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Latter-day Saint spokesman denounces news story about church's sexual abuse response

FILE - This Thursday, April 18, 2019, photo, shows the Salt Lake Temple in Salt Lake City. A spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints denounced a news story reported by Vice News, saying that the media outlet mischaracterized the fait
FILE - This Thursday, April 18, 2019, photo, shows the Salt Lake Temple in Salt Lake City. A spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints denounced a news story reported by Vice News, saying that the media outlet mischaracterized the faith's response to sexual abuse. Vice did not respond to requests for comment.
Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — In a rare action, a spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints denounced a news story reported by Vice News, saying Friday that the media outlet irresponsibly mischaracterized the faith's response to sexual abuse.

"In short, Vice News chose to misreport this story," said Eric Hawkins, the church's director of media relations. "Abuse is a matter taken very seriously by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," he added. "It is not tolerated, and the church has invested heavily in resources and training, including the help line, to prevent, combat and address abuse."

On Thursday night, HBO's Vice News Tonight aired a story about the ongoing pain and suffering of Christopher Michael Jensen's sexual abuse victims and their families in West Virginia. A print version was published Friday on the Vice News website. Both versions incorrectly reported the church's name multiple times.

Jensen was sentenced in 2013 to 35 to 75 years in prison for sexually abusing two children while babysitting as a teenager. Vice News interviewed the attorney and two of five families who sued the church in 2013 regarding the Jensen cases, alleging the church acted improperly in its response to Jensen, a church member.

The families and church settled the suit last year. The church, which excommunicated Jensen in 2013, denied any wrongdoing and the settlement amount is confidential.

The Vice News story focused in part on the 24-hour abuse help line the church makes available to its approximately 30,000 bishops and 3,000 stake presidents. Those leaders, who are not professional clergy, are instructed to call the hotline promptly about every situation they believe includes abuse or neglect or risk for either, Hawkins said. The goal, he said, is to prevent abuse and advise bishops about compliance with local abuse reporting laws.

Vice News said its reporting "suggests that the system serves a very different purpose: to shield the 'Mormon Church' from potential lawsuits that pose a financial threat to the church."

Timothy Kosnoff, the attorney who represented the families in the lawsuit and who according to Vice News has been involved in more than 100 cases against the church, alleged in the story that the church uses the hotline to intimidate victims into not suing the church for possible liability in the abuse.

Hawkins called those claims an egregious mistake and said the hotline is designed to maintain confidentiality.

"We are deeply disappointed by Vice News' irresponsible mischaracterization of the church help line," he said.

West Virginia requires clergy to report abuse allegations and Hawkins said that contrary to Vice's reporting, the church complied with every reporting requirement in the Jensen cases, "and in years of investigation and legal process, no church leader was ever charged with a failure to report or to comply with the law."

"We disagree with many of the statements made by the plaintiffs in this story and are frustrated that no fact-checking appears to have been done to verify what individuals told Vice," Hawkins added. "Their statements to VICE are wildly different than (what they said in) police reports, depositions and court testimonies."

He pointed to the example of a victim's mother who told Vice that when she couldn't reach the bishop about Jensen's abuse, she called police.

Hawkins said she testified differently in court, that when she couldn't reach her congregation's bishop, she instead called his first counselor in the bishopric.

"She testified in court," Hawkins said, "that when she reported the abuse to him, he told her, 'this is a crime,' and provided her with the phone number so that she could call the police. The church leader then called the church help line, and the church then called the police to make sure a report had been made."

Hawkins said that was the most egregious fact withheld in the story. He also said the case is a positive example of the church's local leaders correctly using its hotline system and generating a criminal report.

Vice News representatives did not immediately respond to messages for them left Friday afternoon seeking comment on Hawkins' statement. Kosnoff, the families' attorney, also did not immediately return messages left for him and the families.

"To be very clear," Hawkins added, "the case in West Virginia is very different from the types of cases where churches have been held liable for not preventing or even covering up abuse. None of the abuse happened on church property or during a church activity. None of the abuse was committed by a church officer or leader. Tragically, a number of children were abused by a teenage member of the church, Michael Jensen, while babysitting or vacationing or temporarily residing in their or his homes. Jensen is in prison, as he should be, for a very long time."

Vice News said the church's hotline is operated by LDS Family Services and Kirton McConkie, a law firm retained by the church.

The church created the abuse hotline in 1995. A church document released last year states, "When bishops or stake presidents call the help line, legal and clinical professionals will answer their questions and provide instructions about how to assist victims, comply with local laws and requirements for reporting abuse, and protect against further abuse."

Hawkins said the legal advisers on the hotline strongly encourage and assist bishops and stake presidents to report suspected abuse to law enforcement whether reporting is required by local laws or not.