Noted Latter-day Saint filmmaker admits to molesting boy in 1993; victim wonders why church never offered him help

Sterling Van Wagenen on the set of “The Work and the Glory: American Zion” in 2005.

David was 13 years old in 1993, enjoying a sleepover at a friend’s house, when he woke up in the middle of the night.

His friend’s father — Sterling Van Wagenen, a prominent Latter-day Saint filmmaker and co-founder of what would become the Sundance Film Festival — had his hand inside the boy’s pants, David said, and was touching him.

The teen leapt up and ran to a bathroom, locking himself there the rest of the night. He told his parents the next morning.

Van Wagenen admitted to the abuse back then to police and his lay leaders within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and again, 25 years later, in a conversation that David secretly recorded and the Truth & Transparency Foundation released Monday.

Van Wagenen never faced criminal charges. He was disfellowshipped — a penalty short of excommunication — from the Utah-based faith.

“I went through the church disciplinary process and was disfellowshipped for about two years,” Van Wagenen told the foundation, the nonprofit group behind the MormonLeaks website. “I repented and there were no further incidents. I reported the abuse to the police, as I was instructed to by my stake president, and the parents elected not to press charges.”

Van Wagenen did not respond to The Salt Lake Tribune’s request for an interview.

The church also declined to comment for this story. It has previously emphasized that it has “zero tolerance” for abuse and has pointed to times it has offered counseling to victims.

But David said the church offered him little help, explaining that he has been haunted by the molestation — and questions surrounding it — for more than a quarter century.

What would have happened if he didn’t run into that bathroom? Was he the only one whom Van Wagenen had molested?

David first approached Van Wagenen’s adult children last year, asking if they were ever told about what had happened during that 1993 sleepover. Eventually, David said, they suggested he meet Van Wagenen to get some answers.

David is identified by a pseudonym in the recording. The Tribune generally does not name sexual assault victims and agreed to use the same pseudonym for this story.

He told the paper Monday that he decided to come forward because he worried about other possible victims and hopes to bring about change to how they are treated by law enforcement and the church.

He’s been inspired by other survivors, he said, and wants to do the same.

“As a kid, I was a pretty strong person, and part of me feels like there’s a reason this happened to me,” David said, his voice breaking with emotion. “Part of me wants to believe it happened to me because I’m supposed to be that person that helps make it safe for others.”

‘You were the victim’

The abuse had lingering effects on David. He felt jaded, he said, robbed of his childhood innocence. He slept with a hunting knife by his side, fearful that something similar would happen again.

It caused him to be distrustful and suspicious of men, he told Van Wagenen in the recording, particularly of male Latter-day Saint leaders.

“I’m so sorry I did that damage to you,” Van Wagenen says in the recording, adding that “it was a really dark time for me.”

His film production company was in financial trouble, he tells David, because he and his partner “just had a project go south on us.” Earlier that night, Van Wagenen had told his wife he wanted a divorce — and he was shocked when she agreed.

“That night, I was acting out sexually and that what was going on with me,” Van Wagenen tells David. “The pain was just so great. I was trying to find a way to make a connection, a way to stop the pain. You were the victim, I’m so sorry for that.”

David told The Tribune that he decided to secretly record the conversation because he feared Van Wagenen might threaten or try to harm him.

During their conversation, David asks several times whether Van Wagenen had molested or assaulted any other children. Every time, the answer is no.

“After this happened with you, I was just horrified at what I had done,” Van Wagenen says. “I've always been cautious about it. I've probably been cautious with my own kids and cautious with my grandkids because I just don't want anything like that to happen again. But would I consider myself a pedophile? I've never thought of myself in that way.”

Van Wagenen says in the recording that he experienced trauma as a child and attributed years of depression and anxiety to that.

Movie credits

A notable figure in film and especially Latter-day Saint cinema, Van Wagenen co-founded the Utah/U.S. Film Festival, the precursor to the headline-grabbing Sundance festival in 1978. Some three years later, Robert Redford — who at the time was married to Van Wagenen’s cousin, Lola Van Wagenen — selected him as the first executive director of the Sundance Institute.

Van Wagenen has not been associated with institute since 1993, a Sundance spokesman said Monday.

“Sundance Institute always stands in solidarity with those whose brave truth-telling shines light on abusive behavior,” the statement reads. “We categorically denounce [Van Wagenen’s] behavior as described in recent reports.”

Van Wagenen’s first credit as a producer was the 1985 drama “The Trip to Bountiful,” which earned an Academy Award for Geraldine Page. His first feature as director, the coming-of-age story “Alan & Naomi,” was released in 1992.

He directed the second and third installments of “The Work and the Glory,” a trilogy based on author Gerald N. Lund’s fictionalized accounts of early Mormonism. Last year, he was executive producer of “Jane and Emma,” a drama chronicling the friendship between Emma Smith, wife of church founder Joseph Smith, and black convert Jane Manning James.

In 2013, the church picked Van Wagenen to direct three new films to be used in Latter-day Saint temple rituals, according to the Truth and Transparency release. Those rites are among the faith’s holiest ordinances, available only to devout members.

“Given the sacredness of these ceremonies,” the release said, “the selection of Van Wagenen implies good standing with the church.”

‘Unbelievably lenient’

After the molestation, David said his parents asked a mutual friend, who was a Latter-day Saint bishop, what to do. He said they were encouraged to let the church handle it.

In the recording, Van Wagenen tells David that — in addition to confessing to church leaders — he was instructed to report the crime to police.

Police reports obtained by the Truth and Transparency Foundation show Van Wagenen went to the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office less than a week after the 1993 sleepover. He said he had gone downstairs into a family room in the early morning hours and touched the 13-year-old boy “over the clothing.” (David insists it was under his pants.)

“He said that [the child] then got up and went into the bathroom and locked himself in,” the police report reads. “Sterling said he went to the bathroom door, told [the victim] that it would be OK, that he was going back upstairs and that he could do what he thought he needed to do.”

Though Van Wagenen confessed to the detective, the case never went to prosecutors. The police report notes that when a detective contacted David’s father, he said that his son did not want to talk about what occurred. The case was closed, the report reads, because the “victim refused to pursue this complaint.”

David says he doesn’t remember ever being asked if he wanted to talk to police or pursue a case. He also wonders whether his father was ever able to give his side of the story to law enforcement.

“My parent’s number one motivation and interest,” he told The Tribune, “was to help me feel like I was safe.”

David said he felt he had no voice during the police inquiry or the church proceedings. While his religious leaders were aware of the abuse, he said, no one ever reached out to him.

David said he learned only last year of the two-year disfellowshipment, a punishment he views as “unbelievably lenient.”

“I’ve always wondered why I was not offered any support or counseling or therapy,” David said. “Nothing.”

Tribune reporters Sean P. Means and Peggy Fletcher Stack contributed to this story.