Tribune columnist Robert Kirby suspended after investigation into inappropriate behavior

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Kirby, as seen at The Falls Event Center in Salt Lake City on December 20, 2016.

The Salt Lake Tribune has suspended columnist Robert Kirby for three months without pay following an internal investigation after a Provo-based blogger detailed his inappropriate behavior toward her at a Mormon conference in July.

Courtney Kendrick posted Wednesday on social media of feeling “belittled and embarrassed” after Kirby, 65, made sexually tinged comments and persuaded her to eat an edible dose of marijuana, then mocked her before a Sunstone Symposium audience by declaring Kendrick was “high.”

In a statement issued Friday, Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce said that after looking into “multiple complaints,” managers found that Kirby’s conduct violated Tribune policy. The newspaper had taken steps, the editor said, "to prevent this behavior in the future.

“We believe that Kirby’s agreement to suspend employment, undergo coaching and attend training reflects his sincere commitment to change,” Napier-Pearce said in her statement. “He has been an important contributor to The Tribune, and we believe he can be again.”

In his own written statement, Kirby said: “I’m profoundly sorry that my actions have offended people in the community. I have a lot of work to do in understanding the pain I have caused.

“After discussing my conduct with Tribune management,” he continued, “I am more aware of the consequences of my actions and I will be undergoing training and counseling to become a better person.”

Napier-Pearce said that in its 147-year history, the newspaper “has strived to hold itself and others to the highest standards of integrity, professionalism and respect for the truth. We will continue to do so.”

Known for his wry and irreverent takes on Mormon life, Kirby has been a Tribune columnist for 25 years, following writing stints at the Springville Daily Herald and the Utah County Journal. The Herriman resident and former police officer is also the author of two novels, six humor books and a history of slain Utah police officers.

Kendrick’s account of the July incident, first reported by Salt Lake City public radio station KUER, surfaced Wednesday in an extended Facebook post that she said was meant to depict “ways that women are often treated by so-called progressive Mormon men in Utah.”

Kendrick confirmed key details Friday in an email exchange with The Tribune. She noted that Kirby seemed to ridicule her account when he first linked to it Thursday from his Facebook page, then he issued what appeared to her to be a half-hearted apology.

“I would like to convey how awful it is for women to come forward,” Kendrick said in an email. “I’m relatively lucky because I have a wonderful online support system, and still it was a hard decision to make.”

Kendrick and Kirby were scheduled to speak together at a session of the Sunstone Symposium, held at the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy. In her post, Kendrick said that shortly after she was introduced to Kirby, he told her, “Let’s pretend I picked you up from an escort service and we’ll walk over to that table over there together and sit down and chat.”

She said she went along, out of a reaction that was “almost biological, or evolutionary,” she wrote. “My instinct is to ignore any discomfort or anger and do as you’ve been conditioned to do — put your head down and agree.”

When Kendrick and Kirby sat at the table, she wrote that “he insisted” she eat a candy marijuana edible, ostensibly to calm her nerves, and she complied.

She wrote that she has “no moral conflicts with edibles, but I do find it terribly frustrating that I took it because I felt pressured to please this person with his ‘old man charm.’ ”

Kendrick said on Facebook that she later was “blindsided” when, as their Sunstone presentation concluded, Kirby took the microphone and announced that she was “high, because he — the great Robert Kirby — gave me weed.”

“No permission, no checking with me,” Kendrick wrote, “he just announced it to the crowd as if it were a punchline, rewarded with huge laughs.” In her email, Kendrick said that at that point, she sought to leave the room. “I was stunned,” she said.

(Salt Lake Tribune) A screen capture of Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Kirby's Facebook apology to Courtney Kendrick. The statement appeared late Friday to have been deleted or taken down.

Kendrick wrote on Facebook that she “was OK” after the incident, “but I felt used. It felt as though my entire presence at Sunstone was manipulated to serve his ego at all intersections.”

She said she sent a written account of the events to Sunstone organizers, “and that was enough for me.”

But Kendrick later chose to make the incident public after Kirby wrote an “awful” column critical of McKenna Denson, who has accused a former president of the Missionary Training Center of raping her in the 1980s.

“I realized that if we don’t tell these stories, men continue to be problematic,” Kendrick said in her email to The Tribune. “I felt I had a responsibility to McKenna and women in my community especially.”

Denson had recently gone before the Arizona congregation of her alleged attacker, Joseph Bishop, to reiterate her accusations, prompting men in that Latter-day Saints ward to forcibly escort her off the podium, which in turn provoked Denson to claim she was being assaulted.

In his column about a video of the incident, Kirby called Denson’s allegations of assault at the lectern “clueless.” “Sorry,” Kirby wrote, “that wasn’t even close to assault.”

In her Facebook post, Kendrick said many people had the same reaction to the column that she had to Kirby’s actions at the July conference. She and readers were “surprised to find out that at the end of the day he’s as problematic as any other ignorant man in our patriarchal community.”

“Because,” she wrote, “how would anyone know otherwise if we don’t tell these stories to each other?”