Families speak out against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over sex abuse allegations

Multiple families are suing the church and several church officials.

June 29, 2019, 1:45 AM

The following report was put together by reviewing trial testimony and court documents, and interviewing multiple plaintiffs who were involved in a lawsuit against the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints. The plaintiffs in that lawsuit alleged that the Church and several Church officials failed to take steps to protect the plaintiff's children from a teenager who was ultimately convicted of sexually abusing two young children.

The Church told ABC News in a statement, "These allegations are false, offensive, and unsubstantiated. As soon as Church leaders learned of abuse by this individual, they encouraged the parents of the abused children to report to West Virginia police and confirmed the report."

The lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed payment in 2018.

The Jensens

Martinsburg, West Virginia 2005

Michael Jensen, the plaintiffs said, was part of a prominent family in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In 2005, the Jensen family moved to Martinsburg, West Virginia. In West Virginia, according to plaintiff testimony, members of the family quickly advanced to high positions within the local church. Michael's father, Christopher Jensen, became a high priest, while his mother, Sandralee Jensen, as president of the Relief Society, was in charge of administering to the needs of the women in her local church. Meanwhile, back in Utah, Michael's grandfather was said to have held various leadership roles in the church's national infrastructure.

"That was always the Jensens. They always held very high callings," said Spring, one of the plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against the church. ABC News has omitted the names of the alleged minor victims and the last names of their parents at the parents' request.

"They seemed to be people of good character, integrity. I mean, usually in higher positions like that, they do call people more of a higher status in the church," she said.

On the surface, the plaintiffs say that Michael Jensen appeared no different. He was regularly seen at church, volunteering in various roles. As with his family members, he appeared well-adjusted, and was well-liked by his peers.

"He was a boy that put himself out there as a very selfless, giving person, and the family portrayed that image as well," Helen said, another plaintiff in the lawsuit. "They just were considered a very well-respected, worthy, righteous family within the church."

For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon Church, the plaintiffs say that the church isn't simply a center of faith. It's an all-encompassing way of life with fellow members commonly referred to as "brothers" and "sisters." On a local level, members are assigned to "wards," akin to congregations, depending on where they live. The plaintiffs said that local church leaders, such as bishops, are held in high esteem, and play active roles in members' lives.

"Within the church, there is a belief that leaders are called of God and they operate under the inspiration of God while they are holding that leadership position," said Dave Campbell, the Packey J. Dee Professor of American Democracy at the University of Notre Dame. "The idea is that the Lord would speak for the bishop or to the bishop through the Holy Spirit. And that would help the bishop and those who are working with him make decisions over who should profile which role within the congregation."

According to Spring and Helen, the Jensens were integral to church life in Martinsburg. They say that Sandralee was especially active in her role -- as Relief Society president, she addressed the needs of the women and family in their ward, including welfare issues that could arise.

"I think, to many members of the Church their ward is really like an extended family," said Campbell. "Typically the woman serving as the Relief Society President is someone in the ward who is widely respected."

Families sued local church officials in Martinsburg, West Virginia as part of their civil lawsuit against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

In 2007, two years after the Jensens moved to West Virginia, Spring says that she confided in Sandralee about marital issues she was facing.

"She approached me and said, 'You know -- if you ever need to get away or you guys want to go out on a date night, Michael's available to babysit. He's a great babysitter and he needs to earn money for college," Spring said Sandralee told her.

Spring says she eventually decided to take Sandralee up on her offer for Michael to babysit her two sons on Nov. 10 of that year. Her husband, who was a marine, was going out to celebrate the Marine Corps birthday. Spring wanted to go out with the other wives to have dinner.

"I fully trusted Sandralee," Spring said. "She was a person that I did look up to, she was a person that I cared for a lot and I trusted her judgement."

When Spring returned home, she said besides a messy house, nothing seemed amiss at first. Her two boys were still awake, watching television. Michael even told Spring, she says, that he thought her boys were cool when she drove him back to his home.

But over the next few years, Spring says that she started noticing some small, but troubling changes in her children. According to Spring, her oldest son, who had been an active 4-year-old boy, now seemed to suffer from severe separation anxiety. Both boys, who had been potty trained, had started wetting the bed and experiencing night terrors.

It would be a little after four years when Spring says she would find out what had happened to cause the changes in her children. One night in January 2012, Spring's then-husband called her into their living room, where he had been playing video games with their younger son. He asked their son to repeat to Spring what he had just said. Their son proceeded to tell Spring that on the night in 2007 when Michael had babysat him, Michael sexually molested him.

Spring says she also pulled aside her older son to ask him if something had happened to him that night. He confirmed what his brother had said, and told her that Michael had also abused him.

"It was completely devastating and was so gut wrenching because no mother wants something like that to happen to their children," Spring later told ABC News. "No mother wants this to be a part of their child's story."

Alarmed and distraught, Spring says that she started putting out calls that night to see if she could track down Michael. She eventually reached a local church counselor, who recommended that she called the police. The next morning, Spring got in touch with state trooper, Corporal Ryan Eshbaugh.

"It was a priority for me to get the kids interviewed as quickly as possible," said Eshbaugh, who testified on behalf of the plaintiffs in the trial.

He arranged for Spring's children to be interviewed by the Child Advocacy Center in Martinsburg, with staff trained to conduct interviews pertaining to child abuse. There, both boys said that Michael had sexually molested them that night.

Eshbaugh testified in court and told ABC News that he began to try and track down Michael to interview him, reaching out to members of the church and Sandralee to alert them that Michael was under investigation by the police for sexual abuse. But Michael was away in Arizona, serving on his mission; Eshbaugh says that a bishop told him he would make some calls and try to get Michael sent back.

"I figured the more people that I tell in the church, the better," said Eshbaugh. "I don't want him doing this to other people while he's away. Or anywhere. But I wanted him sent back as quickly as I could."

It was over a month later, on March 4, that Eshbaugh testified that he found out that Michael had returned to West Virginia from his mission. And Eshbaugh says it wasn't anyone from the church who informed him that Michael was back; it was Spring, who had heard through the grapevine that Michael had been sent home from his mission.

"Initially they said they'd help me, but the fact of the matter is they never let me know when he was released from his mission so they weren't all that cooperative," Eshbaugh said.

The bishop and Sandralee did not respond to questions submitted by ABC News. However, in court testimony, Sandralee said that the trooper she spoke to told her that he could not tell her what the investigation involved. She testified that she thought Michael was under investigation because he had gotten a girl pregnant, and she testified that, when Michael returned, she called the police's main line to leave a message for the police.

Eshbaugh says that he spoke to Michael on the phone on March 4, the day Spring notified Eshbaugh of Michael's return, but says that Michael declined to be interviewed. Two days later, Eshbaugh filed a petition with the prosecutor's office seeking Michael Jensen's arrest, and in August of that year, he drove Michael Jensen to his preliminary hearing.

Two months later, in October 2012, Michael was indicted as an adult and charged with sexual abuse and sexual assault of Spring's sons. The next year, in February 2013, Michael Jensen was found guilty of first degree sexual assault and two counts of sexual abuse and in July, he was sentenced to at least 35 to 75 years in prison for the abuse of Spring's two boys.

"I was extremely grateful that the jury saw that and that they had that verdict," Spring said. "But at the same time I still felt hollow and it's just such a hard thing to try to heal from."

Michael's criminal arrest and conviction set off whispers in the Martinsburg community that continued to amplify. The plaintiffs say it laid the groundwork for families to discuss who else Michael had babysat for in the past, and who else could have been victimized. One plaintiff, Helen, would disclose a further troubling story: she had told a bishop in 2008 that her son said he'd been sexually abused by Michael Jensen.

Michael Jensen was found guilty of sexual abuse and sexual assault in 2013.
West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Helen's Story

Helen was in a quandary.

It was 2008, and Helen said her four-year-old son was throwing a tantrum before school, complaining about going over to the Jensen home where Michael Jensen had been babysitting him and his brother after school. Helen testified in the civil trial and told ABC News she had reached out to Sandralee to have Michael watch her kids after seeing his name on a babysitting list that was posted on the church bulletin board. The church denies Michael's name was ever on such a list.

"I thought it was kids being kids that don't want to go to the babysitter, they want to stay at the house," Helen said.

"We were standing at the end of my driveway, waiting for the bus to come. He asked if he was going to Michael's house today, and I said yes, they'll be picking you up off the bus and you'll be going over there. And he just started crying."

Frustrated, Helen said she asked him what was wrong and why he didn't want to go over to the Jensen's.

"He was just was crying, he doesn't want to go over there. Michael's mean. And I was like, 'What do you mean, he's mean, how is he mean?'" Helen said. "He goes, 'Mommy. He makes me suck his privates.' And it was just that … 'What did you just say to me?' moment," she said.

Helen says she kept her son home from school that day to question him further. She says that he told her that Michael had been abusing him regularly ever since Michael had started watching him a few months back.

"In the back of your head, you're like, what do I do, where do I go from here," said Helen. "I felt like I had failed my children. I had failed them in protecting them as a mother. I put them in a situation where they winded up being severely abused, severely traumatized and you look at that as a mother and you feel like a failure."

That same day, Helen later testified in court and told ABC News, she arranged to have a meeting with Sandralee.

"She comes to my house and I told her what my son said," said Helen. "She just sort of looks at me, she's not surprised, she's not in denial. She says, 'I'll talk to Michael about it and get back to you.'"

Sandralee testified in court that Helen complained about Michael's babysitting to her and mentioned sex abuse, but nothing specific. She also testified that when she asked her son Michael about it, he told her the boys merely walked in on him going to the bathroom, and she believed him.

Helen says that within the week, she and her then-husband reached out to their bishop, Don Fishel, to confide in him about their son's allegations and to ask for guidance.

"We went into his office and met with him and I told him what my son said at the bus stop. I told him what he had said about Michael Jensen, what he made him do," she said. "The bishop said to us he would look into it. That he would talk to Michael Jensen and that he would talk to his parents and that he would get back to us."

A week later, Helen says she still had not heard back from the bishop about the alleged abuse. Frustrated, she says she stopped him in the hallway.

"[He] says to me, 'I did talk to Michael, I can't go into a lot of detail about it because of clergy confidentiality,' but that my kids were not abused, that he thinks that my son walked in on a video that Michael was watching. And that he was counseling Michael on pornography," Helen said.

"I said to him, it's more than that. Kids don't just say stuff like this because [they] see something on TV. And he says to me, Michael Jensen is a good kid from a good family."

Bishop Fishel declined ABC News' request for an interview. In a statement, Fishel said that he never met with Helen. He said he was told by Helen's husband that their children had been acting strange since Michael Jensen had babysat them, but said her husband had not mentioned any physical or sexual abuse. Fishel said that when he spoke to Michael, Michael told him that the children had walked in on him as he watched pornography, and, "As I was already counseling Michael for his pornography habit, this made sense to me." Fishel said that he "did not go to the authorities in 2008 because [he] did not believe there had been any abuse," and he was, he wrote, "fooled by Michael, as we now know what really happened."

However, Helen's now ex-husband testified in the civil trial that Helen was a part of the meeting with Bishop Fishel, and that they did tell him of their son's claim of sexual assault by Michael. He testified that he was convinced at the time by Bishop Fishel that no sexual abuse had occurred.

"I have my son's word against Michael Jensen's word," said Helen, "And not even my bishop, my Relief Society president, none of these people are supporting me. The only thing that I could think of for my son was I don't want to go to the police because I have to put him through this questioning."

Unwilling to put her son through what she thought would be a laborious legal process, Helen says she initially decided not to file a report with the police. Four years passed before Helen changed her mind, when in 2012, she heard about the investigation into Michael's abuse of Spring's children.

"I was given the state trooper's name that was investigating," said Helen. "And I decided at that point that I couldn't be quiet. That it was no longer my son's word against Michael Jensen's word. There was other families, and that obviously, Michael has a problem that he's continuing to abuse children and that he has to be stopped."

Helen's son would eventually be called as a witness in the criminal trial against Michael. He would testify that Michael forced him to perform oral sex on him in the basement while his six-year-old brother watched. He also testified that when he went upstairs to report Michael's alleged abuse to Sandralee, she ignored him.

In court testimony, Sandralee denied that Helen's son told her that Michael was forcing him to perform oral sex. She testified that Helen's son did talk to her one day, but to tell her he was hungry, and so she asked Michael to feed him lunch.

The Civil Lawsuit

Helen, Spring and four other families banded together to file a lawsuit against the church in 2013, after they discussed the extent of possible abuse by Michael Jensen and the Church's role, they say, in failing to protect them from his crimes.

In the lawsuit, the families claimed that the Church failed to communicate allegations of abuse by Michael Jensen in a timely fashion to the community or to the police and subsequently put children in harm's way.

With the help of Eshbaugh, who subpoenaed the documents from Utah, the attorneys representing the plaintiffs say they found evidence that the Church was aware of Michael's abusive behavior starting as early as 2004, before Michael moved to West Virginia, when Michael was arrested as a juvenile for allegedly groping two girls under the age of 14, and charged with two counts of felony sexual abuse. Michael ultimately admitted to two reduced counts of misdemeanor lewdness with children and was placed on probation, and ordered to attend "sexual appropriateness class."

The minutes for the juvenile hearing in Utah state that Michael's mother Sandralee and his father Chris attended Michael's juvenile trial. A bishop based in Utah also testified in the civil trial that he visited Michael in juvenile detention, was present at Michael's juvenile hearing, and counseled Michael after the hearing in his office. However, all the attendees denied in the later civil trial against the Church that they had known that Michael Jensen was charged with sexual abuse felonies.

"The church's minimizing of what he did … and basically having no consequences ended up being a tragedy for him as well because he was able to continue this life as a sex offender," said Carl Kravitz, one of the attorneys who represented the plaintiffs. "I don't know if he could've been treated, but he's now in penitentiary."

The church said that the court provided no one with any reason to believe that Jensen presented a continuing threat to girls his own age, or that he might be a threat to much younger children. They stated that it was unreasonable to believe the church could have foreseen what child psychology experts and the state's legal system did not.

The lawyers also pointed to what they believe were other warning signs that should have put church officials on the alert. They point to an email sent by Sandralee to a bishop in 2009, a year after Michael babysat Helen's sons. In the email, Sandralee asked the bishop to find a farmer in the area to take Michael in, expressing her concern that she could not "risk our other children."

In court testimony, Sandralee said that her note reflected her concern about Michael's bad attitude and behavior that she thought could make him a bad role model for his siblings -- not anything sexual or violent.

Kelly, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, testified that despite Sandralee's concern for her own children, Sandralee offered Michael to babysit for Kelly's children that same year shortly before she wrote that email to her bishop. Kelly believes that Michael molested her three-year-old son during this time, and that he still suffers from the residual effects of that trauma to this day.

"Sandralee would pawn Michael off on members' children," Kelly told ABC News. "He took away so many children's innocence and lives."

The next year, in 2010, according to Sandralee and her husband's testimony, Michael was kicked out of his home by his parents after his 12-year-old sister accused him of lying on top of her and kissing her. Court testimony by Sandralee and bishops called to testify in the trial reflects that at least three bishops became aware at some point that Michael was not living at home, although they deny knowing why.

Still, Michael seemed to remain in good standing within the Church. He was ordained as an "elder" and approved to go on a mission to Arizona in 2011.

Before Michael left on his mission, he went on a trip with Alice and her family to South Carolina. Alice testified that her daughter later told her that Michael molested her on the trip.

"I said, has anybody ever touched you in your private parts?" said Alice. "And she said yes. I said, who? And she said, 'Michael Jensen.'"

"If I had known about the charges in Utah, my son would never have been friends with him and he would never have been allowed in our house," she said.

By early 2012, Eshbaugh was actively investigating Michael for sexually abusing Spring's boys, and had requested that church officials bring Michael back from his mission in Arizona. Sandralee and a bishop testified that the day after Michael returned from his mission, on Feb. 25, a meeting was held with various church leaders including a former bishop, Sandralee and Michael. There, according to the bishop's testimony, they were instructed not to discuss the case with anyone.

The church denied that such a meeting occurred.

"They say it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to abuse one," said Caroline Mehta, another attorney for the plaintiffs in the civil trial. "And the silence is not just going to harm the child who's already been hurt. ... People like Michael Jensen don't stop abusing on their own. They have to be stopped."

After Michael's arrest, the church issued a statement, saying in part, "local church leaders were instrumental in reporting this matter to law enforcement authorities, imposing church discipline on the perpetrator, and trying to get needed assistance to the victim families."

Eshbaugh disputes that the Church was cooperative with him while he was investigating this case.

"I think some of those crimes could have been prevented if people would've done their civic duty and reported to us what was going on," he said.

No church leaders were ever charged with failure to report child abuse. In a statement to ABC News, the Church wrote:

"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints condemns child abuse in all its forms, and does all it can to prevent abuse and address it immediately when it happens. We are heartbroken when we learn of any abuse, and extend our sincere sympathies to all victims of abuse. We have never disputed the fact that Michael Jensen victimized several children, one of the most horrific and heartbreaking crimes imaginable. He is the sole individual responsible for the abuse and is in prison where he belongs. He was a teenage member of the Church at the time of the abuse; he was never clergy or a Church employee. There have been allegations that the Church knew that Jensen was a danger and did nothing to stop him. These allegations are false, offensive, and unsubstantiated. As soon as Church leaders learned of abuse by this individual, they encouraged the parents of the abused children to report to West Virginia police and confirmed the report."

The civil trial ended in a settlement last year for an undisclosed amount, with no admission of wrongdoing. Michael Jensen was excommunicated from the Church in August 2013.

ABC News' Elizabeth Jurcik and Mack Muldofsky contributed to this report.