Woman says Mormon church knew of her abuser's history

SALT LAKE CITY — A woman who says a former Mormon missionary leader raped her in the 1980s accused church officials in a new court filing this week of knowing about the man's prior sexual misconduct before he was appointed to the powerful position.

McKenna Denson's attorneys allege in a court document filed Tuesday that Joseph L. Bishop disclosed to church leaders his "acts of sexual predation" while he was a mission president in Argentina in the late 1970s.

"Instead of informing McKenna of the truth about this self-proclaimed, lifelong sexual predator, defendants represented to McKenna, the public, and members of the church that defendant Bishop was a safe, honorable, and trustworthy leader," Denson's attorneys wrote.

Bishop, now 85, has denied raping Denson but acknowledged to police that he asked her to expose herself when he was president of the faith's Missionary Training Center in Provo, according to police documents. The role he held from 1983 to 1986 gave him authority over hundreds of young Mormons preparing to go on church missions.

Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, declined comment Wednesday.

Denson's new filing comes in response to a request by church attorneys last month asking a judge to dismiss the lawsuit because many people who could have testified about what happened in 1984 have died or are left with only cloudy memories, leaving the church unable to fully defend itself against the allegations.

The church and Bishop's attorneys also argue the lawsuit should be dismissed because the claims are too old.

Denson's attorney countered in the new filing that the statute of limitations for fraud didn't run out because Denson only learned about Bishop's past sexual improprieties in December.

Denson, 55, has said her experience illustrates systemic problems in the church and she sued because she wants the faith to change the way it handles sexual abuse reports. She said Bishop singled her out, groomed her and sexually assaulted her. He told her no one would believe her if she came forward, she said.

The Associated Press does not usually name alleged victims of sexual assault, but Denson decided to go public with her story, saying the #MeToo movement gave her the courage to think she might be believed.

The case emerged with the release of a conversation Denson secretly recorded with Bishop in December. In it, Bishop is heard apologizing to Denson after she confronts him about the incident, but he does not specify what happened.

In the same conversation, Bishop acknowledged molesting an unidentified second woman and described it as back rub that he says got "too frisky."

The Mormon church has said it is investigating both incidents and has vowed to "bring accountability." Guidelines for how local leaders should deal with sexual abuse claims also were updated.

The case exposed how the church handles sexual abuse allegations, and was followed by news that a church member supervising missionaries in Puerto Rico was kicked out in 2014, after female missionaries reported "immoral and sinful" behavior.

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