The Mormon Church called its program of placing Native American children in foster homes among its members "inspired" and a "priceless" opportunity for the kids.
For three Navajo Nation members who took part in the Indian Student Placement Program in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, the experience was a nightmare of repeated sexual abuse while under the care of multiple foster families.
Those are the allegations contained in two lawsuits facing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Navajo Nation court. One made public this week was filed by a woman identified only by the initials B.N. who says she was raped and molested multiple times between 1965 and 1972.
'I've shut my mouth for long enough'
"I just said you know what, I've shut my mouth for long enough and it was just time," she told Utah radio station KUER on Wednesday. "Being able to speak up and have people trust their leaders, that they're able to come forth with atrocious situations without fear and without being blackballed in any way."
The other lawsuit filed in March by plaintiffs named R.J. and M.M. gives a detailed account of what they say was a systematic failing of Mormon leaders to stop the abuse or report it to authorities.
R.J. was 10 years old when he first left his home on Navajo land in Arizona to live with a Mormon family in Utah. The lawsuit says an older step brother in the home molested R.J. multiple times, and that the mother there forcibly washed his mouth out with soap if he spoke in the Navajo language. When he reported the abuse, he was taken to another home.
Suffering 'great pain of mind and body'
The next year, it happened again, with a foster brother molesting R.J. at a different home. Two years later, more sexual abuse at still another home. R.J. kept reporting the incidents, but nothing happened. The result of the years of abuse, according to the lawsuit, is that he continues to "suffer great pain of mind and body, shock, emotional distress... embarrassment, loss of self-esteem, disgrace, humiliation, and loss of enjoyment of life."
For M.M., the story is similar. She was 11 years old when she was placed with a family in Utah. The lawsuit says a 40-year-old friend of a step brother there raped her. She later spent two years with another family, where the father sexually abused her as well as her younger brother and younger sister.
She cites the same kind of lingering effects as R.J., and both say their ability to earn a living has suffered.
They are asking for major changes in church policy, including for any member who is accused of sexual abuse to be kept from being around children and for leaders to report any abuse allegations first to police and child protective services instead of a telephone hotline run by the church.
"Defendants' failure to have proper policies and procedures that direct its members to report child sexual abuse to proper authorities has knowingly and/or recklessly endangered the safety and health of people by allowing child molesters to avoid prosecution and remain living freely in unsuspecting communities."
The lawsuit says the 50-year program, which has since disbanded, was an attempt to assimilate Native American children into white Mormon culture. The plaintiffs want letters of apology to themselves and their community, as well as outreach efforts to enhance and restore Navajo culture.
The Navajo number about 300,000 in the United States, and since a treaty signed in 1868 have lived on a reservation that spans the intersection of Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.
Church rejects venue
The Mormon Church is rejecting the autonomous Navajo Nation court as the appropriate venue for the lawsuits, saying in court filings this week that none of the alleged abuses took place on the reservation. Church lawyers want the U.S. District Court in Utah to hear the cases instead. They also object to the proposed remedy, saying the Navajo court should not be able to impose worldwide changes to Mormon policies.
Church officials have not publicly commented on the allegations, but in the past they have said they do not tolerate such abuse and in recent years have instituted systems to track alleged abusers and keep them away from children.