As judge weighs whether to dismiss case against LDS Church and former MTC president accused of sexual abuse, alleged victim remains ‘cautiously optimistic’

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) McKenna Denson, the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the LDS church, 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.

A federal judge is now deciding whether to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a former missionary who alleges she was sexually assaulted by a Missionary Training Center leader in 1984.

Attorneys for former MTC President Joseph L. Bishop and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have asked the judge to toss the suit, filed in April, arguing McKenna Denson had missed a legal deadline years ago to make her claims.

Denson’s attorney Craig Vernon told U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball in Salt Lake City that while Denson was reportedly sexually assaulted by Bishop in 1984, she didn’t know about his alleged sexual addiction or “lifelong” predation until December 2017, when she clandestinely recorded him discussing his past confessions to Mormon officials.

The defense insists that Denson’s allegations of the sexual assault, subsequent emotional distress and fraud (all of which they deny) are too old and should be thrown out based on the statute of limitations, which it said ended in the late 1980s or early ’90s, based on when Denson was allegedly assaulted and when she should have concluded a cover-up was taking place.

Denson told reporters afterward: “Nice try.”

That, Vernon said, was when she learned the church had known about Bishop’s addiction and risk to members but still allowed him in leadership positions around potential victims. Hence, the fraud assertions.

Bishop’s lawyer Andrew Deiss argued generally for the merits of statutes of limitation Wednesday, saying they “can feel tough,” but “reality is, as the Supreme Court says, they’re vital.”

Over time evidence degrades, memories fade and witnesses die, Deiss said, and because of that a defendant can’t get a fair trial so many years after something was alleged to have happened. That, he said, is true for Bishop in this case.

LDS Church attorney David Jordan said Denson could have filed the assault and emotional distress claims as early as her alleged assault in 1984, and that she could have filed the fraud charges as soon as 1987 or 1988, when she went to the church and asked it to investigate her allegations.

Jordan said the statutes of limitations on the assault charges would have run out in 1985, with the emotional distress claims ending in 1988. The fraud-based charges, he argued, must have been filed within three years of her asking church officials to investigate.

Even then, Jordan said, that’s “still far outside that statute of limitations as we sit here today in 2018.”

Vernon said that tolling provisions — extenuating factors that extend the amount of time a plaintiff has to file a lawsuit despite statutes of limitations — apply and, thus, allow Denson’s case to go forward to a jury.

Kimball heard from both attorneys for nearly an hour and half Wednesday but didn’t rule.

After the hearing, Denson told reporters she was confident in the judge and was “cautiously optimistic” about the case being upheld.

Attorneys for Bishop and the Mormon church declined requests to comment.

Denson said some of the arguments she heard — like the suggestion she should have filed fraud charges when she asked the church to investigate Bishop years ago — underscore how little people understand about sexual assault survivors.

“They don’t understand that you can’t, as a survivor, understand being raped or being assaulted just because you want to,” she said. “So, I think that’s unfair, and I think it minimizes the trauma that survivors experienced.”

She added that she hoped more sexual assault survivors would speak up about their experiences and begin healing.

“This isn’t about necessarily Joseph Bishop or McKenna Denson. This is about sexual predatory behavior and victim shaming, and people not feeling like they have a choice — but they have a voice,” she said. “They have a global platform.”