One of the best strategies for stopping the sexual abuse of children today is to examine allegations of abuse from the past. In the next few weeks, our lawyers will write a series of blog posts about allegations of sexual abuse in the Church of Latter Day Saints (popularly known as the Mormon Church).
NOTE: The following is a summary of allegations of abuse against a man named Christopher Bearnson. This summary is based upon media reports (referenced below) and a report published in the “Case Reports of the Mormon Alliance” which was published in 1995.
In 1992, 27-year-old Christopher Bearnson was a respected father of three children and a Mormon priest who accompanied a group of young girls on a camping trip to Prado Regional Park in Chino, California. Bearnson was supposed to pray with the campers and provide a priestly presence to the outing. Instead, he reportedly invited four of the girls into his van and proceeded to give them massages. Bearnson reportedly singled out one girl in particular and molested her. According to later court testimony, the girl was so shocked and terrified she didn’t say anything to anyone until her bishop asked her mother to interview the girl. During the interview with Bishop Cutler, the girl reportedly broke down and revealed the abuse. After the interview, she then told her mother about her conversation with the bishop, including the abuse. Understandably upset, the girl’s mother called the Bishop, demanding an explanation as to why she wasn’t immediately informed that her daughter had reported that she had been molested.
The girl’s mother went to law enforcement and filed a sexual abuse lawsuit against the Mormon Church. According to media report, during court proceedings, other girls came forward and offered testimony about the abuse they stated they had suffered at the hands of Bearnson. Christopher Bearnson reportedly pled guilty to one count of lewd conduct with a child and was given five years’ probation. The Church of Latter Day Saints reportedly stripped Bearnson of his priesthood and supposedly excommunicated him.
According to media reports, Bearnson was accused of abusing other young girls in California as well. In November, 1993, the Los Angeles Times reported that a Pomona Superior Court jury found the Mormon Church “liable for the molestation of a 13-year-old girl” by Bearnson. The article reported that the jury found that “leaders in the Azusa third ward of the church acted with ‘conscious disregard’ for the girl’s rights and safety.”
According to www.childpro.org, the jury awarded actual and punitive damages based on evidence that one Mormon Bishop “attempted to cover up” the abuse and another Mormon Bishop refused to believe allegations of abuse by Bearnson. According to www.childpro.org, one of the Bishops reportedly stated that “Chris Bearnson is part of the priesthood and … nothing like that happens in our church” (although the Bishop later denied making this statement).
The reports of the situation involving Bearnson are sadly not that unusual in our experience dealing with allegations of sexual abuse within faith communities such as the Church of Latter Day Saints. A trusted elder or priest gains the confidence of the community, isolates an unsuspecting minor, showers attention on her, and then molests her. The institutional response that is reported to have occurred in the Bearnson situation is consistent with what we often see in our LDS cases. Church officials have often sought to protect the church rather than the child. They ignore the perpetrator’s history and then deny responsibility for his actions.