Father molested his children for years and Mormon bishops did not report it to police, lawsuit and documentary claim
Kristy Johnson speaks during a news conference Thursday, June 28, 2018, in Salt Lake City. Johnson, a California woman suing her father for sexual abuse that occurred during her childhood, says Mormon church leaders allowed the sexual assault to continue by failing to report it to police. Johnson said that her now-deceased mother told local church leaders about the abuse multiple times during the 1960-1970s. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Kristy Johnson remembers the routine. Growing up, her father would take her to a basketball game at Brigham Young University, where he worked, and each time, after the final buzzer, they’d walk over to his office. There, she says, he would close the door, lock it and molest her for a few minutes.
They always went out for ice cream when he was done.
Johnson says she was 6 years old when it started. Now, 55, she says it’s time for him to be held accountable.
“The memories, the details, started coming back as I got older,” she said. “The anger is there and the courage grows in you.”
In a milestone case, Johnson filed suit Wednesday against her father, saying he groped her and her siblings for years while clergy from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints counseled the man, who was a church employee, but never informed police. The Mormon church, however, is not named a defendant.
Johnson is suing only her father, Melvin Kay Johnson, 81.
The family’s story also is the subject of a short documentary called “Glass Temples,” which showed Thursday at the Salt Lake City Public Library. Johnson spoke after the film, sitting on stage next to one of her brothers, sharing her experience and taking questions from the audience of about 100.
“As a child you kind of compartmentalize,” she said. “You make yourself deal with it, and it’s a weird thing you do as a victim.”
The documentary includes corroboration of the abuse from Johnson’s siblings and an acknowledgement by Melvin Johnson. The film shows three of his children coming to his Lehi home with a camera to confront him. The man shakes and stutters as he says: “Years ago, I molested my daughters. All three of them.”
“I knew it was wrong, but I did it. I was selfish.”
Kristy Johnson’s attorney, Craig Vernon, sat in the auditorium as it played. “He’s admitted to molesting his kids,” Vernon said.
Melvin Johnson did not return phone and email messages sent to him Thursday. Representatives of the LDS Church did not immediately offer comment.
The lawsuit doesn’t specify the amount of money Kristy Johnson is seeking from her father. The complaint says she also wants a judge to order Melvin Johnson to lobby the LDS Church for policies that better protect abuse victims.
“We didn’t choose this,” she says in the film. “It happened to us. It wasn’t our choice. But we’re damn sure going to do something about it.”
The lawsuit claims the elder Johnson began molesting his daughter in 1969, when she was 6, and the abuse continued until she was 21, when she left home to serve an LDS mission; in the documentary, he says it started in 1977. Kristy Johnson alleges her father molested her at their home in Ogden, in her father’s offices at Brigham Young University and later when the family moved to California.
Melvin Johnson worked at the Church Educational System, the LDS Church institutions providing religious education to children and adults. He also taught religion at BYU, Vernon said.
“Every time they moved to a different place,” Vernon said, “the mother would report it to a bishop.” He said Kristy Johnson’s mother died in 2015.
Rather than report the abuse to police, the lawsuit says, LDS bishops would counsel Melvin Johnson or treat the case as a church discipline matter.
“There was no clergy privilege to hide behind when mom reported it to bishops,” Vernon said. “She’s not the confessor.”
Other children in the home also were abused, the lawsuit says. One of them, Kathy Johnson, appears in “Glass Temples.” She alleges that church leaders “made sure that my father never served time.”
When Kristy Johnson returned from her mission, her complaint says, she and her siblings reported their father to the police. Vernon said the report was made in Orange County, Calif. No criminal charges were filed. And the lawsuit says the local LDS stake president chastised Kristy Johnson for reporting a church matter to police. During the documentary, too, the siblings call Lehi police officers, who came to the house but did not arrest the elder Johnson.
Vernon said at some point Melvin Johnson was excommunicated for a year. There was an annotation on his church record for a few years, Vernon said, then the LDS Church removed that annotation in 2007.
Vernon also is the attorney representing McKenna Denson, who is suing the LDS Church and former
Missionary Training Center President and former Weber State University President Joseph L. Bishop. Denson says Bishop raped her. He and the church have denied that.
While Kristy Johnson’s lawsuit is in federal court, it is filed under a Utah law that allows victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue the perpetrators without any statute of limitations. The exemption does not apply to institutions, Vernon said. In the Denson case, the LDS Church is being sued instead under a fraud theory.