who was a member and elder of the Hedgesville Ward of the church; Jensen's father, a high priest and member of the Stake High Council for Martinsburg between 2007 and 2010; and Jensen's mother, a member of the Hedgesville Ward and Relief Society president for the church in Martinsburg between 2006 and 2009. The lawsuit seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages; attorneys for the plaintiffs maintain that the Church initially tried to cover up the abuse, then reacted too slowly to mitigate it.
Summary of Events: The abuse of the 12 children suing the Church began in 2008. However, there were allegations that Christopher Michael Jensen may have abused additional children as early as 2006. These early allegations were allegedly communicated to Jensen's parents and to local Church leaders; in 2007, the Martinsburg Stake High Council, whose members included Steven Grow, Don Fishel and Jensen's father, held a meeting also attended by Jensen's mother, during which the alleged sexual abuse of two children by Christopher Michael Jensen was allegedly discussed. However, Fishel denied the allegations as hearsay, and so the High Council failed to report the allegations of abuse to authorities as required by law. Local church leaders allegedly continued to portray Jensen as a church member who could provide leadership and counsel to young church members, and even recommended Jensen as a babysitter for church families.
The first of the plaintiffs came forward in early 2008, when a then four-year-old boy told Jensen's mother that Jensen had sexually abused him. Fishel, who was also allegedly already put on notice that Jensen had been accused of sexually abusing children, was told by the mother of another alleged victim that Jensen had abused her younger son. The suit alleges that instead of reporting the abuse to authorities or taking action to warn or protect other children, the Church, through its agents, actively covered up the abuse and assisted Jensen in committing further acts by enabling him to babysit for and live with other church families with young children. The pattern allegedly continued for more than five years until Jensen was indicted in October 2012 in Berkeley County. On February 6th, 2013, Jensen was found guilty of one count of first-degree sexual assault and two counts of sexual abuse, and subsequently sentenced to 35 to 75 years in prison on July 29th. The judge also ordered that Jensen register for life as a convicted sex offender and that he be placed on 50 years of supervised release upon his release from prison. He was found not guilty of one count of first-degree sexual assault involving the youngest boy. On August 18th, the Martinsburg Stake High Council formally excommunicated Jensen.
On a related note, a February 2013 story from the Herald-Mail reveals that sexual abuse and assault charges were also filed against Jensen for allegedly assaulting a 20-year-old woman in a church parking lot in September 2012, and were pending in Berkeley County Magistrate Court at the time. However, in light of the child abuse conviction, prosecutors chose not to pursue the charges, and on March 15th, a Berkeley County magistrate granted the state's motion to discontinue the case.
The suit also alleges that emissaries from Salt Lake City instructed witnesses not to talk with attorneys representing the children suing the church, and that church leaders tried to intimidate the families of the children suing the church by trying to convince them to abandon their claims "lest they run afoul of church teachings regarding forgiveness".
Update October 30th: WHAG Channel 4 picked up the story and published reaction from local LDS leaders:
Church officials released a statement saying that they deny any allegations of a cover up. They felt they were instrumental in reporting the matter to local law enforcement officials, while imposing church discipline on the perpetrator and helping out the victims families.
Prognosis: The LDS Church has a track record of settling these types of suits out of court. The motivation to settle will be strong here, since it appears that local Church leaders were quite reluctant to take action against Jensen initially. While the presumption of innocence is sacred, if state law requires religious leaders to report such allegations to law enforcement, then they must report it. The plaintiffs have also retained some impressive legal muscle to represent them.
The behavior of local Church leaders in this case insufficiently reflect the LDS Church's commitment to resolving child abuse when it occurs and deterring future occurrences. In this statement published a while back, the Church set forth their policy:
Simply put, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to child abusers. When abuse is suspected, the Church directs its members to first contact the legal authorities and then their local bishop for counseling and support. The Church cooperates fully with law enforcement in investigating incidents of child abuse and bringing perpetrators to justice.
Members of the Church found guilty of child abuse are also subject to the laws of God. President Hinckley has said: "Our hearts reach out to the offender, but we cannot tolerate the sin of which he may be guilty. Where there has been offense, there is a penalty." Convicted child abusers are excommunicated, the highest possible discipline our faith can impose. Excommunicated members cannot take part in Church meetings or hold responsibilities of any kind within the congregation.
Can child abusers who have paid the legal price for their crimes and gone through a rigorous repentance process with local Church leaders become members of the Church again? Yes. As Christians, we believe in forgiveness. But can they ever again, in their lifetime, serve in any capacity that would put them in direct contact with children? Absolutely not. Forgiveness does not remove the consequences of sin. Protection of the family is a first principle of the Church.
Since 1995 the Church has placed a confidential annotation on the membership record of members who previously abused children. These records follow them to any congregation where they move, thereby alerting bishops not to place them in situations with children. As far as we know, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the first religious institution to create such a tracking mechanism. We hold the family sacred and protect its children. This explains why the Church is one of the few denominations that imposes formal ecclesiastical discipline on mere members (as opposed to official clergy) for sexually abusive conduct.