- Associated Press - Monday, August 22, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Mormon church attorneys argued Monday that a lawsuit accusing religious officials of not doing enough to protect four Navajo children from sexual abuse in a now defunct church-run foster program belongs in federal court because the alleged incidents occurred off tribal land.

U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby heard nearly three hours of arguments Monday about whether to keep the case in tribal court. Shelby said he’ll issue a ruling at a later date.

The alleged victims say they were sexually abused between the 1960s and early 1980s in the Indian Student Placement Program, which placed thousands of Navajo children in Mormon foster homes in Utah, Idaho and New Mexico.

Craig Vernon, an attorney for the victims, conceded that the alleged abuse didn’t happen on tribal lands, but he said decisions about where to place children and the inaction after the kids reported the abuse occurred on the Navajo Nation.

Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald, representing the Navajo Nation, said tribal leaders don’t care about the merits of the case but want to keep the case to protect tribal sovereignty. He said the Navajo Nation court, based in Window Rock, Arizona, may ultimately decide it doesn’t have jurisdiction but that it should have the right to make that decision before the case is moved.

Judge Shelby said the case is unlike any other he’s handled because of the unique nature of the program that took children from tribal lands and placed them in several states. He said he needed more time to research applicable case law.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hasn’t commented on the specifics of the allegations. But David Jordan, an attorney representing the church, pointed out several times Monday that families volunteered to participate in the program and that the large majority never reported any problems.

The alleged perpetrators are not church leaders, but people associated with host families.

Thousands of American Indian children participated in the church program from the late 1940s until it declined in the 1990s and ended around 2000, he said. The church didn’t’ give an official reason for closing the voluntary program, though church officials say the program’s closure may have been linked to better educational opportunities for American Indians and increased sensitivity to native cultures.

Children participated in the Indian Placement Program at a time when the church believed that it had a duty to restore the heritage of American Indians who were referred to as Lamanites, or the wicked of two civilizations that emerged when God guided families to the Americas, Mormon scholars say.

Judge Shelby did not address a pending request from victims’ attorneys to compel Mormon President Thomas S. Monson to testify about the alleged abuse. Lawyers contend Monson has “unique information” because he was a high-ranking leader in the religion during the time the abuses occurred.

Church officials want that request thrown out, arguing Monson’s duties in the 1960s and 1970s didn’t include oversight of the program. Monson became president in 2008.


Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, https://www.sltrib.com

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