SALT LAKE CITY – The Mormon church has asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit accusing leaders of brushing aside rape allegations dating to 1984 against the former head of a church training center that prepares young members for religious missions.
Many people who could have testified about what happened in the 1980s have died or have only cloudy memories, leaving the faith unable to fully defend itself, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said in court documents filed Tuesday.
McKenna Denson has said she reported several times over the past three decades that Joseph L. Bishop sexually assaulted her and the church failed to take disciplinary action.
Bishop has denied raping her 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.
Bishop, now 85, is also named in the lawsuit. His attorneys argue the lawsuit should be dismissed because the claims are too old.
Her lawyers said Wednesday they disagree with the church's position. There are exceptions to time limits on lawsuits, and her case is one of them, attorney Craig Vernon said in an email. He also questioned the faith's decision to contest the lawsuit.
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 church has said no discipline was taken against Bishop because he denied the allegations and church members could not verify them.
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.