The Charleston Gazette: David Clohessy: A test of justice for W.Va. child sex abuse victims

Justice comes rarely for victims of childhood sexual assault. When it does, it’s only after a painful legal process. This week in Charleston, an appeals court could make that already difficult process even harder for West Virginia victims who use civil courts to warn the public about predators.

Our group, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, has monitored cases involving child molesters in many denominations for more than 25 years. We’ve never seen one quite like this one from Martinsburg. - See more at:

A dozen children and their parents are suing Mormon officials for allegedly enabling and concealing the heinous abuses committed by a now ex-Mormon, Christopher Michael Jensen. There’s no doubt about Jensen’s guilt — he was convicted of assaulting youngsters in both Utah and West Virginia.But Mormon officials are fighting hard to defend themselves.

In fact, they’ve convinced a judge to appoint a private lawyer to defend Jensen, a move that’s exceedingly rare in civil cases. Worse, they’ve persuaded that judge to force the victims to pay half of Jensen’s defense lawyers’ fees. In the United States, we have a long and honorable tradition of making sure that every accused person, no matter how egregious his or her purported crimes, has legal representation. But no one is guaranteed an attorney in a civil matter. And very few, in a civil court, ever have to pay to help the opposing side.

There are three serious problems here. First, this unusual arrangement is terribly unjust. Have you ever heard of any case in which an alleged crime victim must help fund the defense cost of their accused perpetrator (who is already behind bars)?Second, it sets dreadful precedents. The wheels of justice would grind to a halt if other convicted criminals start asking judges to appoint private lawyers to help them fight civil lawsuits. And taxpayers and the law enforcement community would be justifiably outraged. Third, perhaps most frighteningly, it will deter other victims, witnesses, whistleblowers and lawyers from pursuing cases against those who commit and conceal child sex crimes.

These cases are already draining and risky. (That’s one reason so many victims stay silent, and why so many offenders remain “under the radar” and go on to hurt more kids.) But it’s very likely fewer such cases will be brought in West Virginia if this ruling is upheld and victims know they’ll have to pony up for both their own legal costs plus part of their alleged offender’s legal costs.

Our organization has helped thousands of families whose children have been betrayed, sometimes in three ways: first, by a purported spiritual figure, then by that person’s church supervisors, and sometimes again by archaic, predator-friendly laws and courts. But we have never seen a case in which the deck is so severely stacked against alleged victims in a church case stemming from already-proven abuse.

We hope the hierarchy of the Mormon faith will back away from hardball legal maneuvers. Let them defend themselves without heaping even more pain on the families of Jensen’s alleged victims. But unless or until Mormon officials reverse course, the court in Charleston faces a simple choice: Should we allow the highly unusual step in this case to stand? Or should the court take steps to help abuse victims expose wrongdoers in court, and make our society safer for children in the process?

For the safety of the vulnerable and the healing of the wounded, we desperately hope the court endorses the latter approach.

David Clohessy, of St. Louis, is the director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests ( He can be reached at 314-566-9790, [email protected].

SNAP Network is a GuideStar Gold Participant