Sex Abuse Lawsuit Is Settled by Mormons for $3 Million

New York Times/September 5, 2001
By Gustav Niebuhr

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints disclosed yesterday that it would pay $3 million to settle a suit by an Oregon man molested as a child by a church member. The suit said Mormon officials had known that the molester had been accused of sexual abuse before.

The case is unusual not only because the church disclosed the amount of the settlement, in advance of news conferences by the plaintiffs' lawyers today, but also because it centers on abuse by a man who was not a member of the clergy. That man died in 1995.

In an interview, Von G. Keetch, a Salt Lake City lawyer representing the church, said it strongly believed that the case "lacked merit" and had settled only out of concern that the litigation, already a decade old, could continue for years more, at high cost.

Mr. Keetch said the decision was made after a number of rulings against the church by a county judge presiding over the case in Portland. Among the rulings was that the church could be held liable for the conduct of one member against another, and that the plaintiff could argue that the abuser was a clergyman because he held the rank of high priest, which the church describes as a common lay title.

The suit was filed in December 1998 by a Portland man, Jeremiah Scott, who eventually sought $1.5 billion in damages from the church. He accused its authorities of withholding knowledge from his family that another member, Franklyn Curtis, had previously been accused of molesting children.

His lawyer, David Slader, said Mr. Scott was abused in 1991, the year he turned 11, after his mother invited Mr. Curtis to live with the family. Mr. Curtis, who was 88 and had been living in a group home, was a member of the same congregation as the Scotts.

Before bringing Mr. Curtis into her home, Mr. Slader said, Mrs. Scott sought advice from a local Mormon bishop, who advised the family against it because it would be too much work, but who did not inform them of the earlier accusations.

Mr. Slader noted that Mr. Curtis had been previously excommunicated after being accused of molesting children. But when he came to live with the Scotts, his membership had been restored and he held the title of high priest. He had not been criminally charged with abuse at that point, but later pleaded guilty to molesting Mr. Scott, Mr. Slader said.

"It's the institution that knew," Mr. Slader said, referring to church authorities. "A church," he added, "owes a very, very special and high duty to the children of its parishioners, the children whose souls it has taken responsibility for."

Mr. Keetch, the lawyer for the church, quoted the bishop who advised the Scotts as saying in a deposition that he had known of no abuse accusations against Mr. Curtis.

Mr. Keetch said Mr. Curtis had been excommunicated in the 1980's in Pennsylvania, where he lived before moving back to Oregon. The decision to excommunicate, Mr. Keetch said, followed the notification by another Oregon bishop to church authorities in Pennsylvania that Mr. Curtis had been accused of having "inappropriately touched a child" in an Oregon congregation different from the one where he and the Scotts were later members together.

Mr. Curtis was readmitted to membership "after a fairly lengthy period of repentance," Mr. Keetch said, but never had any supervisory position over Mr. Scott and in fact held no leadership position at all. According to the church, the title of high priest is bestowed on Mormon men in good standing over the age of 40.

Mr. Keetch said he believed there was "no church that does more either to protect children or to provide assistance to children" who have been abused.

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