The following story was reported in the “Case Reports of the Mormon Church Alliance,” (“Case Reports”) published in 1995. We review it here as part of our series on the problem of child sexual abuse in the LDS (Mormon) Church. Of course, we make no representations concerning the accuracy of all of the facts alleged below; but, if true, this story is instructive in understanding more about child abuse in the Mormon Church.
In October 1994 a grand jury in Santa Barbara County, California indicted Michael Shean on twenty-six counts of lewd and lascivious acts with at least nine minors; in a plea bargain, prosecutors dropped twenty-two of the counts, and he pled guilty to the remainder. His story is an example of what can happen if church authorities do not take allegations of child abuse seriously.
In May 1995, Shean’s case was profiled by the Santa Barbara News Press. The paper noted that fifteen people, many in the Church, who were close to Shean had known of his past sexual behavior but didn’t come forward to authorities because they believed he could be healed of his pedophilia through spiritual means. The Santa Barbara News Press concluded by stating, “They may have missed an opportunity to stop a man described by prosecutors as a predatory child molester.”
According to the Case Reports, Shean “was a counselor in the bishopric in January 1980 when two full-time missionaries told church leaders that Shean had been sexually molesting them. Shean reportedly confessed, not only to their charge but admitted to “decades of extensive homosexual pedophilia.” He was excommunicated, but no one in the LDS Church reported Shean’s activities to the police. Shean moved from north Santa Maria (First Ward) to Lake Marie Estates (Second Ward) after his excommunication.
Acting on the recommendation and referral of the stake president, Shean began weekly therapy sessions with an LDS Social Services clinical psychologist in San Luis Obispo. The therapist, one of three church-approved psychologists recommended to Shean, was reportedly known in the area to be “a fruit loop as a therapist.” For example, reports indicate that he counseled a gay youth in his early teens to make himself unattractive to those in his high school who were picking on him for his effeminate behavior by eating large quantities of candy to develop pimples. The youth initially followed this advice but found it unsuccessful.
Shean’s thirteen month course of therapy is described in letters to Mormon Church leaders from Shean, the Stake President, and the Therapist. For example, in April 1981, the therapist reportedly wrote to Shean’s bishop and a special agent with the FBI in Ventura, informing him that “Shean’s therapy has been a success” and recommending rebaptism. The therapist added: ” ‘I would have no hesitation allowing him (Shean) to work with my own sons…. However, to ease the minds of those who may be hesitant, I would ask that Mike not be allowed to work with youth for the next five years…. It is my opinion that permanent change has taken place in this man.’”
Shean was reportedly rebaptized in 1981 with no restrictions on ministering to Mormon youth. However, in 1994 one of the youths who had had contact with Shean filed a claim of sexual misconduct against him. According to the “Case Reports of the Mormon Alliance”, “the investigation among his young clients and the youth he had coached eventually included nine alleged victims. In September, sheriffs’ deputies armed with search warrants served on him at home and his law office confiscated instruments of the alleged crimes: a hand-held vibrator, creams and lotions, child pornography, notes and appointment books, and the letters written by Shean, his supportive wife, his therapist, and his ecclesiastical leaders between August 1981 and May 1983.”
This pattern of abuse is sadly not atypical in sexual abuse cases in California or other states where we’ve represented survivors of abuse. All too often churches and institutions like the Latter Day Saints, the Catholic Church or the Boy Scouts have allowed known sexual abusers continuing access to unsuspecting or vulnerable youth. The consequences are tragic and life-altering.