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Woman Sues Mormon Church Alleging Rape by Leader in 1980s

Denson accuses The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of failing to take action against Bishop after she reported the incident several times over the years

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    Woman Sues Mormon Church Alleging Rape by Leader in 1980s
    AP, File
    In this Sept. 14, 2016, file photo, a man walks past the Salt Lake Temple, a temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at Temple Square, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

    A woman who recently accused a former Mormon missionary training center director of raping her in the 1980s and the church of failing to take her allegations seriously has sued them — a move that will bring more scrutiny to the handling of sexual abuse reports.

    McKenna Denson, 55, alleges in a lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court in Utah that Joseph L. Bishop sexually assaulted her in 1984 when he was president of the religion's Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah.

    Denson accuses The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of failing to take action against Bishop after she reported the incident several times over the years to local Mormon leaders. She argues that what happened to her illustrates systematic problems in the church with sexual abuse claims.

    "In an apparent effort to protect the church and the self-proclaimed sexual predator, leaders engaged in an ongoing pattern of not only failing to believe (the woman), but even more disturbing, blaming and shaming," the lawsuit says.

    At a news conference Thursday in Salt Lake City, Denson and her attorney said they are seeking justice and policy changes in the LDS church, The Salt Lake Tribune reported. She said the lawsuit "isn't about me," adding that the focus should be on the church's roll in the subsequent "cover-up." 

    Bishop, 85, has denied raping the woman but acknowledged to police who investigated the report this year that he asked her to expose herself, which he says she did.

    His son Gregory Bishop, an attorney serving as his spokesman, didn't immediately return a request for comment Thursday.

    The case became public last month when a conversation the woman secretly recorded with Bishop in December was made public by the website MormonLeaks, a church watchdog. In the conversation, Bishop is heard apologizing to the woman after she confronts him about the incident, but he doesn't say what happened.

    In the same conversation, Bishop acknowledged molesting a second woman and described it as back rub that he says got "too frisky."

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has said it is investigating both incidents and has vowed to "bring accountability." The church has said the allegations are "deeply disturbing" and would lead to formal discipline if true.

    The church says no discipline was taken against Bishop after the woman previously reported the abuse because he denied it and they couldn't verify the allegations.

    The identity of the second woman is unknown and it's unknown if she is planning to sue the church.

    On Thursday, Denson credited the #metoo movement for giving her the courage to confront Bishop in the recording because "maybe, this time, someone would believe me," she said. 

    Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for the Utah-based Mormon church, said in a statement Thursday: "The church has great faith in the judicial system to determine the truth of these claims. Nevertheless, the church takes seriously its responsibility to hold its members accountable for their conduct with respect of the laws of God and man."

    It's not the first lawsuit filed against the church over the years to allege sexual abuse by religious leaders, but Bishop held a much more prominent position than most of the other alleged perpetrators. 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 around the world that are considered rites of passages.

    The woman's allegations have shined a bright light on 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 announced updated guidelines for how local lay leaders should handle the interviews and sexual assault reports. One key change allows a child to bring a parent or adult with them to the interviews. Parents previously were allowed only in a hallway or adjacent room. Youth can still go alone if they choose.

    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.