Crisis of Identity

Janice Earl is battling the LDS church, alleging officials tried to cover up a sexual assault on her daughter, Lynette

Salt Lake City Weekly/March 8, 2001

Janice Earl doesn't look like a warrior woman. Standing just 5-feet tall and weighing under 100 pounds, this 50-year-old grandmother couldn't flex a tricep muscle if she tried. But looks can be deceiving. When it comes to the interests of her children, Janice will slay dragons if she has to.

For the past nine years she has pursued a tenacious fight to find justice for her daughter, who says she was sexually assaulted at the age of seven.

Though no criminal charges have been filed, Janice, her husband and her daughter have become plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the most powerful entity in the state, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For the first time in a child sexual abuse case against the church, the Utah Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments to determine whether the Earls have a valid complaint.

Besides the Mormon church, other defendants include former Bishop Dennis Casaday and former Stake President David Christensen. The Taylorsville neighborhood where Janice and Ralph Earl raised their three children can be described in the generic terms that apply to nearly all Utah suburbs. Mostly Mormon families clustered into tight knit wards. Rows of houses sit amid landscaped lawns. A basketball hoop dominates every other driveway and 'Big Wheels' tricycles are strewn across sidewalks.

Children of various ages are outside burning up energy until the very last minute of sunlight. Everyone knows everyone else. It looks like a friendly and safe picture-perfect place for families. But looks can be deceiving.

For years the Earls enjoyed a position at the top of their local Mormon social ladder, with Ralph serving as first councilor in the ward bishopric.

Second only to the bishop, Ralph was expected to take the lead reins when Bishop Casaday eventually moved up the ecclesiastical ladder. Though the Earls had only three children, Janice was a model Mormon wife, who stayed home to raise and nurture the children and to help her ward members in times of need.

Janice felt secure, always knowing where her children were and making them check in while they were out playing. "There's an unconditional trust among Mormons," she says. "You call each other 'brother' and 'sister' and raise your kids in an all Mormon neighborhood and think no one will harm them."

However, the facade was shattered when Janice got a phone call nine years ago from her then 14-year-old daughter's school counselor. "He said that he and Lynette wanted to talk to me and, because of the nature of it, they thought it should just be me without her dad," she says. "I thought, 'This feels bad,' and once there, the minute Lynette said, Jason Strong, I knew. It fit like a puzzle."

There had been signs, but they were only recognizable with the benefit of hindsight. For months, Lynette hadn't been sleeping, so a doctor prescribed sleeping pills. She'd wake up with nightmares and have anxiety attacks during the day. Her grades were plummeting.

The story that unfolded in the counselor's office confirmed Janice's worst fears. Lynette alleged she had been sexually assaulted seven years earlier by a neighborhood boy who was then 14. "I sat there blown away. Blown to the wall," she says. "The counselor was a Mormon, too, and he talked about my husband's position and the Strong family and said to just take Lynette home and love her and she'd be fine."

Neither Jason Strong, members of the Strong family, nor their attorney have ever admitted any wrongdoing. The Strongs' attorney, Kyle W. Jones, said neither he nor his clients would comment for this story. The allegations, however, are a matter of court record.

The school counselor was just one in a long line of Mormon men who did not report the alleged sexual abuse of a child. The first may have been the pediatrician who saw Lynette soon after the alleged assault, when she was 7. "That's how I know exactly when it was. Lynette started screaming whenever she urinated. I didn't know what was wrong and I took her to the doctor," Janice says. "Our own pediatrician was gone, so another one gave us some cream and that was it. He didn't say anything and just looked at me funny, mentioning that he knew our family was a prominent Mormon family."

Janice still had the tube of cream when her daughter revealed her story seven years later. "I took it back to our own pediatrician and asked about it," she says. "He told me it was for yeast and said, 'No 7-year-old has yeast.' Why didn't that other pediatrician do the appropriate thing?"

Devastated by the revelation, Janice did what most Mormons do-she turned to her bishop. "I wanted therapy for Lynette and I wanted the perpetrator to be reported and have counseling," says Janice. "Bishop Casaday said that if we reported it, my husband would be taken out of the bishopric." Janice was told that she should forgive and forget. As to her request for therapy, she and Lynette were told to make an appointment with Paul Browning at the Bountiful Health Center.

"The bishop said, 'He's the perfect man for you.'" After meeting with Lynette for 20 minutes, Browning called Janice and Ralph into his office. "He said, 'Your daughter doesn't want to go to the temple,'" remembers Janice. "I said, 'That's not the problem right now. What does this have to do with sexual abuse?'"

For seven months the family continued to visit Browning for therapy in spite of his unusual techniques. He told her that he'd had lunch with her stake president and they had talked about her. She and Lynette were admonished to forgive and forget and told repeatedly that they should not report the young man to the police. "He made me feel terrible, always saying, 'What kind of Mormon are you that you want to punish this boy? Do you want to ruin his life?'" says Janice. "I had 'forgive and forget' constantly thrown at me by all those church men. It was used as a weapon against me and as a way to sweep everything under the rug."

Former Bishop Casaday and former Stake President David Christensen denied comment for this story through their attorney, Randy Austin at the law firm of Kirton and McConkie.

Marian Smith, former director and co-founder of the Intermountain Specialized Abuse Treatment Center, co-authored the book Healing From Sexual Abuse in Mormon Neighborhoods. Smith says placing guilt on victims and their families with a forgiveness mandate for the perpetrator is a common tactic.

She cites the November 2000 Jay Toombs case as a classic example. In that Logan, Utah, case, Toombs pleaded guilty to molesting several boys and was charged with three first-degree felony counts for aggravated sexual abuse of a child.

The case revealed that over the years, three Mormon bishops and a stake president had known of the abuse but never reported Toombs to the police. Toombs went on to molest other boys. "People had complained to their bishops for years about Toombs," says Smith. "They were told to forgive and at least one mother was given priesthood blessings telling her that it was her special calling to forgive him."

Browning's recriminations compounded Lynette's suffering, Janice believes. During her ninth grade year she began falling apart. "I was having to pick her up from school in the middle of the day. It got so I was grateful for a D grade just so she could pass a class," says Janice. "I had to hold her most of the night while she clung to me. Then I'd go in the living room and weep after she fell asleep."

Finally the school counselor recommended that they see another therapist. Their new therapist, Deborah Christensen, was appalled that the alleged assault had not been reported and said that by law she would have to report it within 72 hours. "She got the phone book and reported it right then and there," says Janice. "I knew certain people would be pissed, but I didn't think it would be like an atomic bomb."

But eight years after the alleged assault, there was scant physical evidence to press criminal charges, law enforcement authorities told the Earls. Deborah Christensen also made an observation that Janice couldn't shake. "She said, 'It's difficult to imagine that a licensed therapist would say the kinds of things he did.'" Janice had always thought it strange that Browning billed her through his associate, Craig Berhold.

With her suspicions roused, she called the state Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing about Browning's credentials. "I wasn't prepared for what I found out," she says. "He wasn't a social worker of any kind. They said he wasn't licensed to do anything in the state of Utah."

During the next therapy session, Janice and Lynette learned that their bishop had called the new therapist after she reported the perpetrator to the police. "She told us that he said, 'You have no idea what you did, you ruined this young man's life. It was wrong of you to do that.'" If the therapist was shocked at the bishop's behavior, she was even more so by Janice's news about Paul Browning's career as an unlicensed therapist.

For 25 years he had been well known in social work circles in the state. In 1994 Janice took both Browning and Berhold to court, resulting in the termination of Browning's practice. The Earls were awarded $4,000. It was a minuscule amount compared to the $76,000 in therapy bills they had racked up in that first year alone.

Today, Paul Browning is the director of religion at the LDS Institute at the University of Utah. In an interview with City Weekly, Browning maintained that he did nothing wrong. "I was practicing under the supervision of Craig Berhold and had permission from the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing," he said.

A spokesman for the division said it would never allow a therapist to practice without a license. For his part, Berhold said he had no comment. Back in the neighborhood, Lynette was being called a "whore" and "slut" by other kids. The Earl family was socially ostracized, Janice remembers grimly. "With my husband still in the bishopric, I had to look like everything was alright," she says. "My face had to be smiling. I did a very good job."

Sitting in church, the Earls would watch the Strong boy bless the sacrament-a weekly ordinance sacred to Mormons and reserved for those who are worthy. "One of the reasons we wanted the bishop to know [about the alleged assault] was to protect other children," says Janice. "It was shocking. We were so naive about how this would be handled."

Marian Smith has seen the same scenario played out in numerous other cases. "It's very common for ward members to close ranks around perpetrators and ostracize families of victims," she says. "It's terribly threatening for people to have one of their own revealed."

By the end of that year, Ralph Earl was being released from the bishopric. However, Janice was told that the stake president wanted to speak with her before the release was formalized. She dutifully went to meet with him in his office. "President Christensen said to me, 'You know why this happened to Lynette don't you?' Then he went on and said, 'The reason it happened is because she's so beautiful.'"

The statement said volumes for Janice. "The stake president was blaming Lynette as well as sexualizing her himself." In therapy, Janice and Lynette were instructed to write a letter to Bishop Casaday as part of their healing process.

"Lynette's letter was so heartfelt and she wanted him to have it. The therapist agreed, so I delivered it to him," says Janice. "That night he called Lynette and ripped her apart over the phone. She was so upset that we were back in the therapist's office the next day to put her back together."

Bishop Casaday and President Christensen had constantly told Lynette that the young man had been forgiven. "He was treated normally while my whole life had changed. I was turned into an outcast in my own neighborhood," Lynette says. "Forgiveness for him was pounded into me. How in the hell can I forgive?"

Janice was feeling sure that if her daughter's case was being treated inappropriately, then surely others like it must be as well. "I thought this can't be the rule, it has to be the exception," she says. "But no. I learned this is the rule. It's just the way it's done."

She felt strongly that the church needed to step out of the process and let professionals and police officials handle child sexual abuse cases. Most of all, she desperately needed to find justice for Lynette. She concluded that a lawsuit was the only solution. "It became my full-time job. I went to over 50 attorneys with this case and they all turned me down," she laughs. "I was the queen of turn-me-down."

As it happened, she and Ralph began the process of closing their family business, a franchise of Snap-On Tools Inc., with the help of an out-of-state friend. The friend recommended a law firm in Tulsa, Okla.

After four months of studying the case, Gary Richardson and Lance Houghtling decided to take it on a contingency fee (attorney fees come out of money awarded from a favorable ruling). The only catch was that they had to locate a member of the Utah State Bar to sponsor them. Finding a sponsoring attorney proved as hard for the Oklahoma attorneys as it had been for Janice. After an exhausting two-year search, the attorneys decided to send just one more inquiry.

Ed Montgomery happened to be visiting a friend, who was the recipient of this last effort from Oklahoma. He noticed the complaint sitting in his friend's office and asked about it. After reading it, Montgomery decided to offer himself as the sponsoring attorney. A Mormon himself, Montgomery admits to his optimistic naivete when he first took on the case. "I really believed in the back of my mind that the church would recognize that Lynette suffered harm and at least offer a hand of assistance. I really believed it," he says. "But no. Nothing for her. Yet they do whatever they can to help this perpetrator and make sure he's safe and protected."

Two years ago, after a year of waiting for a court date, the case was finally considered by Third District Judge J. Dennis Frederick. The judge rejected the Earls' claims against the LDS church. An attorney from the firm of Kirton and McConkie, representing the church, maintained in court that there was no basis for accusations because any claim of clergy malpractice would be an unconstitutional infringement of the boundary of church and state.

Citing the First Amendment in an effort to protect clergy behavior in child sexual abuse cases is not new for the LDS church. In the fall of 1995, the Catholic church petitioned the Texas Supreme Court to hold that the First Amendment requires that churches be granted immunity against civil suits involving sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. In December 1995, the LDS church signed a "friend of the court" brief supporting the Catholic church's position. In a number of cases the Mormon church has worked to shield clergy. The latest case occurred in February of this year when the LDS church filed an emergency appeal with the Oregon Supreme Court to stop a judge's order that the church release internal records regarding prior knowledge of a sexual predator.

Montgomery remains incredulous at the lower court's ruling in Lynette's case. "The essence of Judge Frederick's ruling was that the church is immune. Their attorney's brief maintains that whatever happens behind church doors is no one's business," says Montgomery. "In any other relationship or institution where there is this kind of power imbalance, this wouldn't be a question."

Lynette's attorney has appealed to the Utah Supreme Court, hoping to get the case remanded to the lower court for a jury trial. In the complaint, Montgomery and the Tulsa attorneys allege fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, gross negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress and intentional infliction of emotional distress. If the court agrees with the Earls, it could open the door to other complaints, giving courts the right to judge the actions of religious officials.

"Usually this would have gone to the Court of Appeals but the Supreme Court decided to hear it," says Montgomery. "We just want the opportunity to present the facts of this case to a jury, but so far we've been denied the opportunity to do so."

Attorneys involved in the case at Kirton and McConkie refused to answer questions concerning this story because the case is in litigation. LDS spokesman Dale Bills would not answer questions for the same reason.

City Weekly asked Bills if church officials would answer general questions regarding child sexual abuse in the Mormon church. (See "10 Questions the LDS Church Won't Answer" and "The Response From the LDS Church.")

The LDS church's General Handbook of Instructions to priesthood leaders on the subject of child sexual abuse is addressed briefly. "They have a handbook that they clearly don't follow that was drafted to offer them another layer of legal protection," says Montgomery. "The church hasn't done anything but abuse Lynette and side with the perpetrator.

It's clear evidence to me that they don't care and I have another case just like it." The church also has a help line available to Mormon leaders who may be faced with the issue of child sexual abuse, and has distributed a training video to bishops in North America and Canada. According to Lavina Fielding Anderson, co-editor of the 1996 volume Case Reports Of The Mormon Alliance, which covered child sexual abuse in the Mormon church, the help line is more self-serving than victim-friendly.

"I was told by one bishop who called the help line that they walked him through procedure on how to get a commitment from the parents of the victim not to sue the church," she says. "The video came with a letter instructing bishops not to view it unless or until a problem did in fact arise."

Fielding Anderson also finds it interesting that the video is only distributed in the relatively litigious countries of North America and Canada. "Do they believe that there isn't child sexual abuse in other countries?"

Lynette found it impossible to live in her childhood neighborhood. "I made the decision and purposely became pregnant by my boyfriend at the age of 16," she says. "It was my way out."

The Earls gave Lynette a beautiful and lavish wedding to which she requested that no one from the ward be invited. "Rumors got back to us that the reason no one was invited was because we were ashamed of Lynette," says Janice. "We have never been ashamed of our daughter. It amazes me how they make up this garbage to fit their view."

Today, at 23, Lynette remains happily married. Janice and Ralph built their home themselves and had the mortgage nearly paid, but they finally gave up trying to maintain a normal life in their neighborhood. They recently sold their house and moved out of the area.

"I thought after all the years of help we gave to others in our ward in their times of need that when our time of need came they would be there," says Janice. "No one was. You don't know what it means to take this on. You become friendless and family-less."

The Earls saw all the men involved move to higher church positions. Janice says she can't have anything to do with a church that lies about how it helps children. For her part, Lynette has no desire for any religion in her life.

Armed with the aid of courageous attorneys, Janice knows she's still in for a long road ahead. "I didn't know I had this in me but my feeling is, just don't mess with my children." she says. "It's so simple what I wanted for Lynette. It should have been so simple. If only the church would have followed the law."

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