The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (also called the LDS Church or the Mormon Church) considers itself a sanctuary for its millions of members. But childhood sexual abuse survivors claim that the Church failed to protect them from sexual abusers like bishops, missionaries (volunteer representatives of the LDS Church), elders, home teachers, and Boy Scout leaders in church-sponsored troops.
Confronted by such an abuse of power and betrayal of trust, many people wonder who is legally responsible for the harm inflicted on the church's sexual abuse survivors. In this article, we'll:
Childhood sexual abuse is any sexualized behavior that happens within the church context. The perpetrator (sexual abuser) can be anyone (paid or volunteer) in a church leadership position. Sexual abuse can happen in a Mormon meetinghouse or temple. Or it can happen in LDS programs, including:
Acts of childhood sexual abuse can be overt (sexualized physical touching) or covert (sexualized talk, innuendo, or sharing pornography).
Some potential victims struggle to understand whether their experience fits the definition of church sexual abuse, because childhood sexual abuse can take many forms and it might have happened many years ago. If you are a survivor with questions about your situation, consider talking to a trusted lawyer. See below for more on how to connect with legal assistance and support networks.
Victims of childhood sexual abuse can potentially turn to criminal and civil courts for justice. A sexual abuser who is criminally prosecuted faces incarceration (jail, prison), fines, probation, and potentially sex registration.
Increasingly, survivors of sexual abuse are filing civil lawsuits over childhood sexual abuse (in addition to or instead of asking prosecutors to press criminal charges). Civil lawsuits seek money damages for the many types of harm—physical, mental, and financial—caused by childhood sexual abuse.
Survivors aren't limited to suing the individual who abused them. They can also sue any person, institution, or organization directly or indirectly involved with the sexual abuse. Why? Because state statutes (laws) and traditional personal injury rules (often negligence-based) impose a broad duty to protect children in institutions like churches.
For example, say a Mormon child was a member of a church-sponsored Boy Scout troop for many years. The troop leader, also an LDS Church member, sexually abused the child on Boy Scout camping trips. The troop leader would be liable for the abuse. And church officials might also be liable if they knew (or should have known) about the abuse and did nothing to protect the child (and other potential victims). The Church's potential liability would be even more clear if church officials (called bishops) knew about but failed to report the abuse to the police, or moved the perpetrator from troop to troop, or did both.
Each state and the federal government sets its own deadline (called a statute of limitation) for different kinds of lawsuits. Advocates have convinced some states to give survivors more time to file childhood sex abuse lawsuits, resulting in a flood of sexual abuse lawsuits against institutions like the Roman Catholic dioceses, U.S.A. gymnastics, and now the Boy Scouts of America and the Mormon Church.
Claims against the Mormon Church for childhood sexual abuse take different forms. Thousands of survivors have filed lawsuits or submitted claims over the LDS Church's alleged involvement in the sexual abuse of Boy Scouts. Other survivors have filed individual lawsuits against the Mormon Church for covering up sexual abuse they suffered by people like bishops, missionaries, and youth leaders. Let's take a closer look at both legal options for Mormon Church sexual abuse victims.
The Mormon Church served as a charter organization for the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) for over 100 years. The Church often required Mormon boys to sign up for Boy Scouts, and church members typically made up about 20% of BSA membership. Both the Scouts and the Mormon Church claimed that participating in Scouts would help members build moral character, learn life skills, and develop values like leadership and service. Now, thousands of former Scouts say they were sexually abused by Mormon Scout leaders while serving in church-sponsored troops.
An explosion of Boy Scout sexual abuse lawsuits was sparked in 2007, when six men sued the Boys Scouts in Oregon, claiming they were abused by an assistant Scout leader in the 1980s. During the trial, thousands of internal BSA records documenting sexual abuse were made public. In 2010, the plaintiffs (survivors) in that case were awarded $18.5 million in punitive damages.
The internal Boy Scout records revealed how the organization mismanaged and hid sexual abuse allegations, which led to an avalanche of sexual abuse lawsuits over the next 13 years. In February 2020, the BSA buckled under the weight of all of the sex-abuse lawsuits and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Survivors of BSA sexual abuse, including thousands of members of Mormon Church-sponsored BSA troops, had until November 16, 2020 to submit proof of their claim to the bankruptcy court for possible settlement.
As of September 2021, the Mormon Church has agreed to pay $250 million into a compensation fund for Boy Scout abuse victims. The Boy Scout compensation fund is one of the largest in U.S. history, totaling just under $1.9 million dollars. The compensation fund is part of BSA's proposed plan of reorganization. In order for the Boy Scouts to continue to operate, the plan must win approval from a majority of abuse victims and the bankruptcy court.
Victims who missed the Boy Scouts bankruptcy deadline (or decided to opt-out) and victims who were abused by Mormon Church leaders and volunteers outside of the BSA, might be able to file individual lawsuits against the church.
For example, in December 2020, seven former boy scouts in church-sponsored Boy Scout troops filed seven separate lawsuits against the Mormon Church in Arizona. The lawsuits allege that church officials knew that the boys were sexually abused and failed to notify authorities.
Other current and former LDS Church members have filed individual lawsuits against the Church for covering up sexual abuse by bishops, missionaries, home teachers, and other church employees and volunteers. A disturbing report compiled from publicly available court records, church files, and newspaper articles documents the widespread allegations of sexual abuse by Mormon church leaders and members from 1959-2017. (Warning: The report contains descriptions of childhood sexual abuse that might be difficult for some readers. See below to learn more about resources for childhood sexual abuse survivors.)
One potential hurdle to filing an individual sexual abuse lawsuit is the statute of limitations, as explained above. But states are increasingly extending previously tight filing windows for childhood sexual abuse lawsuits. For example, in 2019, Arizona gave childhood sexual abuse survivors an extra 10 years (until their 30th birthday) to file civil lawsuits. And survivors previously barred from filing a claim by the statute of limitations were given a one-time "lookback window" to file their lawsuits. That window closed on December 31, 2021 in Arizona, but lookback windows remain open in other states.
Finding the right path forward after surviving sexual abuse can be challenging under any circumstances. It can be especially complicated when a place the survivor has traditionally turned to for comfort and strength—the Mormon Church—perpetrated or failed to protect the victim from sexual abuse.
Many organizations are dedicated to providing immediate help to sexual abuse survivors. Survivor Resources: Taking Action After Sexual Abuse is a good place to start for information about survivor assistance and anti-abuse resources.
Survivors who want to pursue criminal charges should consider reporting abuse to the police and learn more about pressing charges for a criminal act.
Survivors who would like to know more about filing a civil lawsuit against their abusers should talk to a lawyer who specializes in childhood sexual abuse cases. An experienced lawyer will have the skills and resources necessary to take on an institution like the Mormon Church. An initial consultation is usually free and everything you talk about with the attorney is confidential (private). Learn more about finding the right attorney and how a lawyer can help.