SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, May 5, 2019 (Gephardt Daily) — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is refuting a VICE News report that suggested the Church has used a victims help line to “hide claims of sexual abuse.”
“Vice News chose to misreport the story,” said church spokesman Eric Hawkins. “Abuse is a matter taken very seriously by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is not tolerated, and the church has invested heavily in resources and training, including the helpline, to help prevent, combat and address abuse.”
Vice’s story largely focused on Christopher Michael Jensen, a former church member who was convicted in 2013 of sexually molesting a 3-year-old and 4-year-old in his Martinsburg, West Virginia, ward.
Jensen, now 26, was convicted and sentenced to 35 to 75 years in prison, but his story of abuse didn’t end with his conviction.
After his 2013 sentencing, families of five of Jensen’s alleged former victims filed suit against the Church, claiming members of the local bishopric and other officials had been informed of Jensen’s behavior and “did nothing to protect their children” or to notify authorities.
The families and attorneys for the Church agreed to a settlement in 2018, five years after it was originally filed.
The amount of cash the Church paid out was confidential, and the Church denied any wrongdoing.
In the aftermath of the settlement, VICE News interviewed plaintiffs and came to the conclusion the 24-hour abuse helpline had less to do with advocating for abuse victims than it did providing “a shield for the ‘Mormon Church’ from potential lawsuits that pose a financial threat to the church.”
When asked by VICE to see how many calls were actually made to the helpline, Hawkins declined to answer. “The Church does not share information about the helpline,” Hawkins reportedly told VICE.
That response, coupled with the revelation that all calls to the help line are reviewed by a law firm retained by the Church, led VICE to question the Church’s motives and transparency. “The Mormon Church’s refusal to disclose helpline data is only the most visible symptom of a system that appears to place church interests ahead of abuse victims,” VICE said.
The Church’s response to the VICE article was swift and pointed.
Hawkins called the story inaccurate and questioned VICE’s fact-checking and reporting methods.
“We are deeply disappointed by VICE News’ irresponsible mischaracterization of the Church help line. The Church is an international organization. As such, the fundamental guiding principle behind the Church’s approach to child abuse is that Church leaders must follow the law in the states, or countries, in which they function,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins’ full statement can be read below:
In short, VICE News chose to misreport this story. Since 1995 (long before much of the world was aware of or addressing the serious societal issue of abuse), The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has operated a 24-hour help line to prevent abuse and to ensure it is appropriately reported. The Church has been recognized and lauded for its help line by local and national child advocacy experts and organizations. Contrary to the story run by VICE, the Church complied with every reporting requirement, and in years of investigation and legal process, no Church leader was ever charged with a failure to report or to comply with the law.
Abuse is a matter taken very seriously by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is not tolerated, and the Church has invested heavily in resources and training, including the help line, to prevent, combat and address abuse.
Specific details about the help line, this case and our efforts are below.
We are deeply disappointed by VICE News’ irresponsible mischaracterization of the Church help line. The Church is an international organization. As such, the fundamental guiding principle behind the Church’s approach to child abuse is that Church leaders must follow the law in the states, or countries, in which they function. Those laws dictate when a religious leader should report and when a religious leader must abide by the laws of confidentiality. Since 1995, the Church has operated a free and confidential abuse help line, established for local leaders (bishops and stake presidents) in the United States and Canada.
- This help line is available for bishops and stake presidents to call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, when addressing situations involving any type of abuse.
- The bishop or stake president is required to promptly call the help line about every situation in which he believes a person may have been abused or neglected or is at risk of being abused or neglected.
- When bishops or stake presidents call the help line, clinical and legal professionals are available 24/7 to answer their questions and provide instructions about how to assist victims, comply with local laws and requirements for reporting abuse, and protect against further abuse.
- Whether reporting is required by local laws or not, Church leaders are strongly encouraged and assisted when they call the help line to ensure that the suspected abuse is reported to law enforcement, either by the individual, a family member, or some other source.
The help line is particularly helpful given that, in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, clergy are temporary, lay volunteers. They are not professional clergy. The help line provides an effective means to make sure that these individuals are aware of their reporting obligations if and when an abuse situation arises. The help line has been lauded by leading experts as a one-of-a-kind resource that demonstrates a commitment to report abuse in accordance with the law and protect victims, and the Church has been recognized and lauded for its help line and efforts to combat abuse by local and national child advocacy experts and organizations, including the National Children’s Alliance and the Children’s Justice Centers. Other organizations have followed the Church’s lead in establishing similar help lines.
The Church also provides guidelines for handling situations involving abuse in a handbook that lays out the duties and responsibilities of stake presidents and bishops, which in the Church is referred to as Handbook 1. In regard to the case at the center of VICE’s news story, in spite of years of discovery, litigation, and investigation by the police in this case, no church leader was ever charged with failure to report child abuse or any other violation of the laws of West Virginia. The case was handled in strict compliance with those laws.
We disagree with many of the statements made by the plaintiffs in this story, and are frustrated that no fact checking appears to have been done to verify what individuals told VICE. Their statements to VICE are wildly different than their own police reports, depositions and court testimonies. Most egregious is that a key fact was withheld from the story — the case in West Virginia is actually a positive example of how the help line works in practice. When a mother of a victim couldn’t reach her bishop, she instead called another local leader (the first counselor in the bishopric). She testified in court that when she reported the abuse to him, he told her, “this is a crime,” and provided her with the phone number so that she could call the police. The church leader then called the Church help line, and the Church then called the police to make sure a report had been made.
To be very clear, the case in West Virginia is very different from the types of cases where churches have been held liable for not preventing or even covering up abuse. None of the abuse happened on Church property or during a Church activity. None of the abuse was committed by a Church officer or leader. Tragically, a number of children were abused by a teenage member of the Church, Michael Jensen, while babysitting or vacationing or temporarily residing in their or his homes. Jensen is in prison, as he should be, for a very long time.
If you have any additional questions, the Church’s Newsroom offers a wealth of information regarding how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints approaches abuse. You can find more here and here.
Vice News’ video report
See the 11:38 video, which contains additional interviews, by clicking the player below: