(CN) – West Virginia’s Supreme Court of Appeals revived a lawsuit filed by the families of nine children who claim Mormon church officials tried to cover up the incidents to protect the teenager who molested them.
As recounted in the June 14 opinion authored by Chief Justice Allen Loughry, the nine minors were victimized by Michael Jensen, who is currently serving a 35-to-75-year sentence for his acts.
According to court documents, Jensen molested the children while babysitting for them.
The families claim they repeatedly told local officials of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints about what Jensen had done, but those officials, which included Jensen’s parents, actively engaged in a cover-up of the abuse and enabled him to baby sit for and live with other church families with young children.
At the time Jensen’s mother, Sandralee, was the Martinsburg, W. Va. Mormon church’s relief society president, while his father, Chris, served on its stake high council.
The underlying lawsuit claims Bishop Don Fishel also knew of the abuse, but failed to inform families within the church that Michael Jenson was a child predator.
Chief Justice Loughry said that Berkeley County Circuit Judge John Yoder granted the defendants’ motions for summary judgment and in limine rulings based on insufficient evidence of a conspiracy by the officials.
But Loughry and the court of appeals took a different view, concluding that evidence the defendants sought to exclude in their filings was not only relevant to the plaintiffs’ claims, but went right to the heart of their conspiracy claims.
While it didn’t amount to direct evidence of a conspiracy, Loughry said it didn’t have to be for the case to proceed.
“In West Virginia and federal courts, civil and criminal verdicts may be based entirely upon circumstantial evidence … Further, circumstantial evidence, especially evidence of concerted activity directed toward achievement of a common goal , is as probative as direct evidence of conspiracy,” he wrote.
“The Court’s decision today only determined what evidence may be heard by a jury,” said Thomas Hurney, of the Jackson Kelly law firm in Charleston, West Virginia, who is representing the church.
“It did not decide the question whether the church is responsible in any way for the actions of a teenage babysitter who abused children in their own homes. We now look forward to presenting all of the evidence to a West Virginia jury,” Hurney said.
A statement from a representative for the families reads, “We are extremely pleased that the Supreme Court vindicated the rights of the sexually abused children and has made it clear that the children can present claims to a West Virginia jury with all of their evidence and all of their legal theories. We will be able to submit evidence that the perpetrator pled guilty to sex offenses in the presence of the Church and other defendants before moving to West Virginia, being placed in homes as a babysitter and a boarder, and abusing child after child. Now the jury will hear this and other key evidence in deciding this important case about the duties of a church, or any youth-serving organization, to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse.”
John Polak, of the Atkinson Polak law firm in Charleston, West Virginia, and attorney for the Jensens responded, “The plaintiffs’ allegations in this case remain just that — allegations. The Supreme Court’s opinion points out that this case involves strongly contested issues of fact. A Berkeley County jury will have the opportunity to hear all of the evidence in this case and we are confident that a jury will reach the right conclusion.”