These men say their Utah therapist touched them inappropriately during sessions paid for by the LDS Church

A spokesperson for the church said it does not vet the therapists its bishops recommend and pay for, saying “it is up to church members” to “make their own decisions.”

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.

Editor’s note: This story discusses allegations of sexual assault.

Three additional men have come forward to say a therapist recommended and paid for by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints touched them inappropriately during counseling sessions related to struggles with their sexuality.

The men’s statements follow allegations by three others, previously reported by The Salt Lake Tribune and ProPublica, that clinical mental health counselor Scott Owen touched them sexually during therapy.

The three who most recently came forward said their counseling sessions were paid for with money donated by church members to help those in need. The church said it has no process in place to vet the therapists its church leaders recommend.

The disclosures follow an investigation by the news organizations this summer detailing allegations against Owen, who gave up his license as a mental health worker in 2018.

Austin Millet, one of the men who have spoken out in recent weeks, said he saw Owen in 2010 while attending Brigham Young University. At that time, he was questioning if he was gay and struggling with how that fit in with the theology of his Latter-day Saint faith.

His bishop suggested he try therapy, Millet recalled, and said he wouldn’t need to worry about the cost — the church would pay the bill. He said the lay leader referred him to a local practice, Canyon Counseling. One of its co-owners, his bishop told him, was a specialist in helping gay LDS men be in romantic relationships with women. Owen was also a bishop during that time, according to the three men The Tribune/ProPublica spoke with for this story.

Millet said that when an employee at Canyon Counseling later called Millet, then 23, to set up an appointment, he was told payment was taken care of.

“It was kind of like, ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’re taking care of it behind the scenes,’” Millet remembered. “‘And your job is to just show up.’”

But Millet said his therapy sessions in Owen’s Provo office quickly turned physical and then sexual — with the therapist cuddling with him, kissing him and groping him.

Owen has not responded to allegations that he touched a number of clients inappropriately and did not answer detailed questions sent to him last week.

Scott Owen (Obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune)

The Tribune/ProPublica report in August showed that Utah’s Division of Professional Licensing and LDS church officials had known about allegations of inappropriate touching involving Owen and were slow to act. Utah licensing officials say that, given the evidence they had, they believe they responded appropriately. The church said in response that it takes all matters of sexual misconduct seriously and “this case was no exception.” The church said it annotated Owen’s membership record in 2019 with a confidential marking intended to alert bishops that he was someone whose conduct has threatened the well-being of other people or the church.

In response to the more recent allegations, the church has said that it allows its church leaders to pay for therapy for its members, but added it could not say how much money, if any, bishops have paid to Owen specifically.

Sam Penrod, a spokesperson for the church, said it does not screen therapists that its leaders are paying. He said that Family Services, a nonprofit arm of the church, maintains a list of licensed professionals that bishops can refer to when recommending therapy. It does not individually vet those mental health workers, he added. That, he said, falls to individual church members.

“It is up to Church members who are referred to a therapist by a bishop or other referral to make their own decisions when it comes to using a licensed therapist,” Penrod wrote in an email.

Millet, now 36, said going to therapy with Owen was his bishop’s “firm counsel.” It was that same bishop who had given him the required ecclesiastical recommendation to attend BYU, and he feared that not following what his bishop said could impact his academic career. Losing his bishop’s endorsement meant he would not have been able to attend the church-owned university.

“Since he referred me to Scott, who was another bishop at the time, it seemed that this was required of me academically and religiously,” Millet said. “Trying to say no to either of them would have been overwhelming at that time in my life.”

Sexual touching in a therapy session is considered unethical by all major mental health professional organizations, and Utah licensers consider it “unprofessional conduct” that can lead to discipline. It’s also illegal in Utah.

State licensers stopped Owen from practicing in 2018 after investigating at least three complaints of inappropriate touching in a two-year period. Penrod has said that the LDS legal department also learned of alleged inappropriate conduct that same year. The August article from the Tribune/ProPublica revealed that one former patient had reported the alleged abuse to both his bishop and state licensers in 2016.

Since that article was published, other entities have responded: Police in Provo are investigating. Brigham Young University has reevaluated its relationship with Owen’s business. And Canyon Counseling cut ties with him before announcing in September that it was closing altogether.

But the church has not publicly reevaluated its own role in referring these men to a therapist they now say abused them.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Canyon Counseling in Provo.

‘Bishop pay’

According to the church handbook, bishops can pay for clothes, food or medical services for members who are in need. The money for this comes from member donations after monthly Fast Sundays, a prayer-filled day when members are encouraged to donate what money they would have spent on food and drink to help the poor and needy.

Church guidance tells bishops that this money, called “fast offerings,” should be used to pay for only essential items, like food, clothes or housing. It may also “be used to pay for personal services such as counseling, medical care, or vocational training.”

The handbook gives little guidance as to how a bishop should recommend a therapist or other medical professional or how to ensure a church member is receiving quality care. It says that when a church member is seeking counseling about “intimacy,” a bishop should refer them to “professionals who specialize in such counseling and whose beliefs and practices are consistent with Church doctrine.”

The term “bishop pay” is listed as an option for form of payment on several websites of Utah-based therapists, usually on the same page as insurance forms and other pay rate information. Several Utah-based therapy businesses require that anyone using this payment method also sign a confidentiality waiver allowing therapists to share patient information with the patient’s bishop.

When asked what privacy expectations a church member can expect when a bishop pays for their therapy, Penrod said church leaders may follow up with a therapist to ensure the member is keeping their appointments and “pursuing goals set by the therapist.”

“Otherwise,” he said, “it is Family Services policy that HIPAA principles are closely followed and the content of sessions including diagnostics, progress notes and observations are not shared with anyone, including bishops, without a release signed by the client.”

HIPAA is a federal law to protect people’s medical records from being shared by health care providers without a patient’s knowledge.

Owen is one of several Utah therapists who have received church funds for sessions who in recent weeks have been accused of abusive behavior.

One therapist, Jodi Hildebrant, ran an online self-improvement program with Utah parenting advice YouTuber Ruby Franke. Both are accused of aggravated child abuse after Franke’s children were allegedly found malnourished in Hildebrant’s home in August; Hildebrant agreed to stop practicing therapy after her arrest until the charges are resolved. Hildebrant’s niece said during a Mormon Stories podcast interview that she handled the billing at one point for her aunt’s business, and that many of Hildebrandt’s clients’ bills were paid by their local church leaders.

Another therapist is facing felony charges for allegedly physically abusing a client during counseling sessions. His life coaching and therapy website offers an option for billing to be sent to bishops. It also includes a form that requires patients whose treatment is paid for by the church to agree to waive their privacy rights and allow a therapist to share any health information with their bishop “without limitation.”

Neither of these mental health professionals have entered a plea to the charges against them.

Mark, who is being identified by his middle name to protect his privacy because not all of the experiences detailed here are known to people in his life, is another of the three former patients who came forward after publication of the earlier article. He told The Tribune and ProPublica about therapy sessions the church paid for where, he said, Owen held him.

Mark began to see Owen in 2008, he said, after his church leader suggested therapy. Mark had been in the middle of a disciplinary process with the church at that time after being unfaithful to his wife with a man.

At that time, many Latter-day Saint authorities taught that being gay was a choice, and the church opposed measures to allow same-sex couples to marry. The church has since said that sexuality is not a choice, but still does not allow its members to be married to someone of their same sex.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mark, who is being identified by his middle name to protect his privacy, was referred to Owen at a time when he was being disciplined by the church. He said he didn’t feel like he had any other choice but to go.

Mark, who is bisexual, had been disfellowshipped — now called “membership restricted” — which means that while he was encouraged to attend church, he was not allowed to take the sacrament, or Communion, enter a Latter-day Saint temple or give sermons. It is considered a step below the most severe action the church can take against its members, which is excommunication, now termed “membership withdrawal.”

Though he’s no longer a believing member, Mark said it was important to him at the time to follow the guidance of his faith leader and attend counseling with Owen in order to get back into good standing with the church.

“There’s definitely a bit of pressure there,” he said. “Like what if I say no? Is that going to make my bishop think that I’m not repentant?”

Mark remembers paying a portion of the therapy cost for the handful of sessions he had with Owen. His bishop, he said, picked up the rest of the bill.

Like other former patients who spoke to The Tribune, Mark recalled how Owen had told him that he had a “fear of intimacy” and suggested that they embrace as they sat on a couch in Owen’s office. Mark did not see Owen for long, relocating shortly after their therapy sessions started.

Millet, the then-BYU student, saw Owen a year later. He said his therapy sessions began similarly, and that Owen also said he was teaching Millet to be “intimate” without being sexual. He trusted Owen because he was a therapist and a church leader, and he remembers that at first the embraces felt powerful — and positive.

“I’m this vulnerable gay kid from BYU,” Millet recalled. “I was just craving this physical touch. And it was wonderful.”

But the touching, Millet said, gradually became more sexual, and he found the sessions confusing. Owen directed Millet to take his clothes off during many sessions, Millet remembers, while the therapist remained clothed. They would often kiss, he said, with Owen touching Millet’s thighs or his bottom.

Millet kept seeing Owen for a year and a half, he said, until the therapist ended their sessions when Millet became engaged to a woman.

‘We opened an investigation’

Even after Owen surrendered his license in 2018 in response to several patient complaints to licensers of inappropriate touching, there was no criminal investigation, and he appears to have continued to play an active role in his business. A woman who worked at Canyon Counseling for about six months last year — and who asked that her name not be used because she works as a therapist and doesn’t want to be associated with the business — said that Owen led monthly training sessions with the young therapists who worked there and recalled that he taught them about “how to incorporate theology and religion into therapy.”

The woman, whose past employment with Canyon Counseling was verified by The Tribune, said Owen had told her that he no longer saw patients because Canyon Counseling’s “business was booming” and one of the owners needed to focus their work on handling that growth. Owen did not respond to questions asking about his role in the business after he surrendered his license.

Melanie Hall, a spokesperson for Utah’s licensing division, said a therapist who teaches isn’t required to be licensed if they are not also treating patients.

It was only after the publication of the Salt Lake Tribune/ProPublica investigation, however, that Owen’s role in the business changed dramatically. First, on Aug. 15, less than two weeks after the article appeared, Owen was removed from state business records as Canyon’s Counseling registered agent. Soon after, the practice noted on its website that Owen has “no ownership nor any other affiliation in any manner” with the business.

The business itself also faced repercussions. This summer, BYU’s Student Center — where four Canyon Counseling therapists worked — began reevaluating its relationship with the business “as it learned of concerns about one of the owners,” according to university spokesperson Carri Jenkins. She said that because Owen had never practiced there, the Student Health Center was previously unaware that he had surrendered his license.

Then, in late September, Canyon Counseling announced it was closing altogether. A therapist who worked there at that time, Shawn Edgington, has since reopened the business as Palisades Counseling.

Edgington said his business has “no ties” to Owen, adding that “any alleged abuse by Mr. Owen is completely unacceptable and not condoned in any manner by Palisades Counseling.”

“Palisades Counseling and its therapists, do NOT tolerate abuse of any kind,” he wrote in an email. “Any kind of abuse of women, children, or anyone is completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated in any form by Palisades Counseling and its therapists.”

Neither the church nor Utah licensers would comment on whether they reported Owen to police. But Provo police officials said the first time they learned that a former therapist in their city had been accused of sexual abuse was after the news organizations published their investigation in August.

“We opened an investigation after we saw your initial report,” Provo’s Capt. Brian Taylor told a Tribune reporter, “and we have offered interviews to anyone who has something to say about their experience at Canyon Counseling, with Dr. Scott Owen. And we continue to do that.”

Taylor said the investigation is still open, and the Provo police are seeking to speak with other people with allegations of abuse involving Owen. He said they have been in contact with “more than one” alleged victim so far.

It’s the first time local police have looked into whether Owen’s purported therapy practices are illegal.

In Utah, with few exceptions, the state licensing division is not legally required to forward information to law enforcement. At least one state — Ohio — mandates that medical boards report felonies to the police. The Federation of State Medical Boards encouraged boards in a 2020 report to err on the side of reporting physicians to the police in cases of allegations of sexual misconduct.

“Best practices dictate that boards have a duty to report to law enforcement anytime they become aware of sexual misconduct or instances of criminal behavior,” the report recommended.

Hall, the spokesperson for Utah’s licensing division, said licensers do collaborate and report crimes to police agencies “often,” though she would not not explain under what circumstances they would do so.

Mollie Simon, ProPublica, contributed research.