Courtesy of the plaintiff
Two Navajo siblings shown in the 1970s or ‘80s during the time they were removed from their home and sent to Utah to live with foster families.

Navajo Siblings Claim ‘Horrific’ Sexual Abuse; Sue Mormons

Alysa Landry

Two Navajo siblings are suing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, claiming they endured “horrific” sexual abuse while participating in the church-operated Indian Student Placement Program.

The lawsuit, filed March 24 in Navajo Nation District Court in Window Rock, Arizona, alleges that a brother and sister were removed from their home on the reservation in the 1970s and placed with foster families in Utah. Both plaintiffs claim they experienced repeated sexual abuse and rape while on the program, which operated from 1947 to 2000 and attracted Native students from all over the United States and Canada.

Attorney Billy Keeler said his clients—age 10 and 11 when the alleged abuse began—were living with 10 other siblings in Sawmill, Arizona. After their mother volunteered them for the program, several of the children were baptized into the church and moved to Utah.

The sexual abuse started in the siblings’ first foster families and continued after they were moved to other homes, the lawsuit states. They also witnessed abuse of other siblings by foster families or associates.

Keeler said his clients told at least two program leaders of the abuse, but their “cries for help fell on deaf ears as they were placed in homes where they were abused again.”

The clients, who are not being named because of the sensitive nature of the case, were victimized twice, Keeler said. “They were victims of sexual predators and an organization that failed to protect them, even after it had notice of what was happening.”

The lawsuit alleges that the LDS Church (also known as the Mormons) failed to protect children in members’ homes and then concealed instances of sexual abuse by instructing members and leaders not to report abuse to criminal or civil authorities. It seeks unspecified damages for physical, emotional and spiritual suffering, as well as written apologies, changes in church policy and the creation of a task force to work with the Navajo Nation to address cultural and social harm.

The Mormon chapel located in Window Rock, Arizona. (Courtesy of Billy Keller)

In a statement, church spokeswoman Kristen Howey said the church will examine the lawsuit and respond appropriately. The church doesn’t tolerate any kind of abuse, she said.

The church’s official statement about child abuse claims that the church is almost never sued for abuse perpetrated by its bishops. Instead, such cases usually involve one member who has abused another—often outside of any official church activity.

“No court in the United States has held a religious institution responsible for failing to protect its members from abuse by other members,” the statement reads. “To do so would turn religious institutions into police instruments, its leadership into law enforcement officers.”

The Indian Student Placement Program, the brainchild of Mormon apostle Spencer W. Kimball, offered Native children “educational, spiritual, social and cultural opportunities in non-Indian community life.” It also sought to restore Native people—sometimes called Lamanites—to their “prophetic destiny.”

Mormons believe that America’s indigenous population fled from Israel in the year 600 B.C.E. After settling in an unspecified location in the Americas, the people split into two groups: the Nephites were righteous and civilized while the Lamanites were “idle, savage and bloodthirsty.” God cursed the Lamanites with a “skin of blackness” to distinguish them from the Nephites.

The Indian Student Placement Program, which pulled children as young as 8 from their homes and sent them to live with Mormon foster families, helped reverse the curse. In 1960, Kimball claimed Natives who participated in the program were gradually turning lighter, becoming “white and delightsome.”

One of two Navajo plaintiffs suing the Mormon Church for alleged sexual abuse in the 1970s. (Courtesy of the plaintiff)

“The day of the Lamanites is nigh,” Kimball said, claiming that Navajo placement students were “as light as Anglos” and, in one case, several shades lighter than parents “on the same reservation, in the same hogan, subject to the same sun and wind and weather.”

This “curse doctrine” itself is problematic, attorney Craig Vernon said. Children are brought up in the Mormon Church believing they have a responsibility to reach out to Natives and bring them back into the fold.

“It’s all rooted in this racist doctrine,” he said. “Whenever you have a group of people who feel superior to another group of people, it’s ripe for this kind of abuse.” You’ve got little kids away from their home, and frankly they’re second-class citizens. Perhaps this was well-intentioned by the church, but there’s a problem when kids are told that if they’re righteous their skin can become white.”

The lawsuit names as defendants the LDS Church as a corporation, along with the presiding bishop, the church’s department of social services and the church as an “unincorporated religious association.” It seeks to hold the church “vicariously liable” for the actions of its members.

Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that the church protected its image above the interests of the children. Church policy directs members to report child abuse to clergy instead of law enforcement, the lawsuit states. Leaders are instructed to “avoid testifying in civil or criminal cases or other proceedings involving abuse.”

Vernon said the church did not provide enough oversight. An estimated 40,000 Native children and teens from 60 different tribes participated in the program.

“The church assumed that if these people were Mormon, they were good people and that was the end of it,” Vernon said. “The problem with the Mormon Church is that you have lay clergy making decisions on child sex abuse, and then you run into trouble.”

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TJ Wall
TJ Wall
Submitted by TJ Wall on ( my video of hope for my brothers and sisters ) I hate reading about these stories of Sexual Abuse. As a child that was abused I can tell you that this leaves a long lasting scar on peoples lives. We all need to learn to respect each other from the moment we are born till the moment that we die.

TJ Wall
TJ Wall
Submitted by TJ Wall on ( my video on overcoming tragedy ) I can tell you that as a child that was abused these things leave a terrible scar on your life forever. We need to start respecting each other from the day we are born till the day we die.

annieg3162's picture
Submitted by annieg3162 on
What a horror. My heart aches. As far as taking action to prevent child sexual abuse, all places of workshop and youth-serving programs ought to have child sexual abuse prevention policies and monitoring, proper and thorough vetting of every new hire, and all staff and leadership ought to be trained in prevention practices. Bottom line - a zero tolerance for child sexual abuse. There are several organizations that offer policy writing and training. Check out

ceh's picture
Submitted by ceh on
What a sad story and an excellent article. As an ex-Mormon I can vouch that the church doctrine referred to in this article is indeed preached to its members. The condescending and passive/aggressive racism in the LDS church is the main reason I left it. Although I was never involved with the Indian placement program, I saw other families participating in it. On the one hand, I thought that if children were being rescued from extreme poverty or neglect within their own families it was beneficial for the child to be placed in a "stable" home. However the LDS church's motive goes beyond the child's well being. Their mission is to baptize them so they can increase the church membership, and thereby spread their totally irrational doctrine. I simply cannot understand why any non-whites would join that church when they hear this kind of rhetoric. As for foster care, inside and outside of the Indian placement program, it has always had a tradition of attracting sexual predators. Which is such a tragedy.