Did the Church Get Caught Covering Up a Sex-Abuse Crisis?

Did the Church Get Caught Covering Up a Sex-Abuse Crisis? February 6, 2019

Perhaps you’ve heard this week that a former Church employee confessed to molesting a boy twenty-six years ago.

You very well might have heard wrong.

Outlets, like Patheos’ own “Friendly Atheist,” are omitting key facts from the story to try and create a sex abuse scandal where none exists.

In fact, the story helps illustrate why the “sex abuse scandal” that anti-Mormons like the Truth & Transparency foundation keep expecting to find doesn’t exist.

But let’s start with what this is. A very sad story about a man, pseudonym David, who is trying to process a traumatic moment from his youth. He is being used as a pawn by those trying to score cheap points in a cultural war against the Church.

He is the one choosing to go public after many years.

During a sleepover, van Wagenen groped David who was 13 at the time. Their accounts diverge on whether it was under or over clothing.

The perpetrator, Sterling van Wagenen, confessed immediately to church leaders who told him to go to the police. Which he did.

The police record says that after van Wagenen’s confession they went to investigate the matter, but that David’s father said his son did not want to pursue the matter.

Van Wagenen was then disciplined by the Church. He was disfellowshipped, which meant not only could he not hold a volunteer position in his local congregation, he also could not continue working for the Church as a filmmaker.

Disfellowship is not the most extreme punishment the church can give out, that is excommunication. However, excommunication is ordinarily used for people who refuse to acknowledge the problem and are not trying to overcome it, which doesn’t appear to apply in van Wagenen’s situation. Not only does the police record show that he turned himself in, but in the recording, he talks about how disgusted he felt with himself.

All the current evidence suggests that van Wagenen never repeated the behavior.

Van Wagenen was very influential in the Latter-day Saint community. His cousin was married to Robert Redford and he helped bring the Sundance Film Festival to Utah. To some, this is evidence that a cover-up must have been on. But given his prominent profile, it makes the Church’s insistence he turn himself into police and break off any professional relationship for two years more striking.

From David’s statements, it appears his parents decided unilaterally to not pursue the matter and sweep it under the rug in an ill-advised attempt to “protect” him. Years later that has clearly not worked. The point David tried to make, before his message was hijacked, was that he wished there was more support from the church at the time it happened.

I agree.

Fortunately, the Church agrees too.

In the years since, in addition to continuing to turn perpetrators into law enforcement, the Church has consistently provided necessary counseling to survivors. While it is tragic those resources were not made available to David at the time, I suspect they are available to him now if they would be useful in his healing.

Late last year the “Truth & Transparency Foundation” also attempted to embarrass the church by leaking documents revealing that there had been missionaries and stake presidency members who had been accused of sexual misconduct. These were internal documents, and what they ultimately revealed is that the Church does cooperate with law enforcement, and consistently provides counseling to survivors.

Any group as large as the Church of Jesus Christ will have in its ranks those who commit heinous crimes such as this. What’s crucial is doing the right thing when it happens. As this public instance reveals and as the leaked documents reveal, that is exactly what the Church has done.

Edit: Sterling van Wagenen’s cousin is married to Robert Redford, not his sister.

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  • redhat333

    Would you comment on the ability of VW to hold a professorship at

    BYU during the time he was in a disfellowship condition- what about valid temple recommend or ecclesiastical endorsement requirements to hold a “church ” job? Hmmm!

  • How many other coverups are there, that have been paid off. AND don’t say there haven’t been any. How about the Football that raped a white girl in the dorm I believe. The football coach knew about. Cover cover coverup.

  • Kiwi57

    A football raped a girl?

    What does “Cover cover coverup” mean? That there wasn’t a full-scale publicity campaign about it? Man, there must have been a “coverup” if the Church wasn’t announcing it in full-page ads!

  • Kiwi57

    When did Van Wagenen “hold a professorship at BYU?”

  • LaneWolfley

    I don’t really sense the Church was involved in any sort of cover-up in this story. It should definitely step up to the plate in providing counselling and help to the victims, something it’s getting better at as time goes along.

    What I think is fascinating about this story, and is the reason it gets traction on its own, is that the perp himself has directed the very movies that are used in the Mormon Temple rites. That is unavoidably salacious. It all begins and ends right there, I think. Every time you go to the temple now, you wonder if this is one of the films the perp directed. It adds a new layer to it, sort of…

  • trytoseeitmyway

    It means that some people hate so much accuracy no longer matters. Sad.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    Some people hate so much that accuracy no longer matters. Hmm.

  • Nanco14

    Fact Check “His sister was married to Robert Redford.” Incorrect. Sterling Van Wagenen is NOT Lola Van Wagenen Redford’s brother. Lola and Sterling are cousins. (Their father’s are brothers.) He and Redford did work together, as Sterling was a co-founder of the Sundance Institute. But despite his celebrity status in Utah, Redford is not influential in the LDS faith. He is not a member of the faith.

  • Barbara Roberts

    I am having a hard time with this situation because it seems that 26 yrs ago a minor’s father signed off/forgave? on not prosecuting Van Wagenen. I am saddened by the 1x failure now being used to shame and label Van Wagenen. I am troubled if “David” did not receive appropriate care or did not agree with what his father chose to do. Sexual abuse is heinous. So is any kind of abuse. But when even repentant abusers become the scapegoats to heal the pain in our lives, in our communities , the religion of The Atonement: forgive and repent, is not being lived. Accusation and blame, shame and bullying are ways of the religion of scapegoating/ erroneously in hopes of healing the pain of sin, offense.

  • Nanco14

    Fact Check — Sterling Van Wagenen is not Lola Van Wagenen Redford’s brother. Redford and Van Wagenen worked together and co-founded Sundance Institute.

  • Kiwi57

    Perhaps the father didn’t want to put his son through the ordeal that a prosecution might entail. Although since Van Wagenen came forward, it’s likely that the matter would have ended in some kind of plea bargain.

  • Barbara Roberts

    I understand that possibility having experienced testifying as a 9 yr old against the pedophile who kidnapped me and then deciding as a parent to not put my children thru such an experience when my children were touched inappropriately by older children. If a repentant adult had touched my child 1x I doubt if if I would have gone thru the legal system for healing. The real problem for me is the scapegoating of the penitent.

  • andy

    He was Adjunct Professor of Film at Brigham Young University.

    You are extra protective of pedophiles I see. Interesting.

  • andy

    This article seems intentionally misleading. Van Wagenen didn’t go to his church authorities completely of his own volition. Another bishop had been alerted by the young boy’s parents and told Van Wagenen that he would talk to the church authorities if Van wagenen didn’t. And the church authorities are mandated reporters. They are LEGALLY bound to report cases of abuse. Again, it was either them telling or Van wagenen. He was basically forced into confession on both accounts. He wasn’t this “repentant sinner” you are claiming him to be.

    It’s this kind of misrepresentation that gives church supporters a bad reputation with victims and their supporters

  • Kiwi57

    Was he? During what period? I did not find that when I searched for his information.

    Evidently you “see” what you want to see. Boring.

    ETA: I’ve found where he was an adjunct professor at BYU, beginning in 1993. BYU had no ecclesiastical endorsement policy for faculty until 1996.

    I’m going to give you an opportunity to reconsider your malicious accusation.

  • Kiwi57

    I’m very sorry to hear about what happened to you. And I’m grateful that you survived it.

  • Kiwi57

    “This article seems intentionally misleading.” Your knee-jerk presumption of dishonesty is not materially softened by the weasel word “seems.”

    “Van Wagenen didn’t go to his church authorities completely of his own volition. Another bishop had been alerted by the young boy’s parents and told Van Wagenen that he would talk to the church authorities if Van wagenen didn’t.”

    Source for this claim?

    “And the church authorities are mandated reporters. They are LEGALLY bound to report cases of abuse. Again, it was either them telling or Van wagenen.”

    Are they “LEGALLY bound to report” uncorroborated third hand reports? Were they, as of 1993?

    Since the only corroboration was his confession, and since penitent-to-clergy confessions are privileged, it’s difficult to see what they could have told anyone.

    The SL Trib says this:

    “Police reports obtained by the Truth and Transparency Foundation show Van Wagenen went to the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office less than a week after the 1993 sleepover.

    Even you might be able to bring yourself to admit that it didn’t take very much to get him to come forward. I just hope it doesn’t hurt too much.

    “He wasn’t this ‘repentant sinner’ you are claiming him to be.”

    He confessed the sin, and according to 100% of the available information, never repeated it. That is exactly the definition of a repentant sinner.

  • velhoburrinho

    This is quite a try-hard attempt at apologetics, where it shouldn’t be applied.

    Normal good people see these situations and how members of the church act, how church leaders and church authorities respond to such situations. They see no leadership no discernment or goodness. What happened to that child was wrong and evil, and no adult in that situation realized that or helped him.

    I’m glad they pulled the endowment movies that individual directed.

  • Kiwi57

    Ah. Virtue-signalling. How quaint.

    In reality, normal good people start with the premise that the victim’s parents acted in what they saw as their son’s best interests, and find no other blame to cast. Only malicious people feel a need to labour to pin something on the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ.

  • FearlessFixxer

    I am not sure where the author got that Sterling could not make movies for the church during his disfelllowshipment, but he did work as a professor at BYU during that time. How convenient that was left out.

  • Christopher D. Cunningham

    BYU didn’t begin checking for ecclesiastical endorsements until 1996.

  • Ike

    This is a painfully sloppy and shallow argument.

  • Kiwi57

    Yes, he was an adjunct professor at BYU, beginning in 1993. BYU had no ecclesiastical endorsement policy for faculty until 1996.

    Your point?