was a Mormon church member in Los Angeles, California in the early 1990s; molested a 13-year-old girl; the LDS church settled, reportedly for millions of dollars (US)

Case Summary

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In 1993, the Mormon church was found liable for child sexual abuse in the case of Christian Bearnson, who molested a 13-year-old girl in a van during an LDS church-sponsored camping trip.

A jury verdict was returned in Los Angeles Superior Court in November, 1993. The jury awarded actual and punitive damages.

Shortly after the verdict, the Mormon Church settled the case with the plaintiffs (two fourteen-year-old girls) for an undisclosed amount and had the file sealed.

Evidence was presented that Bishop Bradley Cutler attempted to cover up the abuse. There was reportedly also evidence that Bearnson had sexually abused two other girls in 1990 at an LDS church campout.

The two other girls had gone to the prior bishop, Robert Wise, who reportedly refused to believe their allegations about Bearnson and accused them of making up the allegations to get attention.

Wise said, “Chris Bearnson is part of the priesthood and … nothing like that happens in our church.” Wise later denied having made the comment, according to the lawsuit.

The following comes from the Mormon Alliance:

“CHRISTOPHERJ. BEARNSON, AZUSA, CALIFORNIA, 1993

In August 1992 when Heather (a pseudonym) was thirteen and a Beehive in Azusa Third Ward, California, she went with the ward’s Aaronic Priesthood and Young Women on a camping trip to Prado Regional Park in Chino, California. Christopher Bearnson, age twenty-seven, married and the father of three, drove his van up separately to provide priesthood presence during the three or four days of the camp. According to a newspaper report, at the time of this incident he was “accorded the honor of praying at temple” (apparently the reporter’s attempt to explain what holding a temple recommend meant). The girls slept in tents. Bearnson slept in his van. On the last night of the camping trip, he “invited four of the girls, including [Heather] into his van for a private party, offering to give them massages. He began rubbing Heather’s back, then the sides of her breasts, then her buttocks. When he put his hand on her thigh and began moving it up, she “jumped.” After he had touched her, he asked her “‘if I liked him,”’ said Heather, who broke into sobs while giving her testimony. “‘I just looked at him and he said he was going to take that for a yes.”’ The judge called a recess after Heather broke down on the stand.

Heather’s mother, Patsy Miller, named him and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as defendants in a $1 million lawsuit. Heather’s mother said that the bishop, Bradley Cutler, called her on August 6,1992, which would have been immediately after the camping trip, and asked her to bring Heather to see him. “He said he was trying to get acquainted with all the youngsters in the church.” During the private interview, Heather told the bishop about the molestation; afterwards, in tears, she told her mother what Bearnson had done. Patsy, furious, phoned Cutler and “yelled” at him “for not telling her sooner that her daughter had been molested. [She] also was furious with Cutler’s response: He said he had wanted to talk to [Heather] first. He also said he told [Heather] it was up to her to tell her parents.” In a deposition and in court testimony, Cutler claimed that he did not hear about the abuse until “several weeks” after the campout.

One of the newspaper accounts said: “There is no limit on the amount of the award that the plaintiffs could receive if they win.” The two points at issue were Heather’s violated trust in an authority figure from church and also the Church’s negligence. The Church settled for an undisclosed amount.

Heather wasn’t the only one who alleged that Bearnson fondled her. Marni (a pseudonym) had been on these camping trips before and testified reluctantly that two years earlier, in 1990 when she was fourteen, she and another girl, Jennie (a pseudonym), had gone to Bearnson’s tent, lain down, and pretended to be asleep. Bearnson slipped his hand under her shirt and rubbed her breasts, she testified. According to another version, he “had grabbed and fondled [her] breasts and rubbed his genitals against her.”

Marni’s reluctance to testify is manifest by the fact that she had been served with a subpoena but did not appear. Her mother said she had run away from home; but when the judge issued a warrant for her arrest, Marni’s mother “located her.”

Her testimony both confirmed and contradicted testimony by two earlier witnesses. Jennie, who had testified earlier, said that Bearnson had also exposed his genitals. Marni said he did not. Marni’s older sister, Peggy (a pseudonym), although still a teenager, was a chaperon on the camping trip. She noticed that Marni and Jennie were missing, began looking for the girls, found them in Bearnson’ s tent but testified that Bearnson was asleep. To the contrary, Marni says, he was “awake the entire time.”

Peggy said she had told other chaperons about finding Marni and Jennie in Bearnson’s tent, then told “other adult church members,” and finally went to talk to the man who was then bishop, Robert Wise. As she remembers, “‘he told us nothing had happened that night[;] and if anything happened, it was the girls’ fault.”’ According to another report of Peggy’s testimony, Wise told her: “‘Chris Bearnson is part of the priesthood.., and nothing like that happens in our church.’ The bishop suggested that she had made up the story to get attention. Wise denied ever talking to the girl about the incident. Both he and Cutler denied they knew of allegations against Bearnson before the 1992 campout.”

Peggy also apparently told the court (the report does not make the source of this statement clear) that Wise “allegedly ignored the fact that, according to Mormon doctrine, a lone adult male is forbidden from ever being alone with females other than his wife.”

Peggy’s and Marni’s mother, Susan-Lyn Gasparrelli (not a pseudonym) also testified that she “went to Wise to voice her concerns. When he told her he was not taking any action, she became angered and got into a ‘heated argument’ with him,” The “issue of notice” was “the crux of the case against the church: … did Church members in authority know of [this] alleged 1990 molestation?”

John P. McNicholas, the Church’s attorney, read to the jury a letter Peggy had written (its date and her reason for writing it were not reported) describing Bearnson as a canng individual whom she fully trusted and could ‘never see Chris as doing such a thing.”’ Susan-Lyn had written a similar letter, describing Bearnson as a respectable and trustworthy man.” Peggy said she had written the letter before learning that he had molested Marni and that she would “not write that letter now.” The news account does not say when Susan-Lyn was supposed to have written her letter nor why. However, both Marni and her mother “claim they repeatedly told Bishop Robert Wise of improper activities.”

A fourth teenage girl was also “involved in” the same 1992 incident with Heather and also sued Bearnson and the Church but settled out of court the day before jury selection began. Part of the settlement was agreeing not to discuss the details.

Bearnson’s guilt was not in question. As part of the police prosecution before the civil suit, Bearnson had pleaded guilty in 1992 to one count of committing lewd acts with a child and was placed on five years’ probation; and “the church stripped him of his status,” which presumably means he was excommunicated. He was placed on five years’ probation.

Testifying in the civil suit, which was heard in late October and early November 1993, Bearnson, weeping, admitted giving Heather “a backrub” and touching “the sides of her breasts, . . . her buttocks,” and also one of her thighs.

Heather said she “is now afraid of boys, scared to go to church and has bad dreams. ‘I thought Church was like the most wonderfulest place on earth. And people who go to church, they had to be good, and I found out that wasn’t true.”’

Stephen Garcia, Bearnson’s attorney, and McNicholas worked to discredit Marni’s and Peggy’s accounts, which formed the basis of accusations of negligence against Church officers. Garcia called their account “a ‘smoke job’ and a ‘fictional work.”’ However, the judge found Bearnson liable on all three complaints against him: sexual molestation, battery, and infliction of emotional distress.

The jury was instructed to decide if the Church was guilty of the same three complaints, plus a fourth—that it was negligent in “hiring and supervision.” A fifth charge, “negligent discharge,” was dismissed “on the basis that no evidence showed the church should have excommunicated him.” (The report does not clarify whether this means Patsy Miller charged that the Church should have excommunicated him after the 1990 incident or whether that he had not been excommunicated after the 1992 incident with Heather—although in the latter case, it is not clear what being “stripped of his status” might mean.)

According to the Los Angeles Times:

The Mormon Church has been found liable for the molestation of a 13-year-old girl by a church elder.

A Pomona Superior Court jury Wednesday said leaders in the Azusa third ward of the church acted with “conscious disregard” for the girl’s rights and safety.

“1 thank God for this,” said the girl’s mother, Patsy Miller.

“Now it won’t happen to other kids,” said her daughter, now 15.

The jury “slapped the LDS Church with actual and punitive damages.” Even though a second phase of the trial would determine damages, the Church settled before a trial. “The settlement reportedly involved the payment of millions of dollars. Court records on the case have been sealed, at the church’s request.”

Lisa Davis summarized:

Church members rallied around Bearnson. One chaperone even said that she would still be comfortable with Bearnson as a chaperone for her own daughters.

(Heather’s] family moved and changed their telephone number to get away from the barrage of angry calls from church members. … [Later in the article, Davis says the family has moved twice and still has an unlisted number.]

(Marni’s] mother, who also settled with the Church … [said]: “It hurt me to think that he had his hands on her. … The church knew he had molested those girls before. I’m angry that they let him be there with the girls. If you can’t trust the Church, who can you trust?”

Sources
  1. POMONA : Mormon Church Found Liable in Molestation
    view source details | 12 Nov 1993 | Los Angeles Times
  2. Christian Robert Bearnson - Offender Radar - 2023-02-16
    view source details | |
Sources excerpts
  • POMONA : Mormon Church Found Liable in Molestation
    Source type: News article
    Publisher: Los Angeles Times
    Date published/accessed: 12 Nov 1993
    archive 1 | archive 2

    The Mormon Church has been found liable for the molestation of a 13-year-old girl by a church elder.

    A Pomona Superior Court jury Wednesday said leaders in the Azusa third ward of the church acted with “conscious disregard” for the girl’s rights and safety.

    “I thank God for this,” said the girl’s mother, Patsy Miller.

    “Now it won’t happen to other kids,” said her daughter, now 15.

    The girl was molested in a van during a church-sponsored camping trip in August, 1992. Christian Bearnson, a 29-year-old church elder, pleaded guilty to lewd conduct.

    The girl’s family filed a civil suit accusing Bearnson of committing the molestation with malice and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of negligence.

    The girl’s attorney said church leaders knew Bearnson had allegedly molested two other girls in 1990.

  • back to online sources list
    Christian Robert Bearnson - Offender Radar - 2023-02-16
    Source type: News article
    Publisher:
    Date published/accessed:
    archive 1 | archive 2

Mormon Sexual Abuse Map

International map of locations where active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints perpetrated or allegedly perpetrated sexual abuse or other sex crimes, or where LDS leaders failed or allegedly failed to help abuse survivors.