SALT LAKE CITY — A day after suing the LDS Church and its former Missionary Training Center president for alleged rape, McKenna Denson held a press conference Thursday to publicly tell her story.
Meanwhile, her attorneys and a legal expert described the legal hurdles to making a 34-year-old case with an 85-year-old defendant and a 90-year-old key witness to what generally would be a privileged confession.
"It's always difficult to bring these cases so long after the fact, said her attorney, Craig Vernon.
Denson alleged in a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday night in U.S. District Court that former Provo MTC president Joseph Bishop raped her while she was a missionary there in January 1984. She also claimed that a general authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints knew that Bishop had allegedly engaged in previous sexual misconduct and should have prevented him from taking his role at the MTC.
Denson said Bishop began to groom her for sexual abuse on the day she arrived at the MTC, singling her out among the other 1,200 missionaries and calling her out of class multiple times to have sexually explicit conversations about his wife and her childhood abuse at the hands of a violent stepfather.
Finally, she said, Bishop took her to a secret basement room and raped her. She said she avoided all contact with him and didn't see him again until Dec. 2, 2017, when she confronted him near his Arizona home and recorded their conversation.
Eric Hawkins, spokesman for the church, said Thursday, "Our hearts ache for all survivors of abuse, and the Church is committed to addressing incidents of abuse wherever they are found. As this is now an active legal matter, we are unable to make further comment at this time. We are confident that the legal system will ensure a just result in this case."
Denson said the #metoo movement gave her the courage to confront Bishop.
"There's a shift in our culture right now," she said. "Maybe five or 10 years ago, discrediting or victim-shaming a victim of sexual assault or rape or sexual violence would have worked. It doesn't work now. There's been a tectonic shift, really, that's caused a ripple and then a wave and then a tidal wave, and guess what, right now the tsunami's coming. We stand strong, the victims, the survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse, and together, we are unstoppable."
One of Denson's attorneys, Craig Vernon, said Denson's team has two goals, to have a jury hold Bishop accountable and direct the LDS Church to change some of its policies.
That is unlikely in a civil suit, said Salt Lake attorney Greg Skordas, who added that such changes would more likely be part of a possible settlement.
"I think (asking a jury to direct changes) is in the lawsuit for the benefit of the public," Skordas said. "I don't see a judge telling a jury they have the power to do that."
Denson said she was glad she recorded her conversation with Bishop for several reasons. One is that Bishop made references to misconduct with other women. He also told her he had confessed some of that misconduct to his LDS supervisor, Elder Robert E. Wells, an General Authority Seventy, while Bishop was president of the Argentina Buenos Aires North Mission from 1978-81.
That places Elder Wells, now 90 and an emeritus general authority, at the center of Denson's claim.
"He's a key figure in our case," Vernon said, "and we need to depose him to prove our case."
Denson's legal team will have to pierce the priest-penitent privilege to have Wells describe Bishop's alleged confession.
"As a privilege, presumably we're going to face a number of hurdles," said Jeffrey Oritt, another attorney representing Denson.45 comments on this story
That Denson learned of the apparent confession in the recorded conversation could mean Bishop opened the door to losing the privilege himself, Skordas said. Also, a confession may be discoverable if there is an allegation that the church failed to take action on it. For Denson to prevail, Skordas said, she will have to show the LDS Church knew the conduct was occurring, allowed it to occur and didn't take reasonable steps to stop it.
The church has 21 days to respond once served with the lawsuit. If it waives service, it could take up to 60 days to respond, Oritt said.
More than 50 people packed into a small conference room at the Hilton for the press conference, including television, radio and newspaper reporters, a number of LDS Church critics and more than a dozen members of the public.