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

‘I am X’: Mormon Church Faces Growing Sex Abuse Scandal, Pt. 1

Suzette Brewer

In March 2016, two Navajo siblings filed suit against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—also known as LDS or Mormon Church—in the Window Rock District of the Navajo Nation Court. In their suit, the siblings allege that they were sexually abused numerous times in several homes during their time in the “Indian Placement Program,” a foster care program operated by the church. All names and identifying information of the plaintiffs have been changed to protect their privacy.

Wrestling a Shadow’

He had decided to call it quits. After buying two fifths of whiskey and two cases of beer, Plaintiff X had secreted himself away in a hotel room in Salt Lake City, Utah, planning to drink himself to death. For more than three decades, he had been haunted by memories of violent physical and sexual abuse at the hands of Mormon foster parents, with whom he was placed in the seventh grade. By early 2014, however, the weight of his past had reached a point where he could no longer face the prospect of living another day in pain.

“I drank for five days straight,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network in an exclusive interview in Ogden, Utah, in September. “I wanted to end it.”

But on the fifth day, he fell into unconsciousness and wound up in a Salt Lake City hospital with life-threatening liver and kidney damage. When he came to, the doctors told him in no uncertain terms that if he did not quit drinking he would die.

It was a turning point for the shy, 48-year-old Navajo Nation citizen. After dropping out of high school in the 10th grade, he started drinking heavily and spent the next 33 years running from his demons. On his hospital bed, confronted with the very real prospect of leaving his wife and family, X made the decision to turn and fight.

“There was a lot of suffering that went on, a lot of self-doubt, a lot of suppression,” he says quietly. “I kept [the abuse] hidden. I didn't tell anyone. But I was angry. I didn't trust white people. I was never a person who talked a lot. I kept it all inside, and it nearly killed me.”

When he was released from the hospital, X returned to the only place that he felt could help him on the long road to healing, the only place where he would be understood: His home community on Navajo Nation territory in New Mexico. During the next several months, he fasted, went on long walks and prayed. He turned to traditional methods to begin healing not only his body, but his mind and spirit, which had been broken by years of alcohol, depression, anxiety and sleeplessness, common symptoms among many survivors of sexual abuse.

Against all odds, he got sober in June 2014 but still he wrestled with the shadow of the abuse that he had suffered during his time in the LDS foster program.

This spring, however, all of that was about to change.

Something Rose Up In Me’

On March 25, 2016, X was reading the morning newspaper when he came across a headline that stopped him cold: Sex Abuse Claim Filed by Navajo Siblings. Immediately, he was riveted by the story of a brother and sister—now both adults—who allege they were sexually abused numerous times during their time in the LDS Family Services program operated exclusively by the Mormon Church.

For X, who was by then sober and back with his family, the story was all too familiar. Like the siblings in the lawsuit he, too, had been a victim of physical, emotional, cultural and sexual abuse during his time in church-sanctioned foster care. He, too, had told his caseworker, who did nothing; he had pleaded to go home and was ignored.

“Something rose up in me,” he says, his voice rising in amazement. “I didn't even finish reading the story—I literally jumped up and started pacing. I couldn't believe it. After 35 years, someone finally broke the silence. It finally gave me the courage to come forward and tell my story.”

When he collected himself, X immediately called William Keeler, the Gallup-based attorney who specializes in religious sexual abuse cases and is lead counsel for the siblings. After 35 years, X had a lot to talk about.

“I had kept it all inside for 35 years,” he says. “And Bill's secretary is the first person I ever told. Oh my gosh, I couldn't stop talking—we were on the phone for an hour. I became a plaintiff that same day.”

Shortly afterwards, for the first time in his life, X sat down and began writing about his experiences in the LDS Family Services. As he wrote, the memories that he had tried to bury for so long came flooding back, piece by painful piece.

“I started remembering everything,” he says. “It all started coming back—things that I hadn't thought about in years. All these years of not getting it out was useless. But you have to take back what was taken from you. I cried, but it was tears of joy, because everything that was painful was lifted.”


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