A Navajo Nation judge is refusing to dismiss lawsuits alleging Native American children were sexually abused while enrolled in a Mormon church foster program.

Judge Carol Perry said in the ruling released Thursday the cases should be heard in Navajo court.

The allegations were said to have taken place outside the Navajo Nation in Utah or Arizona, but the judge found tribal courts have jurisdiction because the program was based there. Perry also cited a fundamental Navajo belief that children must not be mistreated.

The lawsuits say The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints failed to protect children from sexual abuse after they were placed with host families.

Thousands of children participated in the now-defunct Indian Placement Program that was meant to give children educational opportunities from the late 1940s until around 2000.

A church spokesman declined to comment on the decision. Leaders have said the church works to prevent abuse.