SALT LAKE CITY – A woman who says a former Mormon missionary leader raped her in the 1980s and that the church failed to take her allegations seriously has filed a lawsuit, saying Thursday she wants the church to change the way it handles sexual abuse reports.
McKenna Denson, 55, said she opted to take legal action after becoming fed up that local church leaders failed to take disciplinary action despite reporting the allegations several times over three decades. She said her experience illustrates systematic problems in the church with sexual abuse claims.
Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for The Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the institution has faith in the judicial system. The church has previously said it’s investigating Denson’s allegations and last week updated guidelines for how local leaders should deal with sexual abuse claims.
The church should encourage members to report abuse first to police, not local leaders, and require local leaders to call police when they hear of abuse, not a church hotline as currently directed, Denson’s attorney, Craig Vernon, said at a news conference.
“Nothing happened. McKenna wasn’t believed,” Vernon said. “McKenna was blamed, McKenna was shamed.”
The Associated Press doesn’t usually name alleged victims of sexual assault but Denson has decided to go public with her story.
In the federal lawsuit filed Wednesday, Denson repeated her allegation that Joseph L. Bishop singled her out, groomed her and sexually assaulted her in 1984 when he was president of the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah.
Bishop, now 85, has denied raping Denson but acknowledged to police who investigated the report this year that he asked her to expose herself, which he says she did. Denson, of Pueblo, Colorado, said that didn’t happen.
Gregory Bishop, an attorney serving as his father’s spokesman, didn’t return a request for comment Thursday.
The case became public last month when a conversation Denson secretly recorded with Bishop in December came to light. In the conversation, Bishop is heard apologizing to Denson after she confronts him about the incident, but he doesn’t say what happened.
In the same conversation, Bishop acknowledged molesting an unidentified second woman and described it as back rub that he says got “too frisky.”
The Mormon church has said it is investigating both incidents and has vowed to “bring accountability.” The church says no discipline was taken against Bishop after Denson previously reported the abuse because he denied it and they couldn’t verify the allegations.
“Our hearts ache for all survivors of abuse, and the church is committed to addressing incidents of abuse wherever they are found,” the church spokesman said.
It’s not the first lawsuit filed against the church alleging sexual abuse by religious leaders, but Bishop held a much more prominent position than others. As president of the Missionary Training Center from 1983-1986, he was in a position of authority over hundreds of young Mormons preparing to go on proselytizing missions.
Denson said she came from a troubled background and converted to Mormonism as a teenager. She said the attention from a high-ranking leader like Bishop made her feel special.
After the incident, Denson said Bishop told her: “No one will believe you. Look at you, look at me.”
Denson said the #MeToo movement gave her the courage to think she might be finally believed. She posed as a journalist working on a story about Mormon leaders to secretly record the conversation with Bishop.
Denson said she’s not fazed by a dossier prepared by church officials, which was distributed to media by Gregory Bishop of her criminal record. It includes a shoplifting conviction in 2010 in Utah and a police investigation of a death threat she made against Bishop that same year. She wasn’t charged after police determined she wasn’t serious, a police report shows.
“Maybe five years ago, 10 years ago, discrediting and victim shaming would have worked,” Denson said. “It doesn’t work now. There’s been at tectonic shift really that has caused a ripple then a wave and then a tidal wave.”
The allegations have exposed how the church handles sexual abuse while it also deals with questions about closed door one-on-one interviews between local lay leaders and youth, and the sexual questions that sometimes are asked.
About 1,000 people marched to the church’s headquarters last week to demand an end to the so-called worthiness interviews that they argue can lead to unhealthy shaming of youth.
The church last week changed policy to now allow a child to bring a parent or adult with them to the interviews. Parents previously were allowed only in a hallway or adjacent room.
The Mormon church faced more criticism Monday after a top leader during a conference last weekend praised the #MeToo movement but referred to sexual misconduct as “non-consensual immorality,” a remark that some said could be interpreted as victim blaming.