Two Navajo siblings are suing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, claiming they endured “horrific” sexual abuse while participating in the church-operated Indian Student Placement Program.
The lawsuit, filed March 24 in Navajo Nation District Court in Window Rock, Arizona, alleges that a brother and sister were removed from their home on the reservation in the 1970s and placed with foster families in Utah. Both plaintiffs claim they experienced repeated sexual abuse and rape while on the program, which operated from 1947 to 2000 and attracted Native students from all over the United States and Canada.
Attorney Billy Keeler said his clients—age 10 and 11 when the alleged abuse began—were living with 10 other siblings in Sawmill, Arizona. After their mother volunteered them for the program, several of the children were baptized into the church and moved to Utah.
The sexual abuse started in the siblings’ first foster families and continued after they were moved to other homes, the lawsuit states. They also witnessed abuse of other siblings by foster families or associates.
Keeler said his clients told at least two program leaders of the abuse, but their “cries for help fell on deaf ears as they were placed in homes where they were abused again.”
The clients, who are not being named because of the sensitive nature of the case, were victimized twice, Keeler said. “They were victims of sexual predators and an organization that failed to protect them, even after it had notice of what was happening.”
The lawsuit alleges that the LDS Church (also known as the Mormons) failed to protect children in members’ homes and then concealed instances of sexual abuse by instructing members and leaders not to report abuse to criminal or civil authorities. It seeks unspecified damages for physical, emotional and spiritual suffering, as well as written apologies, changes in church policy and the creation of a task force to work with the Navajo Nation to address cultural and social harm.
In a statement, church spokeswoman Kristen Howey said the church will examine the lawsuit and respond appropriately. The church doesn’t tolerate any kind of abuse, she said.
The church’s official statement about child abuse claims that the church is almost never sued for abuse perpetrated by its bishops. Instead, such cases usually involve one member who has abused another—often outside of any official church activity.
“No court in the United States has held a religious institution responsible for failing to protect its members from abuse by other members,” the statement reads. “To do so would turn religious institutions into police instruments, its leadership into law enforcement officers.”
The Indian Student Placement Program, the brainchild of Mormon apostle Spencer W. Kimball, offered Native children “educational, spiritual, social and cultural opportunities in non-Indian community life.” It also sought to restore Native people—sometimes called Lamanites—to their “prophetic destiny.”
Mormons believe that America’s indigenous population fled from Israel in the year 600 B.C.E. After settling in an unspecified location in the Americas, the people split into two groups: the Nephites were righteous and civilized while the Lamanites were “idle, savage and bloodthirsty.” God cursed the Lamanites with a “skin of blackness” to distinguish them from the Nephites.
The Indian Student Placement Program, which pulled children as young as 8 from their homes and sent them to live with Mormon foster families, helped reverse the curse. In 1960, Kimball claimed Natives who participated in the program were gradually turning lighter, becoming “white and delightsome.”
“The day of the Lamanites is nigh,” Kimball said, claiming that Navajo placement students were “as light as Anglos” and, in one case, several shades lighter than parents “on the same reservation, in the same hogan, subject to the same sun and wind and weather.”
This “curse doctrine” itself is problematic, attorney Craig Vernon said. Children are brought up in the Mormon Church believing they have a responsibility to reach out to Natives and bring them back into the fold.
“It’s all rooted in this racist doctrine,” he said. “Whenever you have a group of people who feel superior to another group of people, it’s ripe for this kind of abuse.” You’ve got little kids away from their home, and frankly they’re second-class citizens. Perhaps this was well-intentioned by the church, but there’s a problem when kids are told that if they’re righteous their skin can become white.”
The lawsuit names as defendants the LDS Church as a corporation, along with the presiding bishop, the church’s department of social services and the church as an “unincorporated religious association.” It seeks to hold the church “vicariously liable” for the actions of its members.
Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that the church protected its image above the interests of the children. Church policy directs members to report child abuse to clergy instead of law enforcement, the lawsuit states. Leaders are instructed to “avoid testifying in civil or criminal cases or other proceedings involving abuse.”
Vernon said the church did not provide enough oversight. An estimated 40,000 Native children and teens from 60 different tribes participated in the program.
“The church assumed that if these people were Mormon, they were good people and that was the end of it,” Vernon said. “The problem with the Mormon Church is that you have lay clergy making decisions on child sex abuse, and then you run into trouble.”