SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A woman who claims in a lawsuit that her father sexually abused her as a child said Thursday that Mormon church leaders allowed the sexual assault to continue by failing to report it to police.
Kristy Johnson said at a news conference that her now-deceased mother told local church leaders in Utah and California about the abuse multiple times during the 1960s and 1970s. Her father, Melvin Kay Johnson, a church employee who worked for the religious education arm of the faith, was relocated to different cities by the church after each report, but police were not contacted, she alleges in a civil lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court in Utah.
Johnson, now 55 and living in La Habra, California, said she finally reported the abuse to police in California in 1986 when she returned from a Mormon mission. Her father was never arrested, but the church kicked him out. He was allowed back one year later after he went before a church court and persuaded them he had repented, the woman said.
Melvin Kay Johnson, who now lives in Lehi, Utah, did not respond to a voicemail left at a listed phone number.
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The Mormon church isn’t named in Johnson’s lawsuit because of statute of limitation rules, but the allegations follow other lawsuits that allege the religion hasn’t properly handled sexual abuse reports.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ spokesman Eric Hawkins didn’t immediately comment about the lawsuit.
The lawsuits have put the spotlight on how the church handles sexual abuse, forcing the religion to explain and re-examine what its lay leaders who run local congregations are supposed to do when a church member confides in them about being abused.
Some Mormons have expressed dismay that they were counseled to stay in abusive relationships or keep matters in house.
The church says it has “zero tolerance” for abuse of any kind and announced in March a set of updated guidelines for how the male bishops should handle sexual assault reports. The guidelines direct them to never to disregard a report of abuse, a more direct instruction than previous guidelines, and to call a church hotline that will help them sort out to help victims and report the crime.
The Associated Press does not usually name victims of sexual assault, but Johnson said she decided to go public with her story following deaths in recent years of her mother and brother, which she says emboldened her to seek justice.
A documentary about her story, called “Glass Temples,” is debuting Thursday night in Salt Lake City.
Johnson said the abuse started when she was 6 and continued until she was 18. Her father would come into her bedroom at night and assault her, she said. She would try to listen for her father’s footsteps and then flip on the light and act as if she was studying Scriptures to have an excuse for him to go away, she said.
“But sometimes I didn’t hear him and I would wake up and he would be doing stuff to me,” said Johnson, crying. “I would blame myself.”
Like other people who have sued over child sexual abuse they say occurred in Mormon families, Johnson said her experience illustrates systemic problems in the church. She believes her mother, who divorced her father in the 1980s, didn’t report the abuse because she acquiescing to Mormon culture that called for abuse reports to be handled internally.
She said the abuse made her question if there was a God and has impacted her ability to reach her professional goals, trust people and have healthy relationships. She is divorced with one child and doesn’t currently have a job.
“It is a lifetime sentence for victims,” said Johnson. “You can get as much therapy as you want, but it’s something that is always with you.”
Craig Vernon, her attorney, contended the religion deals with abuse reports as sins, rather than crimes. He has represented others who have sued the church, including McKenna Denson, who accuses a former missionary training center director of raping her in the 1980s.
He urged the religion to instruct members to report abuse directly to police, not the bishops.
“Is the church going to protect sexual predators with their policy and culture or are they going to protect children?” Vernon asked.