BOISE, Idaho — As many as 15 people who knew that a Boise police officer had confessed to molesting babies will face no criminal charges.
Ada County sheriff’s deputies investigated whether those people should be charged with failing to report the crimes. But deputies have determined that the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints congregation that Stephen R. Young attended can’t be charged because of Idaho’s clergy privilege law.
And church officials say it’s because of that very clergy privilege that Young is in prison today.
“It was efforts of the church and its leaders that resulted in this matter coming to the attention of the authorities,” said Randy Austin, an attorney specializing in child abuse cases for the church in Salt Lake City. “From the moment Mr. Young confessed, church leaders took every precaution they legally could to protect victims and the public.
“And church leaders avoided violating the clergy privilege — a breach which could have tainted the evidence against Mr. Young and jeopardized his prosecution.”
The Idaho code that defines members of the clergy — including LDS lay bishops and stake presidents — allows people to confess crimes without fear of their confessions being reported to police. But LDS officials say church policy and practice is to urge such people to turn themselves in.
While Young did confess to church leaders and was eventually excommunicated, it wasn’t until after a fellow Boise police officer who attended Young’s church heard of the punishment and spoke to him that Young turned himself in on March 2 — two days after his abrupt retirement from the Police Department, according to Ada County sheriff’s arrest reports.
That was about two months after church officials say they first talked to Young about his crimes.
WHY THE DELAY?
Church officials say they understand how Boise residents might be concerned that Young continued working as a police officer during that two-month stretch, and that some church members knew what Young’s employers did not — that he had confessed to molesting children.
When Young first told his bishop about his crimes in January, church officials urged Young — and his wife — to tell police what had happened, Austin said. Making that recommendation was all clergy members could legally do until Young turned himself in, Austin said, so they did it often.
“From the outset (church leaders) strongly encouraged Mr. Young and his wife to go to the police as quickly as possible,” Austin said.
Austin also said that while Young didn’t turn himself in until after he talked to fellow Boise police officer Kyle Christensen, Young had promised church officials before he talked to Christensen that he would do so.
“Long before Kyle Christensen ever spoke to Mr. Young, there were efforts being made for Young or his wife to report to police,” Austin said.
When Young was arrested in March, detectives “almost immediately learned members of his church had known about the allegations against Young for months before that abuse was reported to law enforcement,” Ada County Sheriff Gary Raney said.
“That is what led us to investigate whether a crime had been committed by the failure to report.“
Sheriff’s Office investigators also say they have investigated a handful of past cases in which they questioned how LDS Church officials handled sex abuse allegations.
Raney said his office respects the confidentiality of religious confessions, but his primary concern is protecting victims.
“Too often people become aware of sexual abuse and fail to report it. By doing so, they’re denying victims the opportunity for help,” Raney said. “Sexual abuse is a crime that can devastate the victim. Professional counselors and victim-service providers are the people who should help rebuild that victim’s psyche. When untrained people try to handle these matters, often it can just make them worse.”
The men in the past cases were all convicted of felony sex crimes, according to court and arrest records. Detectives say their child victims suffered long-term psychological problems as a result of the abuse.
In one of those cases, Ada County prosecutors say 65-year-old Steve Nelson sexually abused as many as four children over a 30-year period. In the 1980s Nelson confessed to molesting one child to LDS officials, who learned of the crime from the victim but did not report it.
More than 20 years later, Nelson pleaded guilty to a charge of lewd conduct. In 2009, the woman he had abused as a preteenager in the 1980s caught him molesting a 3-year-old girl, according to court records.
Before sending Nelson to 30 years in prison, 4th District Judge Darla Williamson told him: “I just don’t understand ... why the church didn’t require that law enforcement be involved with you. Possibly at that point, if you had been charged, we would have at least one less victim.”
In another case, Tim Ryan is serving a 10-year probation term after pleading guilty in 2008 to a charge of sexual abuse of a child under the age of 16. Detectives say the victim’s family reported the case in 1999; it was dropped when the girl’s family wouldn’t cooperate with investigators. About the time the case was dropped, prosecutors said, the girl met with Ryan and an LDS bishop.
The victim told the Idaho Statesman last week that she had to attend a meeting with an LDS bishop and Ryan where she was asked to forgive Ryan for his actions.
“At that point, I was really scared. My family was about to be torn apart,” she said. “They wanted me to forgive him. I was 14. I was put on the spot. What are you going to say?”
CHURCH CHALLENGES ACCOUNTS
Church officials dispute the accuracy of the detectives’ accounts. They say they can find no evidence in their records of any LDS involvement in the Ryan case and say he wasn’t a member of the church at the time in question. Regarding the Nelson case, Austin said: “It is tragic Mr. Nelson was able to fool so many people for so long.”
LDS doctrine and guidelines condemn all forms of child abuse and require anyone with knowledge of such abuse to report it — unless that knowledge is gained under the clergy privilege covered by Idaho code. In those circumstances, church officials say, all efforts are made to get those people to turn themselves in.
Austin pointed out that child abuse cases were handled much differently in the 1980s than they are today. He said he is confident that abuse that detectives say was not reported in the Nelson case in the 1980s would be reported promptly today.
“Clergy, as well as law enforcement were just learning how to deal with this tragic problem” in the 1980s, Austin said.
Austin said the LDS Church has adopted several measures to help protect child victims since the 1980s, including increased training for church leaders; a 24-hour hotline staffed by professionals to give legal and practical advice to church leaders who find out about abuse; and annotated church records of known offenders so church officials can prevent unsupervised contact with children on church property.
“Our goal is to see child abuse prevented and prosecuted where it is not,” Austin said.
CODE EXEMPTS LDS LAY CLERGY
Investigators and church officials say that the church members who knew about Young’s confessions were all part of the LDS official disciplinary process — bishops and stake presidents and their counselors, and members of the High Council, all of whom volunteer as lay church leaders.
They are protected by Idaho Code 16-1605, a state law modified in 1995 to include language that says a “duly ordained minister of religion, who has been ordained or set apart ... to hear confessions and confidential communications” doesn’t have to report suspected abuse to law enforcement — even if potential victims are in danger.
The phrase “set apart” covers members of the High Council and other lay LDS leaders.
Additionally, Idaho Code 9-203 and criminal rule of evidence 505 govern confidential communication. If a clergy member, against an individual’s wishes, reports something confessed privately, the clergy would be violating the law and could be sued, Austin said.
AS MANY AS 20 VICTIMS
Sheriff’s investigators and Ada County prosecutors say Young could have abused as many as 20 child victims over a 30-year period. Young, 59, was charged with four counts of lewd conduct involving four children after 2005. He eventually pleaded guilty to one charge of sexual battery of a child and is serving a 25-year prison sentence.
Prosecutors say Young’s victims were infants or babies, 21 months of age or younger, and all were either family members or children of friends.
Young was a Boise police officer for more than three decades. He spent 10 years as a school resource officer at several Boise schools, but prosecutors say they found no definitive evidence he molested children while on duty.
Boise police officials say they had no idea that Young was a child molester and didn’t find out until just days after his surprise retirement Feb. 28.
Young first confessed his crimes to his wife in August 2009, at which point he moved out of the family’s Eagle home and into an apartment, according to court and arrest records that include entries in a journal kept by Young’s wife.
The couple began talking again in December, to work out financial issues.
Young’s wife first mentions the LDS Church in a Jan. 5 journal entry, when she says Young called her to apologize about the sexual abuse of children and talks about how he might go to jail, lose his job and register as a sex offender. The journal entry says Young “was relying on (the bishop). He said (the bishop) made a lot of calls to keep him from going to jail.”
Church officials dispute this version of events. The bishop said he had no recollection of making any phone calls on Young’s behalf or making any attempt to keep him from reporting the abuse, according to Austin, who talked to the bishop involved in the case.
“It was (the bishop’s) goal from the very beginning to get Mr. Young to confess to police — not to keep him out of jail,” Austin said.
In a Jan. 26 journal entry, Young’s wife wrote: “I went to the (stake president). He said I need to talk to (the bishop) to stay in touch. Also, I might need a lawyer if they come after me for not reporting (the abuse).”
Austin said the stake president counseled Young and his wife to report the abuse, and for Young’s wife to consult a lawyer. “It is totally consistent with church policy to inform members of their duty to report abuse and the legal ramifications if they fail to do so,” Austin said.
HELPED ALONG BY A FELLOW POLICE OFFICER
Sheriff’s reports also indicate an LDS official in mid February approached Christensen, the Boise police officer who serves on the High Council, to ask him not to be involved in an upcoming disciplinary hearing because he was bound by duty to report crimes.
The official did not tell Christensen whom or what the hearing was about. The night of the hearing, Christensen saw Young at the church and figured out Young was being disciplined.
About a week later, Christensen learned Young had been excommunicated from the church and that church officials advised Young to get a lawyer because what he did could land him in jail, Christensen later told investigators.
Christensen called Young to offer his support. That’s when Young confessed that he had molested small children. Young told Christensen he didn’t have the courage to turn himself in and that he was afraid of prison.
When Christensen told higher-ranking Boise police officials about what Young said March 2, those officials told Christensen to tell Young he had to turn himself in or they would begin their own criminal investigation. Young agreed to go with Christensen to see sheriff’s detectives for the first time that day.
Austin said LDS officials asked Christensen to recuse himself from the High Council hearing so that he could avoid a conflict of interest: As a police officer, he would have been compelled to report evidence of a crime; as a member of the High Council, he had to keep Young’s confession secret.
Asking Christensen not to participate in the High Council was in no way an attempt to cover up Young’s crimes, Austin said.
LIFE SENTENCE FOR YOUNG’S FAMILY
Young pleaded guilty to one count of sexual battery of a minor, and is now in a Kansas prison. He was sentenced for up to 25 years in prison but can ask for parole after serving 12 years.
At his sentencing in September, Young apologized to his family, saying he’d been “extremely evil” and had “defiled purity and innocence.”
“I was given a gift from God,” he said. “Instead of being a protector, I became an abuser.”
Fourth District Judge Michael Wetherell chastised Young for badly hurting family members, who are grappling with betrayal and having allowed their children to be with him.
Some family members, now adults, also are dealing with the knowledge they were molested as children and that they will never know the truth about what happened to themselves or their children, Wetherell said.
“Your family is in total disarray,” Wetherell told Young. “For them, it’s a life sentence.”
The Young case demonstrates the LDS faith’s intolerance for any form of child abuse, church officials say.
The LDS Church has a Family Services hotline staffed 24 hours a day by licensed clinical social workers, who can give guidance and advice to people who commit crimes, victims, other family members, or church officials who hear about any form of child abuse. The phone calls also include legal advice — such as what the reporting laws are in the states where the abuse occurred in.
Austin said the hotline is especially important since officials like bishops or stake presidents are volunteers and may not have specific training on how to deal with legal reporting requirements or how to counsel victims of crimes.
Church doctrine encourages anyone who knows about child abuse to report it, Austin said. If that knowledge is acquired by a member of the clergy, the church official counsels the guilty person to tell police the truth.