Lawsuit Shines “Spotlight” on Sexual Abuse of Navajo Children within the Lamanite Placement Program

Lawsuit Shines “Spotlight” on Sexual Abuse of Navajo Children within the Lamanite Placement Program

Photo of MM (March 23, 2016 – Gallup, New Mexico).  Two enrolled members of the Navajo Nation filed suit against LDS Family Services and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, commonly known as the “Mormon” or “LDS” Church, stemming from child sexual abuse that occurred during the Church’s “Lamanite Placement Program” in the 1970’s and early 1980’s.

We filed suit today to shine a spotlight on the horrific sexual abuse our clients suffered as children,” said Attorney Billy Keeler, alluding to the academy award winning movie, “Spotlight”, about the Boston Archdiocese sexual abuse crisis.   “Unfortunately, childhood sexual abuse isn’t a plague unique to the Catholic Church,” adds Keeler, a Gallup, New Mexico lawyer who has championed the cause of justice for childhood survivors of sexual abuse in important cases that he has previously handled within the Navajo Nation.

The Lamanite Placement Program was started because of a Mormon belief that “converting Navajo Nation children and immersing them into white Mormon Culture was not only rooted in Mormon scripture but believed to be divinely directed as a way to redeem and restore the “Lamanites” to their prophetic destiny,” according to the lawsuit.

“Canonized scripture in the Mormon faith teaches that Native Americans are descendants of a group of people that fled from Israel in the year 600 B.C., and settled somewhere in the Americas.   According to the Book of Mormon, the people then split up into two groups: Nephites, a righteous people; and the Lamanites, who, after becoming wicked and hardening their hearts, were cursed by God with a ‘skin of blackness’.   The ‘curse doctrine’ is at the root of the Lamanite Placement Program,” explains attorney Craig Vernon, a former member of the LDS Church, and an attorney who has helped survivors of childhood sexual abuse across the nation in claims involving the LDS Church, the Catholic Church and other entities.

The specific quote from the Book of Mormon (that the Mormon Church teaches was translated by its founder, Joseph Smith) reads:  And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity.  For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people, the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.  (2 Nephi 5:21, Book of Mormon).

“While this program may have been well-intentioned by Church leaders as a way of fulfilling a Mormon prophesy, racism inherent in the ‘curse doctrine’ cannot be ignored.    This doctrine which equates righteousness with being ‘white, fair and delightsome’ while having a ‘skin of darkness’ as a curse from God because of wickedness, is damaging to our client’s self-esteem and to the Navajo culture.   Telling our clients and other Navajo Nation children that they were ‘cursed’ as a ‘dark and loathsome’ people; that they needed Mormonism to break this ‘curse’ is troublesome, to say the least.”  added Vernon.

Billy Keeler explains that “despite informing at least two leaders of this Lamanite Placement Program about the sexual abuse, our clients’ cries for help fell on deaf ears as they were placed in homes where they were abused again.”

Patrick Noaker, a nationally recognized sex abuse attorney who, as co-counsel with Keeler, has litigated cases on the Navajo Nation on behalf of survivors of childhood sexual abuse, said: “It is tragic that our clients and others were sexually abused during this placement program.    Religious organizations and programs should be places where children are safe from harm, not places that protect sexual predators.”  “What happened in this case is exactly why professionally-trained law enforcement should investigate reports of childhood sexual abuse.”

Keeler adds, “unfortunately for our clients, they were victims of sexual predators and an organization that failed to protect them, even after it had notice of what was happening.”

“While unique religious views, such as this ‘curse doctrine’, may be protected by the First Amendment, shielding predators by failing to respond to complaints of ongoing child sexual abuse, is certainly not constitutionally protected and cannot ever be accepted.   This case is about justice, accountability and the protection of children,” comments Vernon.

All photographs are original and taken by Keeler & Keeler or MM and RJ’s family, who grant permission to any media outlet to reprint or otherwise use these photographs.