Mormon psychologist's recanting about church flaw puzzles some

Houston Chronicle/May 10, 1999
By Paul McKay

As a psychologist and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Arleen Cromwell wanted to help her church with a problem.

Later, however, she contended that there was no problem at all.

In a sworn affidavit she signed in February 1996 - but later recanted - the Salt Lake City therapist detailed what she called a pattern in which sexually abused children had been shunned or generally mishandled by bishops, who in the Mormon faith are local congregational leaders.

Cromwell noted in the affidavit, given for a lawsuit in which she agreed to testify against the church, that families of the abuse victims often sought help first from bishops, who failed to get them the professional treatment they needed.

She said bishops often made "little effort to ensure the safety of victims or failed to report abuses to appropriate state authorities."

"In many cases, the Bishop is ignorant of the needs of the victim, and does not act to ensure that the victim is not further abused," said Cromwell, who had been involved in treating abuse patients in about 300 cases in Utah. "While some Bishops attempt to counsel the abuser, they typically do not follow through on a long-term basis with the abuser, which results in continued abuse."

The therapist went on to note that in March 1992, she "became so concerned with the disturbing pattern I had seen emerging among the clergy of my own Church" that she wrote a letter to her stake president.

In the Mormon faith, a stake president is a church leader who oversees a "stake," which is comparable to a diocese in other denominations. A stake typically comprises at least six "wards," which are local congregations. All bishops and stake presidents are men who are unpaid lay members of the church.

In her letter, Cromwell wrote of "antagonism" from the bishops she had contacted to discuss her patients' needs over the years.

"It seemed Bishops had a distrust of therapists which made them reluctant to refer victims to therapy," she said in her first affidavit. "This antagonism further injured the victim of the abuse by preventing the assistance with treatment that counseling provides."

Cromwell offered to provide free training for bishops and other church officials to assist them in the way they treated victims and perpetrators. She noted in the affidavit, however, that she was turned down by the stake leader, who said the bishops had all the training they needed.

"Since March 1992, I have noticed no significant change in the number or severity of child sexual abuse cases among members of the church, and I have noted no change in the pattern which I found so disturbing and which compelled me to write to my Stake President," Cromwell stated in the 1996 affidavit.

Cromwell, however, backed off the statement last June as the lawsuit pending in Beckley, W.Va. - where Mormon officials are accused of liability for failing to report a case of child sexual abuse to authorities - heated into a contentious battle between attorneys for the church and those for the young brother and sister who were abused by their father.

Included in its long list of accusations, the lawsuit, which seeks $750 million in damages, alleges that the church has a history of generally failing to protect children from known sexual predators.

Defense lawyers say the church is not liable because it has no control over members who abuse children.

Cromwell would not talk to the Houston Chronicle about why she recanted the original affidavit that she had provided for Michael Sullivan of Columbia, S.C., the lead plaintiffs' attorney in the Beckley case.

Nor would she comment on the new affidavit she signed last year in which she said she had been unaware, when she gave the first affidavit, of the effort that the church had made in training its bishops in the handling of sexual abuse cases.

Cromwell indicated in the new affidavit that she was upset that Sullivan had given copies of her first affidavit to two television news programs.

She also said that church leaders had developed programs to address the needs of sexual-abuse victims and to ensure that abuse allegations are reported to authorities.

"I believe that the LDS church cares about these victims and is making every effort to train its leaders so that these cases are handled appropriately," she said.

"Had I been more knowledgeable of the efforts of the LDS church at the time I signed the 1996 affidavit, I wouldn't have signed it or become involved in the lawsuit. I based much of what I said about how the church was handling these cases on one conversation with my stake president. I should have looked into the situation further with church leaders but I didn't."

Cromwell said she told the plaintiffs' attorneys that she did not want to be involved in the lawsuit and asked them not to use her 1996 affidavit.

Von Keetch, a Salt Lake City attorney representing the church in that case and similar lawsuits, said Cromwell's recanting of her original affidavit is evidence that the experienced therapist is impressed with the church's turnaround in training its bishops in a concerted effort that began in 1995.

Sullivan said he suspects that Cromwell was pressured to recant, but by whom, he doesn't know.

"Recanting doesn't change what she swore as being her experience with bishops," he said. "She either observed this pattern by bishops, and experienced the antagonism from them and saw firsthand how terrible they were treating victims, or she didn't.

"You have to wonder why a woman who is a credible psychologist with impeccable credentials - a Mormon who loves her church and saw a problem that she was willing to help with as a service to her church - would turn right around and say, 'Never mind. I didn't mean it. King's X. Black is white,' " Sullivan said.

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see from looking at both affidavits that somebody from the church got to her."

Regardless of whether Cromwell wants to testify, she will be called to the witness stand when the West Virginia trial begins Oct. 25, he said.

"We'll have a subpoena with her name on it," Sullivan said.

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