The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has become a "safe harbor" for pedophiles and a "very dangerous place" for children, according to an attorney who just won a $3 million settlement from the church for what he says is a "cover-up" of child sexual abuse.

Jeffrey Anderson, attorney for plaintiff Jeremiah Scott, told the Deseret News on Wednesday that he believes church officials settled out of court in the case because "from our point of view it's obvious they faced very serious and grave liability concerns and they would be held legally responsible" for the sexual abuse that Scott suffered at the hands of church member Franklin Curtis. Curtis lived with Scott's family in the early 1990s and abused the boy, then 11, repeatedly during the time the two shared a double bed.

The church has vigorously denied any legal liability in the case, saying Tuesday it was settling the lawsuit based on "litigation economics" alone.

Scott filed suit in 1998, alleging the church knew of Curtis' past history of child sexual abuse, yet did nothing to warn the family when Sandra Scott, Jeremiah's mother, told her LDS bishop the family wanted to house the elderly Curtis so he could spend his final years in a family setting.

Sandra Scott and the legal team were expected to hold a news conference to discuss the case Wednesday afternoon after Deseret News press deadlines.

The church's statement said it anticipates "additional lawsuits against the church from other alleged victims of Mr. Curtis" and believes any such claims are "meritless."

Anderson said he believes the settlement came because the "effects are so egregious that the church didn't want them to be any more known than they already are. This settlement mitigated or lessened the damage to their reputation, which they covet."

The attorney said he has tried more than 500 cases of child sexual abuse involving clerics or religious volunteers in the past 20 years.

"The information that was developing in the lawsuit is damaging and damning to the hierarchy of the Mormon Church and goes right to the top," Anderson said.

Tuesday, church attorney Von Keetch reiterated the church's long-time stand against child abuse and its efforts to protect children. He said: "There is no religious organization which does more to protect children — or which reaches out more to assist children who have been physically or sexually abused — than does The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church strongly believes that victims of child abuse need professional counseling, love, safety and other forms of assistance. It provides assistance and helps victims of child abuse in dozens of different ways. It condemns child abuse in the strongest terms and is constantly working to assist its members and others with this devastating societal problem."

Anderson said the case was, in part, about punitive damages "which are intended to punish the wrongdoer and deter others and to serve as an example."

Scott's complaint asked for $1.5 billion in punitive damages. In an unusual move, the settlement was made with the understanding there would be no confidentiality surrounding either the amount or the ability of either party to discuss the facts of the case. The church has settled with other plaintiffs in such cases only with the understanding that the amount paid and any facts surrounding the case remain confidential.

Anderson blasted the church for its apparent lack of record-keeping regarding Curtis' past history of pedophilia. Curtis had been excommunicated from the church at least once for child sexual abuse before he came into contact with the Scott family.

"The church has the ability to keep records that track tithing and contributions. They also have the ability to track who are child molesters and pedophiles, but they don't do that. Their belief system that says once someone repents, they're worthy of forgiveness and readmittance into the church — that's what they did with him and other pedophiles.

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"There is safe refuge in the church for pedophiles and access provided to children when it is known they have history of child molestation," Anderson continued. "The church has become safe harbor for child molesters and pedophiles and a very dangerous place for children. It's my belief that there is no more dangerous place for children than the Mormon Church and no safer place for a pedophile.

Keetch responded to Anderson's comments on Wednesday by saying, "We have plaintiff's counsel here who are obviously out of control. There is no organization, from the highest level on down, including President Hinckley himself, who cares more about children and does more to protect them and help them when they are harmed. The statements made by plaintiff's counsel are patently ridiculous, defamatory and maybe even be legally actionable."


E-mail: carrie@desnews.com