Woman accusing Missionary Training Center president of rape wants justice — and policy changes in the LDS Church

A day after filing a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by the then-president of the LDS Missionary Training Center, the woman at the center of the controversy said she wants two things to come from the suit: justice and change.

Her attorney said they hope to get justice in holding Joseph L. Bishop accountable for what McKenna Denson says happened to her in 1984.

Bishop, who is now 85, was never charged criminally, attorney Craig Vernon said in a Thursday news conference, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints never disciplined him.

And the change they want to see? Denson and her lawyer said they hope the LDS Church will amend its policies to encourage members to report crimes to police.

Denson, 55, of Colorado, alleges in her lawsuit filed in Salt Lake City’s federal court Wednesday that the church placed Bishop in charge of the training center in Provo despite “red flag sexual improprieties” years earlier. The lawsuit further alleges that Denson tried to report the abuse to church officials for years — but no one believed her.

“I’m ready for this,” Denson said Thursday of litigation. “I’ve been ready. I think what makes me feel even more confident [is], I’m right. It happened. I was raped at the MTC. The church covered it up, and they still promoted him to higher and higher positions of the church.”

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) McKenna Denson, the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the LDS church, collects her thoughts as she talks with the media to address the lawsuit, which alleges the former Missionary Training Center president raped her, and the church put him in that powerful role after receiving reports of sexual misconduct. She talked from the Hilton Salt Lake City Center in Salt Lake City Thursday April 5, 2018.

The lawsuit comes less than a month after MormonLeaks published a recorded conversation between Denson and Bishop. In the recording, the woman confronts Bishop, saying that he tried to rape her in early 1984 in a “secret room” of the Missionary Training Center.

Bishop said he didn’t remember taking her into the room, let alone sexually assaulting her. However, he repeatedly apologized, describing himself as a predator and saying he had confessed to other sexual misconduct.

Three days after the December conversation, Bishop told Brigham Young University police that he did take Denson to the small room and “asked her to show him her breasts,” according to a 2017 police report.

Denson had reported the assault report to BYU police in November 2017. But before that, she had tried several times over the years to report the abuse to church leaders, according to her lawsuit.

“We are taught in the church, we don’t go to police,” Denson said Thursday. “We go to the bishop. That’s the reason why I didn’t go to the police all those years ago. So I went to the church for three decades.”

Before Denson spoke to BYU police in detail, she visited Bishop in Arizona, posing as a writer who was interviewing former mission presidents. On Thursday, Denson credited the #MeToo movement for giving her the courage to confront Bishop during the meeting.

“It gave me the courage,” she said, “to understand that maybe, this time, someone would believe me.”

Amid news reporters, supporters of Denson applauded and offered the woman hugs after Thursday’s news conference.

Denson spoke Thursday about how she first learned about Mormonism during her teenage years and later decided to become a missionary.

“I decided to go on a mission,” she said, “because I wanted to share that joy and that peace and that safety with the world.”

When she arrived at the MTC in Provo, she said she was almost immediately targeted by Bishop. He made her feel special, Denson said, like she was going to go do something amazing.

But their one-on-one conversations often centered around sexually explicit topics, Denson said, including her own experiences of being sexually abused as a child.

(Tribune file photo) Joseph L. Bishop, in 1972, about a decade before he became Missionary Training Center president.

This led to the encounter in early 1984, when Denson says Bishop led her to a room in the basement of the MTC that included a small bed.

Bishop led her to the bed and tried to kiss her. Denson pushed him away and tried to leave, the lawsuit says. But Bishop pushed her onto the bed, tore her clothes and tried to have sex with her.

Denson said she was able to kick free and get to the door.

“He said to me, ‘No one will you believe you,’ ” Denson said Thursday. “ ‘Look at you. Look at me.’ ”

Denson says she told her local church leader about what happened in 1987 or 1988. A member of the First Quorum of the Seventy later interviewed Denson, the lawsuit says, and said he would tell her the outcome. She told other church leaders in subsequent years, the lawsuit says, but nothing happened.

Much of the court complaint discusses the LDS Church — its hierarchy and how its leaders continued giving Bishop positions over young people despite concerns about his behavior.

The lawsuit asserts that while serving as president of the faith’s Buenos Aries North Argentina Mission in 1978, Bishop confessed sins and improprieties to Robert E. Wells, who was then a general authority over the region.

Vernon told news reporters that he will seek to depose 90-year-old Wells, who is now an emeritus general authority, calling him critical to the case.

The LDS Church, in a statement Thursday, reaffirmed its earlier statements about the allegations, saying:

"Our hearts ache for all survivors of abuse, and the church is committed to addressing incidents of abuse wherever they are found. As this is now an active legal matter, we are unable to make further comment at this time. We are confident that the legal system will ensure a just result in this case."

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