Sexual abuse case against Mormon church begins in West Virginia
Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Temple Square came to life shortly after dusk in multitudes of lights, downtown Salt Lake City, November 29, 2013.
Michael Jensen preyed on children in the close-knit Mormon community around Martinsburg, West Virginia. At least, that's how law enforcement officials and at least half a dozen families see it now.
But for years, Jensen was a trusted member of the local church community, a young man whom Mormon leaders praised as a role model for youths — and recommended as a babysitter for one child after another, even as reports allegedly came back to some church volunteers that Jensen was sexually abusing boys and girls as young as two.
Five years ago, Jensen went to jail
for abusing two children.
But a group of parents say now that it's not just Jensen who should be held responsible; it's the much larger Mormon hierarchy in West Virginia that they believe failed to respond appropriately to complaints about Jensen. The six families, who all say their children were abused by Jensen, are suing local Mormon leaders and the global church
Like the Catholic Church, these parents say, the Mormon church needs to be exposed for working to cloak the crimes of a community member against young children. For its part, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints argues — in a case that is scheduled to go to trial in Martinsburg this week — that Mormons have a strong tradition of reporting all suspected child abuse to law enforcement.
Jensen, the church will say, was a troubled young man whose crimes simply went undetected at first, not a beneficiary of church protection.
"Despite Plaintiffs' misleading rhetoric, this is not a clergy-abuse case. There is no correlation between this case and the terrible clergy-abuse scandals that have dominated the headlines," lawyers for the church wrote in a court filing. "Rather, this case involves a mere teenage congregant . . . who committed sexual abuse in settings with no connection to the Church."
Due to a court gag order, the lawyers and witnesses involved in the case are barred from speaking publicly about it before trial, and many of the court filings are under seal. The Post attempted to reach the defendants and their lawyers; all either declined to talk due to the gag order or did not respond.
Clergy in the Mormon church are not full-time ordained professionals like Catholic priests; instead, local congregations, called wards, and groups of congregations, called stakes, are helmed by volunteer lay leaders who generally are married and have day jobs outside the church.
Across the country and internationally, a handful of Mormon lay leaders have been found guilty in sexual abuse cases, including bishops found guilty in Utah and in California
of sexually abusing girls in their wards and a youth leader in Australia
convicted of abusing boys in his youth group.
In this case, the families suing the church say they believe that church leaders knew about Jensen's abuse of children and recommended him as a babysitter anyway; the defendants dispute the timeline of when they learned of the abuse.
The record of crime committed by Jensen — a son and grandson of very involved church members, and a faithful teenage church attendee who became a missionary for the church — is horrible, both sides agree.
The case that he was criminally charged in, and for which he was eventually convicted and sentenced to at least 35 years in prison, involves brothers who were three and four years old when Jensen forced them to perform sex acts.
The parents say in their lawsuit that Jensen, now 26, abused at least nine children in total, and that at no point did church leaders act to stop the abuse. One alleged victim described in the suit was a four-year-old boy whom Jensen reportedly would put inside a cabinet or pin under a blanket weighed down with DVD players, until the boy performed a sex act. The boy's mother says that when she repeated what her son had described to Donald Fishel, who was then the bishop of the family's ward of the church, the bishop said he thought the four-year-old might have learned about the scene he described from a porn video, not from his own experience with Jensen.
In another instance, parents of a two-year-old boy who was born with one arm missing and the other arm shortened allegedly came home on a night that Jensen was babysitting to find abrasions and swelling that suggested their son had been sexually abused. The suit claims that the boy's father — one of the defendants in the lawsuit accused of protecting Jensen — told several church leaders about his son's injuries under Jensen's care, according to the suit. The suit also claims that the child's mother, a registered nurse, knew that a medical provider would be required to report suspected abuse if the couple took their son to a doctor with those symptoms. To avoid reporting to the authorities, they didn't seek medical care for their son, the lawsuit alleges.
The church sharply contests the allegations that leaders in the Martinsburg Stake were aware of Jensen's crimes for as long as five years and did not report the suspected abuse to police. Many of the children, the church's lawyers point out, did not tell their parents about the abuse until 2012 or 2013, years after it occurred. "Plaintiffs' far-fetched conspiracy theory is utterly implausible," the lawyers wrote.
The Mormon church has had a national 800-number for bishops and other leaders to report child abuse since 1995, the church said. Any member suspected of child abuse has his church record flagged so that he can't work with children, and members found guilty of child abuse can be excommunicated, according to the church.
Jensen was excommunicated after his sentencing in 2013.
In addition to the global church as a body and Fishel and the unnamed parent of the disabled 2-year-old as individuals, the suit names as defendants Steven Grow, who was president of the Martinsburg Stake of the church, and Jensen and his parents Christopher and SandraLee Jensen.
When Jensen was under criminal investigation in 2012, the church called him back from his service as a missionary to return to West Virginia. He didn't tell people why he left the customary period of mission service for young Mormon men; instead, he told at least one friend that he left because he was in a bicycle accident, according to the lawsuit. Jensen went to stay at the home of a friend.
The friend's father claims in the lawsuit that he told Fishel and Grow that Jensen was staying with him. He says Fishel told him it was a "good idea," because the man had health problems, and Jensen could help him around the house. Plus, Grow said Jensen would be a good role model to the man's teenage son, who had missed church for several weeks, the friend's father said in the lawsuit.
Neither church leader mentioned the ongoing investigation, according to the father, who is one of the parents suing the church. While Jensen was staying in the house, he allegedly abused the man's three young children.
In their court filing, the church defendants argued that Grow knew too little about the investigation at that point to discuss it, and that the alleged abuse of two of those children was actually just a few instances of touching the children over their clothing that the victims initially considered accidental. They did not address allegations about the third child.
Jensen couldn't stay at his own house. The Jensen parents kicked him out of their home and made him start sleeping in the back yard around 2006 or 2007, when he was 15 or 16 when they caught him abusing one of his sisters, the lawsuit claims.
At the same time, allegedly, his mother started recommending him to other Mormon families as a babysitter.