Scott D. Pierce: Prominent Latter-day Saint filmmaker confesses he’s a child molester in Investigation Discovery’s ‘I Went Undercover’

There’s nothing new about Sterling Van Wagenen in the TV episode, but it is a cautionary tale.

(Rick Egan | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Filmmaker Sterling Van Wagenen, seen here making his initial court appearance on April 30, 2019, in American Fork, Utah, on charges of sexual abuse of a child — to which he pleaded guilty, and is currently serving a six-year prison sentence. The reality series "I Went Undercover" is featuring Van Wagenen's case, and his taped confession to molesting someone else, in an episode set to air Tuesday, May 31, 2022, on the Investigation Discovery channel.

There’s nothing new in Tuesday’s episode of “I Went Undercover.” Audio of Sterling Van Wagenen admitting he groped a 13-year-old neighbor boy in 1993 was posted online in 2019. He pleaded guilty to molesting a young girl that year, and he’s been in prison ever since.

But seeing video of Van Wagenen confessing to the first victim, Sean Escobar, and hearing Escobar talk about all the trauma that caused him makes the story somehow even more powerful. (The episode airs on ID/Investigation Discovery at 9 p.m. on Dish and DirecTV, and at midnight on Comcast.)

Escobar was having a sleepover with the children of Van Wagenen — a prominent Latter-day Saint filmmaker — when he was molested. Yes, it was almost 30 years ago and things were different then, but it still seems hard to believe how Escobar’s parents, the police and local leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reacted.

Escobar’s parents told police they didn’t want to press charges, despite Van Wagenen’s confession. The police dropped the investigation. And the church gave Van Wagenen what amounted to a slap on the wrist — he was disfellowshipped, a form of probation — and then hired him to teach at Brigham Young University and to produce temple endowment films for the church.

(Photo courtesy of Crystal Escobar) Sean Escobar publicly outed his abuser, Sterling Van Wagenen, in February 2019 when he released a recorded conversation where Van Wagenen admitted to molesting him in 1993.

The program does not reflect well on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Ryan McNight, the co-founder of the Truth & Transparency Foundations, says it’s a “common belief” in the church that church counseling “is the best way to deal with situations like this.” While that may have been true in 1993, the church has been very public about the need to report “situations like this” to the police. And McKnight’s statement is made in the present tense.

That’s one of several ways the program is less than perfect. Viewers are told that McKnight and Ethan Dodge are the co-founders of the now-defunct Truth & Transparency Foundation, but they aren’t told until late in the show that they are ex-Mormons who leak unflattering information about the church. John Dehlin is identified as the founder of the “Mormon Stories” podcast, but viewers are not told that he’s long been at odds with the church and was excommunicated in 2015.

Producers include a silly statement by former KUTV reporter Raeann Christensen: “Sundance came out and said, ‘We do not support his actions.’” The organization actually issued a statement that it “categorically denounces his behavior … and we stand in solidarity with those whose brave truth-telling shines light on abusive behavior.” (Van Wagenen in 1978 was co-founder of the Utah/U.S. Film Festival, which later became the Sundance Film Festival, and in 1981, Robert Redford — who was married to Van Wagenen’s cousin at the time — named him the first executive director of the Sundance Institute. Van Wagenen’s involvement with Sundance ended when he left the nonprofit’s Utah advisory board in 1993.)

And there’s a bit of a struggle with math — 1993 to 2019 is not “20 years.”

Escobar talks about why he left the church in 2018, and how he was “empowered” by that. Later that year, he contacted Van Wagenen and met with him. He hid a camera in a potted plant to record their meeting, in case Van Wagenen admitted there were other victims.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sean Escobar, who was also victimized by Sterling Van Wagenen was sitting in the courtroom Tuesday, on the same aisle as Van WagenenÕs other victim as Van Wagenen, 71, was sentenced to six years to life by Judge Roger W. Griffin in Fourth District Court in American Fork, July 2, 2019. Van Wagenen admitted to abusing Escobar back in 1993 to police and his church leaders within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It’s astonishing to see Van Wagenen walk in and shake Escobar’s hand. And it’s jaw-dropping to hear Van Wagenen calmly say, “I remember getting out of bed that night and I remember saying, just, a very quick prayer. ‘Oh, God. Please, not this.’ And then I am downstairs.”

Van Wagenen apologizes repeatedly. And he tells Escobar there were no other victims. He seems contrite. He seems sincere.

And that’s a lesson for viewers, because Wagenen was lying. A year later, he pleaded guilty to molesting a girl in 2013 and 2015.

If Van Wagenen was telling the truth — and that’s a very big if — he received no counseling from the church after he groped Escobar. “It was all about the disciplinary council,” he says. And he has no answer when Escobar asks, “Why was there absolutely no concern for my welfare when you told them what you’d done?” (No church spokesman is on the show to answer that question.)

Escobar says his parents didn’t press charges because, in 1993, they were concerned that he would be taunted and teased. He says his parents did “the wrong things for the right reasons,” and have since acknowledged they should have pressed charges.

Dehlin says that Escobar was assaulted — he uses the word “raped” — three times. First by Van Wagenen; second because his parents didn’t handle it appropriately; and third because the church didn’t handle it appropriately. (The statute of limitations had long since run out when Van Wagenen confessed, so he couldn’t be charged.)

Convinced that there had to be other victims, Escobar shared the recording of the confession with McKnight and Dodge, and in 2019 they released audio of it along with a 1993 police report. It made headlines, because of Van Wagenen’s long-ago connection to Sundance, and because, at the time, he was still teaching at the University of Utah. Escobar says he “agonized” over whether he had done the right thing, and then learned about the second victim. And it turned out she heard about and listened to Escobar’s tape before telling her parents.

It’s amazing when the mother of the second victim thanks Escobar at Van Wagenen’s sentencing. It’s kind of weird when Van Wagenen thanks Escobar for being a “blessing” for “bringing all this to light.”

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to call “I Went Undercover” exploitation because it’s recounting exploitation. And if it prompts parents, the police and the church to do more to protect children, that’s great.

It’s not perfect, but seeing Van Wagenen confess and listening to Escobar recount how this affects his life is worth the effort.

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