SALT LAKE CITY — A U.S. District judge declined Wednesday to move four Navajos' allegations of sexual abuse in a now-defunct LDS Church foster placement program from Navajo Nation court to federal court.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints argued that the Navajo court lacked jurisdiction because placements of tribal members with host families were made outside the reservation and the alleged abuse didn't take place on the reservation. It sought to prevent the lawsuit from moving forward in the tribal court.
Judge Robert J. Shelby ruled that the church failed at this stage in the case to meet its "substantial burden of showing that tribal court jurisdiction is clearly foreclosed."
While it appears that jurisdiction over certain claims — including those for direct liability for the sexual assaults — may be foreclosed, it is not clear that tribal court jurisdiction is clearly lacking for all of the defendants' claims, Shelby wrote.
Four Navajos, including two siblings, sued the LDS Church in three separate lawsuits in tribal court, alleging they were sexually abused during their time with foster families in Utah in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The lawsuit seeks written apologies, unspecified damages, changes in church policy to ensure that sexual abuse is reported first to authorities and the creation of a task force to address any cultural or social harm to Navajos in the Indian Student Placement Program.
Tribal members who wished to participate in the program did so voluntarily with the agreement of their families, according to church officials. LDS Social Services, now called LDS Family Services, had an office in Cedar City with regional responsibility for the program, including working with members of the Navajo Nation.
The Indian or Lamanite Student Placement Program started in 1947 and declined in the 1990s, ending with the graduation of the final students around 2000, according to the LDS Church.