Lawsuits allege Mormon church failed to protect Navajo children

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — The number of lawsuits alleging Mormon church leaders failed to protect children from sexual abuse has grown to include two more Navajos and a member of the Crow Tribe.

Thousands of American Indian children, most of whom were Navajo, participated in a now-defunct church-run foster program from the late 1940s until around 2000. The program was meant to give children educational opportunities that didn’t exist on the reservations.

The lawsuits contend certain foster families harmed children.

One of the latest Navajo plaintiffs, identified as A.H., said at a news conference Tuesday in Phoenix that she told her local bishop about the abuse by her foster father but was told to keep quiet and that it would be handled.

“Understand that you are not alone. It is not your fault,” she wrote in a statement. “The shame is not yours. Rather, the shame belongs to those who abused, as well as those who allowed the abuse to happen.”

The latest three lawsuits were filed in Navajo Nation court and Washington state. Five others have been filed since 2016 on behalf of Navajo tribal members, seeking monetary damages, written apologies and a guarantee that Mormon church leaders will report suspected abuse.

A spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Eric Hawkins, didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment. The church has said it works to prevent any kind of abuse.

A.H. and another Navajo woman identified as J.C. were taken from their homes on the Navajo Nation voluntarily and placed in foster care in Mesa, Arizona, and Enterprise, Utah, respectively, according to the lawsuits. J.C.’s lawsuit also alleges abuse by her foster father.

A.H. said despite telling church agents about the abuse, it continued and authorities weren’t contacted, her lawsuit states.

She said she sought legal advice after seeing other Navajos were in similar situations.

“I think that’s an important step in healing,” said one of her attorneys, Craig Vernon. “For some it might not be, but for most people, it is.”

The Crow woman, identified as “Jane Doe 1” in the personal injury complaint, alleged that she was sexually abused four times by her foster grandfather in Chelan County, Washington.

The Associated Press generally does not identify people who say they were sexually abused.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs say the defendants knew or had reason to know about the unlawful conduct but failed to alert authorities, other church members or the public. They say certain foster families weren’t properly supervised.

The people being accused are associated with host families, not church leaders.

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