Helen W. wasn’t born a Mormon, but she embraced the religion when she was 17 and it embraced her back.
When her son Alex was born with a heart defect and developmental disabilities, it was the Mormon Church that paid for his operations and treatments. When her second son, Zachary, was born eighteen months later, it was the members of her Martinsburg, West Virginia, congregation who helped find babysitters. And when Helen and her husband needed life guidance or wisdom, they turned to their bishop.
Bishops of the Mormon Church — or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as it’s formally called — are laymen, not professional clerics. Helen’s bishop, Donald Fishel, had worked full-time as a utility company lineman before his retirement. But as a Mormon bishop, he played an all-encompassing role in his congregants’ lives.
A bishop oversees the spiritual well-being of his followers, instructing them how to act in accordance with the teachings of Mormonisms; and he oversees tithing, the practice of giving 10 percent of one’s income to the church. He also tends to their everyday needs, providing marriage counseling, arranging for financial aid, finding jobs for the unemployed, mentoring teenagers, and filling other roles. A bishop is “your go-to for everything,” says Helen. “You have a problem, you have a concern, financial concerns, anything. The bishop’s door is always open. You go to your bishop and ask their advice.”
Helen says she and her husband turned to bishop Fishel in 2008, when they were confronted with a parent’s worst nightmare.
Helen was waiting with her kids for the school bus one winter morning when Zachary, who was then 4, started crying. He told her that he didn’t want Michael Jensen — the 16-year-old son of a respected local Mormon family — to babysit him anymore. Jensen, Zachary said, was “mean.” Helen liked the teenager and didn’t understand why her son was acting so strangely. She pressed him to explain.
“Mom, he makes me suck his privates,” Zachary said.
A decade later, Helen recalled that moment in a sexual abuse-related civil lawsuit she and five other families brought against local Mormon leaders, including Fishel, and the Mormon Church. (Because many of the children involved are still minors, VICE News is using the first initial of their families’ last names.) Helen testified that she and her husband met with Bishop Fishel as soon as they could to tell him what Zachary had said.
“I told Bishop Fishel that Zachary told me that he was forced to put Michael’s penis in his mouth,’” she explained. “He told us he was going to look into it, that he was going to talk to Michael.”
In his testimony, Fishel insisted he was unaware that abuse had occurred and that Helen never spoke to him at all. Fishel also said that Helen’s husband also did not tell him about sexual abuse but only said that his son was afraid of Michael Jensen and had described him as “the man who hurt me.”
When Fishel went to see Michael Jensen to discuss it, he said that the 4-year-old had walked in on him while he was watching internet pornography and was upset by the graphic images he’d seen.
Mormons believe that bishops have a spiritual gift known as the power of discernment that allows them to divine if someone is telling the truth. Fishel told the court he prayed for guidance after meeting with Michael Jensen, and determined the teen was being truthful.
In many states, including West Virginia, clergy are required to notify public authorities when they learn about possible child abuse. Since Fishel said he was told there was no abuse, there was no reason for him to report it.
Helen and her husband accepted his decision. After all, the Mormon Church was their provider and protector.
Shielding the church
The Mormon Church calls the abuse reporting system it created two decades ago innovative and says it should serve as a model for other religions and groups.
“The Church has zero tolerance when it comes to abuse,” the Mormon Church states on its website. “We are unaware of any organization that does more than the Church to stop and prevent abuse.”
At the system’s heart is a 24-hour helpline that bishops and other leaders of the religion’s 14,000 congregations in the United States are urged to call when they hear about suspected abuse.
But testimony in Helen W.’s case revealed previously unknown details about how the Mormon Church’s reporting system operates — and who it really helps.
Mormon leaders have long insisted that the helpline’s sole purpose is to advise bishops about compliance with local abuse reporting laws. But court testimony, as well as other documents reviewed by VICE News, suggests that the system serves a very different purpose: to shield the Mormon Church from potential lawsuits that pose a financial threat to the Church.
The church also uses secrecy to mask the system’s effectiveness. It has never disclosed the number of abuse-related calls made annually to its helpline or what percentage of those calls are referred to child protection authorities.
Asked by VICE News for that information, Eric Hawkins, a Mormon Church spokesman, said, “The Church does not share information about the helpline.” He declined to say why.
The Mormon Church’s lack of transparency contrasts starkly with actions taken by other religious groups and institutions. Since the early 2000s, when the Catholic Church became engulfed in the pedophile priest scandal, an affiliated group has annually published the number of abuse-related reports that Catholic bishops make to authorities.
But the Mormon Church’s refusal to disclose help line data is only the most visible symptom of a system that appears to place church interests ahead of abuse victims’.
Helpline calls are not immediately transferred to authorities so they can take action. Instead, they are funneled into a law firm closely tied to the Mormon Church. As it turns out, the same firm that created the Mormon Church’s abuse reporting system in 1995 now defends it in abuse-related lawsuits, including the one filed by Helen W.
Structurally, that law firm, Kirton McConkie, is independent of the Mormon Church. But for decades, the firm has served as its legal alter ego, its sword and shield in lawsuits, its policy adviser, and its legislative advocate.
The firm, which was founded by Church members, is located a few blocks away from the soaring Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. The Church is Kirton McConkie’s largest client and, along with sex abuse cases, it represents the church in business and other kinds of disputes. Today, the Mormon Church still bars women from serving as bishops. A recent survey found only four women among the nearly 100 partners in its Salt Lake City office.
Kirton McConkie and the Church of Latter-day Saints declined interview requests for this story. Officials of Kirton McConkie did not respond to written questions about the firm’s role in the helpline. In a written statement, an outside spokesman for the firm said it adheres “to standards that are consistent with the practices of law firms” and always advises “compliance with relevant laws.”
But several experts said they could not see any benefit for abuse victims in having defense lawyers screen calls about such incidents before authorities are alerted.
Catholic bishops have been instructed since 2002 to alert the police about suspected abuse before contacting church lawyers. “If you are just looking at it from the outside, you might say to yourself, ‘Are they trying to find a way not to report [incidents]’?” says Kathleen McChesney, a former top official at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who consulted with the Catholic Church on its new reporting policies.
Details about the Mormon Church’s abuse reporting system — and Kirton McConkie’s role in it — emerged during Helen’s lawsuit. And other revelations about the firm’s role might have come to light, VICE News has learned, if the Mormon Church hadn’t settled that lawsuit in March of 2018 while a trial was underway.
Timothy Kosnoff, a lawyer who represented Helen and other plaintiffs, says that a Kirton McConkie lawyer named Joseph Osmond acknowledged during a pretrial deposition that the firm uses information gleaned from helpline calls to identify cases that pose a high financial risk to the Mormon Church. Osmond also said during his deposition, which remains sealed, that he did not know why the church does not tell bishops to directly contact police — as the Catholic Church does — instead of calling the helpline, according to Kosnoff.
According to Kosnoff, another sealed deposition in the case shows helpline calls are first answered inside the Salt Lake City offices of a Mormon Church-sponsored agency known as LDS Family Services. Normally, staffers at the agency provide services to Mormons such as psychological counseling. But in the case of the helpline, they are under orders to transfer callers to Kirton McConkie, those disclosures indicate.
Officials for Kirton McConkie declined to comment on these allegations.
Directing abuse-related calls to church lawyers, legal experts said, lets the Mormon Church classify them as “attorney-client” communications and so protect them from disclosure in lawsuits and other forums. The Church’s maintenance of secrecy is so absolute that staffers at LDS Family Service who take notes during helpline calls are required to shred them at the end of every day, said Kosnoff, the plaintiffs’ lawyer.
“It’s a helpline for the lawyers, not for the children or anybody else”
“It’s a helpline for the lawyers, not for the children or anybody else,” said Kosnoff, who has gone up against Kirton McConkie in more than a hundred cases. “It gives them an opportunity to get involved, to quickly send lawyers out there. Talk to victims. Silence them if they can.”
Separately, an internal Kirton McConkie document obtained by VICE News suggests that the firm also advises Mormon Church officials about whether they should notify public authorities about incidents of sexual abuse or misconduct.
The 2012 document, entitled “Special Investigations and Projects,” is a spreadsheet listing several sexual abuse cases involving church members at the time. Most of the cases cited in the document occurred outside the United States and involved Mormon men who were on religious missions, or so-called “elders.”
But one case concerned a Texas man who was at least 18, the youngest age at which a Mormon can be a missionary. In 2012, the man, while serving his mission in Arizona, confessed to church officials that before leaving his home in Texas, he had exchanged sexually explicit photographs with a 15-year-old girl. He also acknowledged that since arriving in Arizona he had kissed and touched a 15-year-old girl, the Kirton McConkie document states.
Church leaders had decided to end the man’s mission. But the Kirton McConkie document noted that while church officials in Texas would have “a duty” under state law to report his behavior to state officials if he returned home, doing so could result in felony charges against him. “His conduct is clearly unlawful in Texas, and his state President would have a duty to report,” the document states. “It is clear that the Elder needs to go home. Direction?”
Eric Hawkins, the Mormon Church spokesman, and Randy Austin, a lawyer with Kirton McConkie, were provided a copy of the document by VICE News. Neither responded to written questions about it, including whether the Church reported the man to authorities.
Teresa Huizar, the executive director of the National Children’s Alliance, a group that advocates for stronger abuse-reporting laws, said she found the document “disturbing” because organizations such as the Mormon Church have a legal and moral duty to report child abuse. “It is one of personal and institutional integrity,” Huizar said.
Duty to report
By coincidence, Michael Jensen was also working as a missionary in Arizona in 2012. The incident involving Helen W.’s son was then four years behind him.
But then more allegations of sex abuse involving Jensen surfaced in Martinsburg.
In late 2007, Spring T., who was a member of one Martinsburg’s two Mormon congregations, was unable to find a last-minute babysitter for her two sons, then aged 3 and 4. So she hired Jensen to take care of her children for a few hours. When she returned, her home was a mess and there were ketchup stains in the kitchen and bathroom.
That was the first and only time she used Jensen. But five years later, in 2012, her sons suddenly revealed that while Jensen was babysitting, he had smeared ketchup on his penis and forced them to perform oral sex on him.
“I broke down,” Spring says. “Nothing really prepares you for that.”
Spring T. hired Michael Jensen to care for her two sons, then aged 3 and 4. (Photo: Zachary Caldwell/VICE News)
Her initial reaction was the same as Helen W’s. “I tried to get in touch with the bishop, I really did,” Spring says. “But I thank God because he wasn’t available.”
Her next call was to the West Virginia State Police. “When you look at it from a different viewpoint of it not being a sin and it being a crime, then…I needed to put it in their hands,” she says.
State troopers started an investigation, and at their request church officials agreed to bring Jensen, still on his mission in Arizona, back to West Virginia for questioning. But court testimony shows that church leaders in Martinsburg did not alert authorities when Jensen returned. A state trooper also testified that lawyers at Kirton McConkie did not notify him that Jensen was back.
As a result, several families, unaware of the abuse allegations, allowed Jensen to stay at their homes in the months prior to his arrest in mid-2013.
Jensen was convicted that year of sexually abusing Spring’s children and is currently serving a prison sentence of 35 years to 75 years in a West Virginia state prison. At the time of his sentencing, a state judge classified him as a “violent sexual predator.”
Spring joined the same lawsuit in which Helen was a plaintiff. Another family involved said they later learned that Jensen, while staying in their home after his return from Arizona, had sexually abused two of their sons, who were then 10 and 6. In settling the lawsuit in 2018 for an undisclosed sum, the Mormon Church denied any wrongdoing. Defense lawyers also said that the Church tried to aid the affected families.
The Church of Latter-day Saints declined interview requests for this story, but sent an email saying it took appropriate action when it learned of the abuse by Michael Jensen. In regards to abuse cases, the church says it takes steps to encourage reporting and, where available, provides counselors to help victims.
Fishel and the Jensen family did not return our calls.
Helen and Spring say that instead of being embraced by fellow congregants for coming forward, they’ve been ostracized. Some of their former friends insist that Michael Jensen’s parents were good Mormons who would never have raised a child molester. Others told Helen and Spring that as Mormons, it was their obligation to forgive him.
The women’s faith and families are shattered. Helen and Spring are now separated from their husbands and their children are being treated for trauma.
“It was devastating,” Spring says. “We were pushed aside and Michael received the protection of the church.”
McChesney, the former FBI official, and Huizar, the child abuse expert, both said that the Mormon Church’s lack of transparency and use of defense lawyers to screen abuse reports virtually guarantees that the type of tragedy that occured in Martinsburg will happen again.
“You can pray for guidance about how to handle sexual abuse,” said Huizar. “But you can pray and also report it to public authorities.”
A version of this story appeared on VICE News Tonight on HBO on May 2, 2019.
Cover: Helen W. joined the Mormon Church when she was 17. A fellow church member was convicted of sexually assaulting her 4-year-old son. (Photo: Zachary Caldwell/VICE News)