Faith, hope and sex abuse

Vile. Depressing. Newsworthy.

That pretty much sums up a Page 1 story in The Salt Lake Tribune this week about a children’s charity co-founder charged with sex abuse:

A Wasatch County man known for co-founding the Village of Hope to aid Ethiopian orphans and adopting Ethiopian children has been charged with multiple counts of child sex abuse and child pornography.

Charges filed in Heber City’s 4th District Court allege Lon Harvey Kennard Sr., 68, sexually abused two of his adoptive daughters who are now adults.

Kennard faces 24 first-degree felony counts of aggravated sex abuse of a child, 21 second-degree felony counts of sexual exploitation of a child and one count of witness tampering, said Wasatch County Attorney Scott Sweat.

As soon as I saw the orphanage’s name, this struck me as a story with a strong religion angle. Now, I realize that “hope” doesn’t always connotate a faith emphasis. But in this case, I felt relatively confident it did. So I kept reading. And I made it to the end of the story — without finding any mention of religion. Instead, the story described the orphanage simply as a “non-profit organization” and referred to its work in bringing clean water and health care to an impoverished village.

My bad.

Take that back. After a bit of research, I’m going to blame this one on religion ghosts haunting the Tribune.

A quick Internet search turned up this archived article from Meridian Magazine“The Place Where Latter-day Saints Gather,” according to its Web site — about the suspect and his wife. The piece includes an anecdote about the couple asking God to help them find African children to adopt:

One day, when their youngest child was thirteen, Brother Kennard’s usual 50-minute commute from their home in Heber City to Salt Lake City became the start of something unusual. He remembers listening to the radio as he drove down Parleys Canyon. The radio reporter was interviewing a woman who had formed an agency known as Americans for African Adoption.

After listening to the story, Brother Kennard thought about it throughout the day. That night he came home and told Sister Kennard about the many children in Africa who needed homes. He said, “Maybe we’re too old now. Maybe we’ve passed our goal to adopt. But I think we need to think and pray about this.”

The Kennards did, and soon felt inspired to move toward adoption. Knowing the homogeneous nature of Heber City, DeAnna told Lon, “We’d better get two kids so they’re not the only black ones.” Then they talked to each of their children individually to see how they felt about adopting a brother and sister from Africa. Each of them expressed excitement and support.

So the Kennards began to pray that, as Sister Kennard put it, “Out of all the millions of African children, the Lord would help us find two we could love as if we’d given birth to them.”

Unlike the Tribune, Salt Lake City’s Deseret News did not miss the religion angle entirely. The Deseret News buried this important detail in its story:

The sexual abuse outlined in court records allegedly began in 1995, around the time Kennard was serving as bishop of his LDS Church ward and one year after he and his wife founded Village of Hope.

Now, for the Tribune, this is one of those embarrassing cases (been there, done that) where the newspaper did a feel-good feature story about Kennard and his orphanage last year. The headline: “Adopting kids, adopting a village.” In that story, a reference was made to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donating $175,000 for a well project undertaken by Kennard and the orphanage. So, obviously, the newspaper was aware of a religious connection, but chose not to report on it in this week’s front-page story.

I suppose it could be argued that it’s just assumed that everybody in Utah is a Mormon. I mean, in a state where members of the LDS church make up 60 percent of the population, that assumption would be right a majority of the time. And yes, the Tribune could waste valuable dead-tree real estate on peripheral, unnecessary references to Mormon ties in stories with nothing to do with religion. But this is not such a case. Far from it.

This is a story about a high-profile ministry leader whose religious connections and espoused beliefs played a key role, it appears, in the orphanage’s development and his family’s adoptions. That is true regardless of whether the ministry has official or formal ties to the church. It would seem highly relevant to provide at least minimal details on Kennard’s church membership and leadership positions, and to question whether his good standing in the church allowed him to perpetrate alleged crimes.

Yes, this is a court story — a vile, depressing, newsworthy one.

But it’s a religion story too.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • ryanwin

    Yes,
    This is a religious story, because it is a tragedy about a man who had so many blessings and led people astray using charity and religion as a disguise. Does this disprove the LDS Church? No. To draw any similar conclusion would not only be naive, but historically without impact. Considering one of Jesus’ 12 Apostles fell away, this is not without precedent. This is why the institution has to be looked on as a whole and not faulted based on a minority.

  • Nathan Cusick

    I agree with ryanwin that this should not be an indictment on the LDS church as a whole, but I don’t think the author was eluding to that. Here is a prominent LDS member that is being accused of horrible sexual crimes with minors and it (his church affiliation) was either buried or left out two Utah newpapers. Utah is predominantly LDS…that is the story here.

  • http://www.muchmorethanwords.com gfe

    I do find it interesting that the church-affiliated newspaper was the one that gave the denominational info, not the paper that prides itself on having no connection with the state’s most prominent church.

  • CarlH

    FWIW, the Salt Lake Tribune has an updated, second story, that includes the fact that Kennard was serving as an LDS Bishop during the time abuse was occurring. Here’s the link to that article:

    Family apologizes after sexual abuse arrest

    Since this is, in many respects, a “breaking story” (at least for the news media), I’m not sure I see what “ghosts” Bobby thinks are not getting enough coverage at this point, especially given the fact that virtually anyone who lives in Utah, Mormon and non-Mormon alike, knows pretty well the level and nature of service of a bishop in the LDS Church (who is the lay leader over a local congregation, usually consisting of between 300 and 600 total members–and selected from among members within the boundaries of that particular congregation).

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    CarlH, thanks very much for the link.

    As far as what ghosts I see, the most obvious one — as cited in the post — is that the reference to his LDS bishop role was not included in the initial Page 1 story. Glad to see it’s in the second story. As for what elements are not getting enough coverage, I refer you, again, to the post:

    It would seem highly relevant to provide at least minimal details on Kennard’s church membership and leadership positions, and to question whether his good standing in the church allowed him to perpetrate alleged crimes.

    As for your suggestion that “virtually anyone who lives in Utah, Mormon and non-Mormon alike, knows pretty well the level and nature of service of a bishop in the LDS Church,” that may be true. But it makes for pretty weak, lazy journalism, if you ask me, to assume that’s the case with this individual. If I’m a reporter at a major metro newspaper and I’m chasing a Page 1 story, I track down church leaders and fellow members and find out about this suspect specifically. I ask whether he was a committed member, what role he played in leadership, if he was respected, whether he touted the orphanage at church, if he paid special attention to the church’s children or had extraordinary access to them, etc. And I do my best to reach people in Ethiopia to ask the same kind of questions about his role there. But no, I don’t sit back and assume I know this guy’s story because of his title.

    Even on a “breaking story” — particularly on a “breaking story” — the best journalists chase the real story and don’t settle for whatever emerges in a public document or court hearing.

    That said, I don’t know the specific circumstances of the reporters and editors involved with this story. They may be doing a dozen other things besides this in a day, so I don’t have all the facts to make a judgment. But I stand by my original concern that this is a religion story that needs to “get religion.”

    My apologies for taking up so much space with my response …

  • kadee

    I read this post this morning and was immediately struck by faulty logic and rather sloppy journalism. I thought on this all day and have decided to express these specifics to make my point.

    The first flag to me that there might be a negative religious agenda involved, was your jump to the conclusion that something named “Village of Hope” would be religious. A Google search turns up almost a half a million references to ‘hope,’ and a quick perusal indicates lots of connections other than religion. I also recall in the not too distant past the word ‘hope’ was a major part of a presidential political campaign. Further our current president had a best seller the word ‘hope’ in the title. There was nothing of religious significance in either of these examples. I congratulate you on your ability to divine the connection between the word ‘hope’ and “a story with a strong religion angle.”

    I read the Deseret News article where you claim they buried the important detail of Mr. Kennard’s religious affiliation in the story. It didn’t look buried to me. What did you expect…..it to be the headline? It was clearly prominent in the article.

    Lastly, I reject your analysis and conclusion in this statement: “I suppose it could be argued that it’s just assumed that everybody in Utah is a Mormon. I mean, in a state where members of the LDS church make up 60 percent of the population, that assumption would be right a majority of the time.” I am not a statistician, but the assumption that it can be argued that everybody in Utah is a Mormon will never be true…..not part of the time, nor a majority of the time. You, yourself reference information that clearly states only 60 percent of the population is LDS. So it is impossible, by your own evidence, to arrive at your conclusion.

    All religions have a vast majority of good people but sadly also a few that bring disgrace on both themselves and their church. I am guessing the Church of Christ may even have a few not to be so proud of either.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    kadee, Speaking of faulty logic, it appears that you are accusing me of “a negative religious agenda.” Not sure where that’s coming from.

    This is a site concerned with journalism, and my points were related to my concerns about the journalism in the reporting on this story. Your Google search aside, my “jump to the conclusion” that an orphanage named Village of Hope would be religious turned out to be 100 percent correct. I’ll let that fact speak for itself.

    You also say:

    All religions have a vast majority of good people but sadly also a few that bring disgrace on both themselves and their church. I am guessing the Church of Christ may even have a few not to be so proud of either.

    Not sure how the Church of Christ got involved in this discussion. But as a journalist, I have written about sex abuse cases among Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Jews and others that aren’t coming to mind right now. And, yes, in my work with The Christian Chronicle, I have written about cases involving Church of Christ members such as this one, and we also have taken a strong stand on this issue editorially concerning our own fellowship.

    I might also mention that as religion editor of The Oklahoman, I spent a day with young Mormon missionaries and wrote a major story about their experiences, and I interviewed Dale Murphy, the retired Atlanta Braves star, about his Mormon faith and church work. But if there had been a sex abuse case involving an LDS church leader, I would have attacked that story with vigor, as well. That’s what journalists do. They approach the positive and the negative stories with the same attempt at fairness, proper context, etc.

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    I am usually in agreement with GetReligion on their opinions about “religion ghosts,” but this one is not one of them. The fact that The Salt Lake Tribune *didn’t* make an issue out of the religion angle is a miracle. The questions posed that haven’t been illuminated by the articles are interesting, but perhaps the reporters did ask those questions and came up with nothing? Who knows?

    I think this is one of those cases where the GetReligion critic doesn’t understand the history or culture of the area and therefore makes unwarranted assumptions about the reporting. In this case there probably isn’t enough religion ghost there to worry about under-reporting. The Salt Lake Tribune is notorious for making sure the LDS connection in a story is trumpeted.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Jettboy, thank you for your insight. Please help me understand what you mean concerning the history or culture of the area as it relates to this story.

  • kadee

    I was trying to be nice when saying “negative.” I felt your emphasis on the Utah Mormon population and the inference to the inadequate reporting was coming from a “biased” desire to taint the leadership and the population in Utah. You seemed to be inferring they were accommodating or covering up the sins of this persons actions.

    If you remember I did congratulate you on your ability to “divine the connection between the word ‘hope’ and “a story with a strong religion angle.” Apparently you do really believe that drawing that conclusion was indeed inspirational on your part.

    You have the bully pulpit here. My comments were just to point out the perceived possibility that you may have had another reason for reporting as you did other than to point out the population mix of Utah. It is your forum and if there was nothing more to it than reporting on a “vile, depressing, newsworthy” story I will leave it to others to draw their own conclusions.

  • ryanwin

    Bobby,

    Nobody who has any experience with the Salt Lake Tribune will take your “religious ghosts” argument any more seriously than the the average person would take a “Fox News is liberal” argument seriously. Why don’t you educate yourself and do a search on the Tribune’s website about the LDS/Mormons and read a few articles? As an aspiring journalist, it would be wise for you to get the facts straight before you start touting strange conspiracy theories.

    Your search for the real “religion angle” is, in fact, a red herring that does no justice to the victims. The real issue is that this man was in a high position of trust as the head of a charitable organization, and abused that trust on top of committing heinous sexual abuse. Did people trust him because of his religion? Likely. More likely however, is that people trusted him because he was a philanthropist actively working to “serve” those people. Could further news break through of abuse he committed while a bishop? It’s possible, but that is not the case for these victims.

    Again, your insinuation that his religious leadership was deliberately hidden by the Tribune to protect the LDS faith screams amateur journalist, and ranks below conspiracy theories of Obama’s true nationality, the U.S. Government’s creation of the 911 disaster, and a secret addictive chemical in Kentucky Fried Chicken that makes you crave it fortnightly.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    ryanwin, I am not an aspiring journalist. I am a veteran journalist with proven credentials. But this isn’t about me.

    I didn’t tout any conspiracy theories. I didn’t accuse the Tribune of hiding facts to protect the LDS faith. I simply — and clearly — pointed out that this story has a large religion angle that was not included in a Page 1 story and should have been. That fact remains.

    I am replying despite your last paragraph, which only makes one person involved in this discussion sound like an amateur. If you want to continue name calling, I’ll delete your future comments.

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    To try and answer your question:

    Mormonism is a culture and not just a religion in the region. That makes it very hard to say where a religious story starts or ends. Even if he was a Bishop, just about anyone can be a Bishop in the LDS Church. It isn’t a lifelong calling or even full time, much less paid. You might have a Bishop for a time in a congregation (ward) that is an auto mechanic for a few years and the next a multi-million dollar CEO. In this case it was a philanthropist who is accused of serious crimes. I am not even sure if he is a Bishop now or not. I guess the point is that the “high profile” comment is simply not true. He got a few headlines in a regional newspaper and a semi-popular blog. So have a lot of other Mormons who have charitable organizations.

    It seems most of the hang up is on the “donating $175,000 for a well project undertaken” from the LDS Church. That is one project among others this organization probably does. The LDS Church has donated to a whole lot of causes like any number of Churches do without fanfare. This is just one of the many private projects that receive donations. Philanthropy of private individuals is a sacred duty as taught by the LDS Church, therefore it comes as no surprise this organization was created by one of its members. The news simply isn’t the charity or religious affiliation, but the actions of this one individual.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Jettboy, thank you. That does help me understand your point.

  • mack

    As far as jetboy not being sure if this guy is still a bishop. If he admitted to sexually abusing those kids or is found guilty of doing he’s already been excommunicated or will be from the lds church. The mormon church has no tolerance for this type of behavior from its members. He will have to go through years of repentenace and pay his debt to society if he want to be a member again.


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