Sterling Van Wagenen, a Latter-day Saint filmmaker, gets six years to life for child sex abuse

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sterling Van Wagenen, 71, stands next to his defense attorney Steven Shapiro during his sentencing July 2, 2019. Ban Wagenen was sentenced to six years to life for sexually abusing a young girl by Judge Roger W. Griffin in Fourth District Court in American Fork.

American Fork • If it was up to this young girl, Sterling Van Wagenen would spend the rest of his life in prison for sexually abusing her.

She stood in the courtroom Tuesday, arms crossed, as her older sister read a statement. She wants him to stop apologizing, she said. He should have come clean earlier and told her parents that he had touched her inappropriately.

“You lied to literally everyone,” the girl said in her statement before Van Wagenen was sentenced Tuesday to spend at least six years in prison for the abuse.

She’s the second person that Van Wagenen, a 71-year-old Latter-day Saint filmmaker with deep ties to Utah’s film industry, has admitted to molesting when they were children. And she wonders now if there are more. She urged him Tuesday to come clean if there were others.

“I believe with all my heart that there are others that you damaged,” she said in her statement.

Van Wagenen appeared emotional at times, steeled at others, during his Tuesday sentencing, where he was sentenced to six years to life in prison. When it was his turn to speak, he turned to the victim’s family and offered no apology — and no new admissions.

“It’s clear that any kind of apology I can make is meaningless at this point,” he said. “So I am not even going to attempt one. I want you all to know I feel the consequences of what I’ve done. I feel them deeply.”

A few moments went by, his attorney talking to the judge about a housekeeping matter, when Van Wagenen interrupted. He had more he wanted to say.

He told the judge that he wanted to thank Sean Escobar, a man whom he molested during a 1993 sleepover at his home when Escobar was 13. The girl had come forward earlier this year and charges were brought after Escobar gave permission to the Truth & Transparency Foundation, the nonprofit group behind the MormonLeaks website, to publish a secretly recorded conversation in which Van Wagenen admitted to abusing him.

“I am grateful to the blessing that Sean Escobar has been to me personally,” Van Wagenen said, “for bringing this all to light.”

Escobar was sitting in the courtroom Tuesday on the same aisle as Van Wagenen’s other victim. After the hearing, he said he didn’t know how to feel about his abuser’s gratitude. Maybe it showed how chronic and evasive Van Wagenen had been around these issues for years.

It was surreal sitting next to this young girl, Escobar said, who was the same age as he was when Van Wagenen abused him 25 years ago.

Van Wagenen admitted to abusing Escobar back in 1993 to police and his lay leaders within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But he never faced criminal charges for that abuse. He was disfellowshipped — a penalty short of excommunication — from the Utah-based faith.

As Escobar sat in the American Fork courtroom Tuesday, he said he wondered what he would have said if he had that same chance to speak that Van Wagenen’s younger victim had.

“She pretty much said it,” he said. “I also saw her during the proceedings, and I saw the pain that she was going through. I’m so sorry for what happened. I just wish we could have taken measures earlier on and it hadn’t happened.”

Van Wagenen pleaded guilty earlier this year to two child sex abuse charges in two courtrooms. Both involve the same victim, a young girl who reported that Van Wagenen abused her between 2013 and 2015, when she was between 7 and 9 years old. Charging documents say the girl told her parents that Van Wagenen inappropriately touched her twice, once in her home in Salt Lake County and once at a location in Utah County.

Van Wagenen’s admissions were part of a plea deal.

Fourth District Judge Roger Griffin sentenced Van Wagenen on Tuesday, while a judge in West Jordan will do the same next week.

How much time Van Wagenen spends behind bars ultimately will be up to the parole board, but Griffin urged the board to impose a long sentence. He said that though Van Wagenen reported that he had suffered trauma as a child himself, he should have known better as an adult that what he was doing was harmful.

The judge choked back tears Tuesday as he addressed the victim directly.

“I want the victim to know you did the right thing,” he said, “and you are not responsible for anything that happened.”

The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify victims of sexual abuse, but Escobar agreed to the use of his name.

After Tuesday’s court hearing, the young girl hugged her family and cried, then shared a hug with Escobar. It was the first time the two had met.

Escobar noted the girl’s bravery, calling her “my little hero.” It took him 25 years to come forward and say that he was abused, and she had the strength to stand before her abuser Tuesday.

He’ll never get the same chance to see Van Wagenen handcuffed and led away to prison for sexually abusing him. But Escobar said he’s grateful that the other victim will not have to live the life that he did, wondering for decades about the abuse and questioning what had happened.

“What a blessing,” he said. “She doesn’t have to spend the next 25 years wondering if he’s hurting other people, and if he’s being honest. That’s a gift. I would have loved to have that.”

Van Wagenen’s movie resume is extensive. In 1978, he co-founded the Utah/U.S. Film Festival, which grew to become the Sundance Film Festival. He was named the founding executive director of the Sundance Institute in 1981. His involvement with Sundance ended when he left the nonprofit’s Utah advisory board in 1993.

He was a producer of the 1985 film “The Trip to Bountiful,” for which Geraldine Page won a best-actress Oscar. He directed the second and third installments of “The Work and the Glory” movies — based on author Gerald N. Lund’s fictionalized accounts of early Mormonism.

In 2013, the church began showing three films directed by Van Wagenen as part of Latter-day Saint temple rituals, according to the Truth and Transparency Foundation. Those rites are among the faith’s holiest ordinances, available only to devout members. Van Wagenen also was executive producer of the 2018 film “Jane and Emma” about the friendship between Emma Smith, wife of church founder Joseph Smith, and African American convert Jane Manning James.