February 23, 2021, EUGENE, OREGON –
- After conviction for sex abuse, Mormon Church allowed perpetrator to continue as youth leader.
- Mormon Church wrote letter to court supporting shorter probation for convicted pedophile.
- Perpetrator continued to serve as licensed counselor for decades until his license was stripped for repeated reports of sexual misconduct with young male patients.
- New case puts Mormon’s secret “Red Flag” documents at issue.
A new child sexual abuse lawsuit was filed today in Eugene federal court against the national headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the “LDS” or “Mormon” Church). The suit alleges repeated sexual abuse of the plaintiff as a boy by an adult Mormon youth leader named Ron Kerlee. According to the lawsuit, the Mormon Church failed to protect children after learning on at least six different occasions that Kerlee had sexually abused children.
The abuse at issue in the lawsuit is alleged to have occurred in the 1980s in connection with the youth program at the Corvallis congregation (or “Stake”) of the Mormon Church. The alleged perpetrator – Ron Kerlee – was a member of the Corvallis Stake of the Mormon Church. According to the lawsuit, Ron Kerlee became a youth Seminary Teacher, Sunday School Leader, and youth leader within the LDS Church’s youth program.
The lawsuit alleges that Kerlee abused him on dozens of occasions over a number of years. The abuse included Kerlee groping the boy’s genitals, masturbating the boy, performing oral sex on him, and, on some occasions, penetrating him. The lawsuit also alleges that Kerlee videotaped his abuse of the boy. The plaintiff alleges that abuse went on for several years and ended in 1985 or 1986 when he was 15 or 16 years old.
The lawsuit alleges that Mormon church officials learned that Kerlee was dangerous on at least six different occasions, but failed to take action to remove Kerlee from a leadership position or otherwise protect the children in the church. In November of 1983, Kerlee was convicted of Sodomy III (Class C Felony). Kerlee received a suspended sentence of five years of probation. Public records show the LDS Church submitted a letter to the court in support of early termination of Kerlee’s probation.
Despite the criminal conviction, the lawsuit alleges that the Mormon Church allowed Kerlee to continue to serve in positions of leadership over youth in the Corvallis Stake until the late 1980s.
The suit also alleges that the Plaintiff was abused after the Church knew Kerlee was a danger.
“Despite learning that there was a sexual predator in their midst, the Mormon Church leaders did not warn families or investigate about other victims. Instead, the Mormon Church kept the conviction a secret from children and their parents while lobbying the Court on the perpetrator’s behalf — helping him shave off two years of his probation,” said Stephen Crew, attorney for the Plaintiff.
- “We believe the evidence in this case is going to show that the perpetrator held various positions with youth in the LDS Church, where he met and gained the trust of this victim and many other children. These children and their parents had no idea they were being targeted by a predator. But we intend to prove that the Church knew of the danger– and that they decided to keep it a secret and allow this man to continue as a church youth leader,” said Peter Janci, attorney for the Plaintiff.
The lawsuit also alleges that this incident was part of a larger pattern in the Mormon Church. The lawsuit alleges that from at least the 1960s, the Church “knew that LDS Youth Leader positions across the United States were being used by predatory child molesters to gain access to and victimize children and that LDS Defendants had an institution-wide or systemic child abuse problem.” The lawsuit alleges that the LDS Church “documented this knowledge, including in individual ‘Red Flags,’ ‘annotations’ or documents within or related to perpetrators’ LDS church membership files[.]” Based on this information, the Plaintiff alleges that the LDS Church knew about “widespread and repeated occurrence of child molestation by LDS Youth Leaders,” and also “the methods by which predatory child molesters used . . . the LDS Youth Program to accomplish their abuse of children.” Though public discussion of the Mormon Church’s use of “Red Flags” is somewhat limited, the Salt Lake Tribune has reported on the practice in relation to members who are LGBTQ+.
“We intend to prove that our client’s abuse was just one example in a much larger pattern of abuse within the Mormon Church. We intend to seek discovery of all the Church’s ‘Red Flag’ documents to allow an Oregon jury to determine what the Mormon Church knew, when they knew it, and what they did about it,” said Janci.
The lawsuit alleges that in allowing Kerlee to continue as a youth leader and keeping his dangerousness a secret, the Mormon Church acted “with a reckless and outrageous indifference to a highly unreasonable risk of harm and with a conscious indifference to the health, safety, and welfare of others.” On this basis, the lawsuit seeks punitive damages to deter the church from future failures to protect children.
“Historically, punitive damages in Oregon have been an important tool to allow juries to punish organizations for turning a blind eye towards child abuse and to send a message deterring such callous behavior in the future. We are hopeful that an Oregon jury will have the opportunity to make that determination in this case,” said Crew.
Attorneys from Crew Janci were part of the plaintiff’s trial team in the 2010 child sexual abuse case, Kerry Lewis v. Boy Scouts of America, in which an Oregon jury returned a $19.9 million verdict for the victim, including $18.5 million in punitive damages against the Boy Scouts of America.
In today’s case against the Mormon Church, the plaintiff alleges that, as a result of the abuse, he has experienced significant pain and suffering, including “shame, guilt, anxiety, stress, low self-esteem, depression, suicidal ideation, social isolation, embarrassment, avoidance, denial, obsessive behaviors, anger, issues with authority, and distrust of others.” The lawsuit seeks $5 million in non-economic damages for the plaintiff’s emotional pain and suffering, as well as $500,000 for economic costs for future medical and mental health treatment.
The lawsuit alleges that the Plaintiff is bringing the suit now because, until recently, “the psychological effects of the abuse Plaintiff suffered prevented Plaintiff from discovering the causal connection between the abuse and the damages he suffered as a result of the abuse.” Oregon law provides for a special extended statute of limitations to allow victims of child abuse to bring claims later in life when they are able to understand the impact the abuse has had on them.
“Ever since he was a child, Plaintiff has been forced to live with negative repercussions of the abuse without even realizing the cause. Meanwhile, the Church and the perpetrator have continued on with business as usual. The evidence will show that the perpetrator remained a member of the Mormon Church in Corvallis for decades after his criminal conviction for sexual abuse” said Crew.
In addition to his participation in the Mormon Church, Kerlee also continued to serve as a licensed professional counselor until 2014 – when his license was finally revoked by the State of Oregon “for engaging in sexual contact with a counseling client.” The state found that Kerlee, then 71 years old, was treating a “young man in college who suffered from depression, low self-esteem and had concerns about his sexuality.” The state found that Kerlee used the counseling sessions to engage the client in “discussions about sex and pornography,” exposed his erect penis to the young man and “mutually masturbated” with the client on multiple occasions. The client “felt he needed to [engage in the sexual contact] to make [the counselor] happy.” The state also found that there was at least one other prior complaint about Kerlee engaging in sexual misconduct with young male patients. The State of Oregon ultimately found that Kerlee “harmed Client and exploited the trust Client had in him” and revoked Kerlee’s counseling license.
“We have evidence that Ron Kerlee had victims in the Mormon Church in the 1980s and we have evidence that Ron Kerlee had victims in his counseling practice in 2012. What we don’t know is how many other vulnerable individuals he may have victimized during the decades between those two points,” said Janci.
The plaintiff in today’s lawsuit is represented by Portland-based law firm Crew Janci LLP — considered one of the “go to” law firms for sexual abuse cases, in Oregon and beyond. In addition to their Boy Scout work, they have made national news representing victims of abuse at elite private schools, like the Pingry School in New Jersey. They currently represent many of the victims with sexual abuse claims against Catlin Gabel school, and have other cases pending against the public schools, the Archdiocese of Portland and other youth-serving organizations. They also currently represent several Native Americans sexually abused by an Indian Health Services doctor in a case against the federal government.
Anyone with information about Ron Kerlee or abuse in the Mormon Church is asked to contact the victim’s attorneys at: 1-888-407-0224.
Attorneys from Crew Janci are available for further comment:
- Steve Crew: 503-306-0224 (o) / 503-804-3884 (m) [email protected]
- Peter Janci: 503-306-0224 (o) / 503-550-6577 (m) [email protected]
Crew Janci LLP www.crewjanci.com