Two Navajo siblings have sued the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, after claiming they were made to endure horrific sexual abuse as participants of the church-run Indian Student Placement Program. The lawsuit, which was filed at Navajo Nation District Court in Window Rock, Arizona on March 24, alleges that the two siblings were taken from their home on a reservation during the 1970s and kept with foster families in Utah, where they experienced frequent abuse.
According to both plaintiffs, they were exposed to repetitive sexual abuse and rape during the program, which ran from 1947 to 2000, attracting Native American students from across the United States and Canada. Attorney Billy Keeler elucidated how his clients, aged 10 and 11 at the time of their alleged abuse, were staying with 10 other children in Sawmill, Arizona after their mother volunteered to enroll them with the program. Consequently, most of these children were baptized as Mormons and moved to Utah. The lawsuit states that the siblings’ sexual abuse started at their first foster home and continued to take place even after they were moved to other homes. They were also witness to the abuse of other Native American children by their foster families or associates.
According to Keeler, his clients informed at least two program leaders of their sexual abuse but their cries for aid fell on deaf ears, as they were once again placed in foster homes where similar abuse continued to take place.
“They were victims of sexual predators and an organization that failed to protect them, even after it had notice of what was happening,” said Keeler, while stressing how his clients, who are not being named because of the sensitive nature of this case, were victimized at least twice.
The lawsuit claims that the LDS Church, also known as the Mormon Church, not only failed to protect children who had been placed in members’ homes but also covered up instances of sexual abuse by ordering members and leaders of the denomination not to report the complaints to criminal or civil authorities. Keeler is now seeking unspecified damages for physical, spiritual and emotional suffering as well as written apologies from the perpetrators, changes in church policy and the setting up of a task force, which will work with Navajo Nation to address the social and cultural harm that was caused while running the Indian Student Placement Program.
Responding to Keeler’s allegations, spokesperson Kristen Howey said the Mormon Church would examine the lawsuit and respond accordingly. She also confirmed that the Church does not tolerate any kind of abuse.
The Church too released an official statement about Keeler’s child abuse claims, clarifying how it has never had to sue for abuse perpetrated by any of its bishops.
“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 was an innovation of Mormon messenger Spencer W. Kimball, who decided to offer Native American children spiritual, educational, social and cultural opportunities within non-Indian community life while also restoring Native Americans, often referred to as Lamanites, to their prophetic destiny. According to Mormon beliefs, America’s indigenous population fled from Israel in 600 BCE to settle in unspecified locations across what we today know as the United States. It was here that these people eventually split into two groups – the Nephites and the Lamanites – the former supposedly more civilized and righteous and the latter being identified as uncivilized, savage and bloodthirsty.
In one of his infamous speeches, Kimball also referred to the Lamanites as those with “skin of blackness” to help distinguish them from the Nephites. The abovementioned program, which drew children as young as 8 years old from their homes so they could be sent to live with Mormon foster families, claimed to help reverse this apparent curse. In 1960, Kimball even said Native Americans who volunteered for the program were slowly but steadily turning lighter and more white and delightsome.
“The day of the Lamanites is nigh,” Kimball had said, claiming how his placement students were “as light as Anglos” and, in some cases, several shades lighter than their own parents “on the same reservation, in the same hogan, subject to the same sun and wind and weather.”
Attorney Craig Vernon explained how the “curse doctrine” itself is problematic in many ways. He believes children growing up in the Mormon Church are convinced that they have a responsibility to reach out to Native Americans in order to 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.”
Seeking to hold the LDS Church vicariously liable for the actions of all its members, the lawsuit identifies as defendants in this case, the Church as a corporation along with its presiding bishop, the department of social services and Mormonism as an “unincorporated religious association”. Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that the Church was more careful about its public image than the interests of the Navajo siblings, since church policy directs all members to report complaints of child abuse to the clergy even if not law enforcement.
Vernon elucidated that church leaders are instructed to refrain from testifying in criminal or civil cases or other legal proceedings involving abuse but stressed how in this case, the Church did not provide sufficient oversight beforehand.
“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.”
An estimated 40,000 Native American children from 60 different tribes are believed to have participated in the Indian Student Placement Program.
Photo Credits: Rational Faiths