Provo city to file charges against LDS bishop

2011-11-16T00:30:00Z 2012-03-12T14:03:24Z Provo city to file charges against LDS bishopJim Dalrymple - Daily Herald Daily Herald
November 16, 2011 12:30 am  • 

PROVO -- Provo city will pursue misdemeanor charges against an LDS bishop who allegedly failed to notify authorities after an underage congregant told him she had been sexually abused.

Amado Rojas will face one count of failure to report child abuse, according to Provo Police Sgt. Mathew Siufanua. The decision to pursue the charge comes after a lengthy investigation that began with the arrest of Jose Ortega in August. According to a 13-year-old girl, she and Ortega both attended a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints children's party. After a water fight at the party, the girl testified during a preliminary hearing, Ortega grabbed and groped her.

According to a police report, the girl then told Rojas about the incident. As an ecclesiastical leader, Rojas is legally required to notify authorities if an alleged victim tells him about abuse. However, police reported that Rojas did not contact authorities and Ortega was only arrested after his accuser later told a school counselor about the incident.

But while Rojas will face criminal charges, the case against Ortega was dismissed on Monday. Prosecutor Craig Johnson said that investigators recently managed to find another witness, whose testimony could have suggested that the touching occurred accidentally, rather than for sexual purposes.

Throughout the investigation into the incident, the extent of Rojas's knowledge was a focus for investigators. Provo police Detective Brian Taylor said in September that Rojas's attorney said the girl only offered a vague account that something had happened.

Rojas's attorney, Mike Esplin, said Tuesday that Rojas only learned about the incident six weeks after it occurred. According to Esplin, the accuser contacted Rojas between church meetings on a Sunday.

"She said the guy had grabbed her from behind, touched her over clothing," Esplin said of that initial contact between Rojas and Ortega's accuser. "She said it occurred at a Primary party and she gave the name of the individual."

However, Esplin said the girl was accompanied that Sunday by three female friends, and Rojas felt it would be inappropriate to discuss the topic in front of the other girls. As a result, Rojas reportedly told the girl to talk with her parents and come back.

While waiting for the girl to return, Rojas spent several days trying to find out what happened, Esplin said. Rojas contacted Ortega -- who Esplin said described the incident as an accident -- as well as another witness at the party. According to Esplin, Rojas was still waiting for the girl to come back and talk to him when a school counselor contacted police.

"I don't think there's anything untoward here," Esplin said.

Siufanua said the city decided to pursue charges against Rojas -- despite the dismissal of Ortega's case -- because ecclesiastical leaders are required to report abuse whether they believe it is valid or not.

"When you look at the law, it was specifically written to protect children from future abuse," he added.

Siufanua went on to say that leaders can face charges even if allegations of abuse turn out to be false. He also pointed out that the law exists to prevent situations like the sex abuse scandal currently engulfing Pennsylvania State University, Joe Paterno and accused child rapist Jerry Sandusky.

"If somebody would just have reported it, he would have been fired," Siufanua said.

Esplin denounced any similarity between Rojas's case and the one at Penn State. He said Rojas had acted properly and was legally required to report incidents if he had "reason to believe" they happened. Rojas was trying to determine just that, Esplin said.

"The other thing is the statute doesn't say how long a person has to report it," he added.

Esplin went on to suggest that prosecutors may be pursuing the case to send a message to LDS bishops, even though Rojas acted conscientiously.

In an email, LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter said the church does not tolerate abuse.

"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has zero tolerance for abuse of any kind and is extremely proactive in its efforts to prevent abuse and to help victims when it does occur," Trotter wrote. "Congregational leaders are instructed to obey the law and have access to a 24-hour help line to assist them. We contacted local authorities as soon as we learned of the situation and will continue to work with them until it is resolved."

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