David Hiser is suing the Mormon Church, alleging his church youth leader sexually abused him for several years before, during and after youth group events, at the leader's in Philomath, at a church camp and at a father-son campout.
A Salem man says he was sexually abused by a youth group leader with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who was allowed to continue to work with children even after being convicted for molesting another boy.
David Hiser, now 51, filed a federal suit Tuesday in Eugene against the church, seeking $5 million in noneconomic damages, $500,000 in economic damages and unspecified punitive damages.
The suit also claims the church kept secret files dating back to the 1960s that show church leaders knew who had molested children. Hiser’s lawyers said they plan to seek public release of the files.
Hiser alleges in the suit that Ronald Lynn Kerlee molested him dozens of times when Kerlee was the youth leader at the Corvallis Stake. The abuse occurred for several years until about 1985 from when Hiser was about age 12 to age 15 or 16, he said.
The suit accuses the church of negligence in failing to warn members of Kerlee’s 1983 sex abuse conviction and in allowing Kerlee to have continued contact with Hiser and other children in church groups until the late 1980s.
The church further wrote a letter to a Benton County judge in support of Kerlee to shave two years off his five-year sentence of probation for third-degree sodomy, court records show.
Hiser’s abuse occurred before, during and after youth group events, at Kerlee’s home in Philomath, at a church camp and at a father-son campout, he said. The Oregonian/OregonLive generally doesn’t name alleged abuse victims but Hiser agreed to use his name.
At times, Kerlee videotaped the abuse, setting up a video camera on a tripod beside the couch in his home, he said.
Hiser said in an interview that he never told anybody about the abuse at the time because the discussion of sex was taboo in the church. But he began to remember, he said, after starting counseling in the last couple of years to deal with deep depression and suicidal thoughts.While attending a class to become a foster parent, he said he couldn’t hold back the tears as the instructor identified past abuse as one of the reasons that kids sometimes act out.
“I was just triggered during that class. My eyes were watering the whole time,” he said. After class, the instructor advised Hiser that he might have been an abuse survivor.
“That’s what really started the process of remembering and realizing what had happened,” he said.
The suit alleges Kerlee groped Hiser’s genitals, performed oral sex on him, and on some occasions, penetrated him.
Sam Penrod, spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said by email that the church “condemns all forms of abuse. The Church is committed to a thorough review of these allegations as they are filed in court.”
Kerlee, now 79, and living in Longview, Washington, did not return messages for comment.
In preparing the suit, Hiser’s attorneys Peter Janci and Stephen Crew said they discovered one bishop in the church had learned of Kerlee’s suspected child abuse in the late 1970s and warned his own son to stay away from Kerlee, yet no such warnings were given to other church parents to safeguard their own children.
“Despite learning that there was a sexual predator in their midst, the Mormon Church leaders did not warn families or investigate about other victims,” Crew said in a statement. “Instead, the Mormon Church kept the conviction a secret from children and their parents while lobbying the Court on the perpetrator’s behalf -- helping him shave off two years of his probation.”
Hiser, who with his wife remains active in the church, said he was reluctant at first to sue. But after learning of the church’s active support of Kerlee, a convicted sex abuser, he said he felt he needed to act.
“In my mind, it’s a way I can help past victims and prevent future ones,” Hiser said. “I’m more upset and angry now than I was in the beginning. I want them to focus on helping the victims rather than the perpetrators.”
Hiser’s lawyers want a court to order the release of the so-called “red flag” notes that documented alleged sex abuse in church membership files.
“We intend to seek discovery of all the church’s ‘Red Flag’ documents to allow an Oregon jury to determine what the Mormon Church knew, when they knew it, and what they did about it,” Janci said.
Janci and Crew were part of the legal team that brought a landmark case against the Boy Scouts of America in 2010 when a Multnomah County jury awarded $19.9 million damages to a Portland man abused as a Scout, including $18.5 million in punitive damages against the Boy Scouts of America. It was the largest verdict against the group in its long history. The trial also triggered the public release of internal files kept for decades that revealed the identities and crimes of hundreds of known abusers.
The Salt Lake Tribune reported in 2018 that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would place a red flag on the membership records of any LGBTQ members.
The church’s handbook detailed policies and procedures for the church’s lay clergy and listed “repeated homosexual activities (by adults)” with “incest, sexual offense against or serious physical abuse of a child, plural marriage, an elective transsexual operation … predatory conduct, or embezzlement of church funds or property” as sins that automatically required an “annotation” on their membership, according to the paper.
Last year, a FOX TV station reported that church members were disturbed to receive a letter dated Aug. 4 from the church explaining its policy that prevents members from getting involved “in any type of court case” without speaking first to the church.
In Hiser’s case, he has been “forced to live with negative repercussions of the abuse without even realizing the cause,” Crew said. “Meanwhile, the Church and the perpetrator have continued on with business as usual. The evidence will show that the perpetrator remained a member of the Mormon Church in Corvallis for decades after his criminal conviction for sexual abuse.”
Kerlee went on to serve as a licensed mental health counselor but in 2014 had his Oregon license revoked for having “sexual contact with a counseling client” and exploiting any trust the client had placed in him, according to state records.
Kerlee, then 71, was working with a young college student who suffered from depression and had concerns about his sexuality. The student went to Kerlee for counseling from fall 2012 through winter 2013, the state records show. The state’s Board of Licensed Professional Counselors and Therapists found Kerlee used the counseling sessions to engage the man in “discussions about sex and pornography,” exposed his penis to the man and “mutually masturbated’' with his client on multiple occasions, according to the state.
It revoked his license for using his counseling relationship with a client “to further his personal and sexual interests,” the board’s notice said.
Kerlee didn’t contest the state’s action, according to the state board’s order.
Even though his counseling license was revoked, state business records show he’s still listed as the secretary of the Albany Counseling Center Inc., where his wife is listed as its president. A woman who answered the phone at the center Tuesday said both Kerlees were no longer working at the center.
Hiser said he’s determined to shed light on the church’s alleged silence on serious child abuse.
He said he’s attended church councils where they have discussed someone’s alleged improper behavior but are “told not to discuss” the person publicly yet “have someone in the congregation ‘keep an eye on them.’”
“Things have got to change,” he said.
This story is published with permission as part of a statewide collaboration of news organizations to share stories. Salem Reporter is part of the collaboration.
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