Lawsuit: LDS Church failed to keep Navajo child safe from abuse

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) LDS Church Office Building, Wednesday, June 28, 2017.

Flagstaff, Ariz. • Another member of the Navajo Nation is suing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, saying he was abused in a now-defunct program that sent children into foster care for the school year.

Unlike similar lawsuits, the complaint filed Tuesday in tribal court doesn’t seek changes to the policies of the church. It seeks unspecified monetary damages for decades of alleged emotional harm, including attempted suicide.

"This poor guy. He was devastated by what happened, just devastated," said David Jordan, an attorney for the man identified as LB in court documents. "He has not escaped it his entire life."

LB was baptized into the Salt Lake City-based faith before he started the fifth grade in 1984 and placed with a Latter-day Saint foster family in Utah. He was one of thousands of Native Americans who participated in the church’s Indian Student Placement Program that aimed to give children educational opportunities they didn’t have on the reservation. The voluntary program started in the late 1940s and ended around 2000.

The lawsuit says that LB was sexually molested three times in the 1980s by a church bishop who lived across the street from his foster family, twice at the bishop’s home and once at a church office. The bishop persuaded LB to return to his home the second time by offering him candy, the lawsuit states.

LB told his foster mother about the abuse, but she accused him of lying. She sent him to bed without dinner and grounded him another time, according to the lawsuit. His foster father spanked him for reporting abuse to a caseworker, the lawsuit states. LB also said he told a teacher.

LB was sent back home to the Navajo Nation after he stole from his foster family, part of his plan to get kicked out of the foster program, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit says the church failed to keep LB safe and did not have a way to supervise those who participated in the placement program. The church did not report the abuse to law enforcement, the victim's family or the public, the lawsuit states.

"If somebody takes your child and says 'I will keep them safe,' I think the highest duty imposed on that person should be safety and security until they're returned," Jordan said.

The church's media representatives didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. But they previously have said the church works to prevent abuse.

Jordan filed a similar lawsuit in October on behalf of a Navajo woman identified as CB who alleges she was sexually abused in 1976 by her foster brother, who threatened he would do worse things if she told anyone. She was moved to another home after reporting the abuse, the lawsuit filed in tribal court states.

Jordan also is representing a Navajo woman identified as BN whose case was part of a group reportedly settled last year, but she wanted to move forward with the claims she first filed in 2016, he said.

The church has sought to keep tribal courts from hearing the cases, arguing the Navajo Nation doesn’t have jurisdiction. But a tribal judge says it does because the program was based on the reservation, even though the children were sent to homes in Utah, Arizona and Idaho.

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