was an LDS church member in the Beaumont, Texas area; was sentenced in January 1994 to life in prison in Texas for repeated sexual abuse of an 8-year-old girl in an LDS chapel during church meetings and in other locations; died in prison in 2020; the Mormon church reportedly paid several million US dollars in a settlement to the victim

Case report

Neeley, an LDS church member, was sentenced in 1994 to life in prison in Texas for sexually abusing an 8-year-old girl at church during meetings.

Mormon sex abuse case – Ralph Neeley – key events:

  • August 1949: Ralph Edward Neeley was born in Texas.
  • August 1989: Neeley was arrested in Texas for indecent exposure.
  • February 1990: The indecent exposure charge against Neeley was dismissed.
  • October 1992 to May 1993: Neeley repeatedly molested his victim, an 8-year-old girl. The sexual abuse took place in various locations, including Neeley’s Mormon ward chapel building. Court documents allege Neeley would fondle the child under his coat as
    she sat on his lap in a church pew. A police affidavit also states Neeley said he sometimes followed the child’s parents when they took her to school. He then would take her from the school, drive her to another location and abuse her, then return her to class before the tardy bell rang, court documents allege.
  • 1993: Court documents allege a church member saw Neeley molesting the child and reported him to Neeley’s bishop, who warned Neeley not to do it again. The bishop allegedly did not inform the victim’s parents about the reported abuse.
  • Three weeks later, Neeley was caught a second time. His local church leaders sent him to a therapist in Houston.
  • July 1993: Neeley called Beaumont police and admitted to “having an affair” with his little victim. Police informed the victim’s parents of the abuse.
  • August 1993: Neeley was charged with aggravated sexual assault of a child, a felony.
  • January 1994: Neeley pleaded guilty to that charge.
  • January 1994: The victim’s mother filed a civil lawsuit again Neeley, Neeley’s bishop, and the Mormon church. The suit contended that the bishop had failed to report Neeley’s abuse to police or to the girl’s parents. Church leaders said they encouraged Neeley to turn himself in to police or they would report him. They also said they cooperated with police
    during their investigation.
  • Early 1994: According to a pre-sentence investigation report, Neeley also admitted having sexual contact with a child in Arkansas 20 years earlier.
  • Early 1994: Neeley was sentenced to life in prison. He passed out and collapsed to the floor when the judge read his sentence. The judge said Neeley had a virtually uninterrupted pattern of deviant sexual behavior for 20 years, and only stopped when he got caught.
  • Before April 12, 1994: Neeley was excommunicated from the Mormon church.
  • Shortly before a scheduled August 1994 civil trial: the LDS church settled out of court, paying the victim’s family millions of dollars in exchange for their silence.
  • 1994-2020: Neeley spent the rest of his life in prison in Texas. He sought parole twice, but was denied both times.
  • 2020: Neeley died of COVID-19 while in prison in Texas.

Thanks to your donations, FLOODLIT.org was able to interview sources familiar with this case.

From the Mormon Alliance:

“Ralph E. Neeley found his victim in his Mormon ward in West Beaumont, Texas.

In October 1992, he befriended Natalie (a pseudonym),’ an eight-year-old. Over the next six months, he would “fondle the child under his coat as she sat on his lap in a church pew.

Neely also admitted to performing sexual acts with the girl in unoccupied rooms of the church, at the Jefferson County Airport, and at his apartment.” On one occasion, he “went to her bedroom window and shone a flashlight in on her.”

He also admitted that he would follow Natalie’s parents when they took her to school, take Natalie from the school, “drive her to another location, and perform sexual acts on her, then return her to class before the tardy bell rang.” The abuse apparently ended in May 1993. Neeley called a police officer on 21 July and reported that he had “sexually assaulted a child.” The next day, he told the officer he had been “‘having an affair”’ with a child at church.

Neeley pleaded guilty on 10 January 1994 to a charge of aggravated sexual assault on a child. He was later excommunicated.

He admitted “having sexual contact with a child in Arkansas 20 years ago. Court records show that a charge of indecent exposure filed against Neeley was dismissed in February 1990.”

Criminal district Court Judge Larry Gist said “Neeley had a virtually uninterrupted pattern of deviant sexual behavior for 20 years, and only stopped when he got caught.” He said this was “‘the worst case of child molestation’ he had seen. ‘You are what every parent fears…. You are the guy that takes advantage of people’s trust—especially at church.”

Gist sentenced him to life imprisonment. The forty-four-year-old Neeley, whose attorney had recommended “ten years deferred probation and attending a sex offender program,” collapsed and had to be taken out of the room to recover.

The police officer, Sergeant Bill Davis, to whom Neeley had confessed, described Neeley “as the worst pedophile he has investigated in his twenty-two years as a police office. … ‘This is something [Natalie] will have to deal with [for] the rest of her life. … It’s most appropriate that he be incarcerated the rest of his life, not for one child’s sake, but for all the children he might have come in contact with were he a free man.

Natalie’s mother filed a civil suit against both Neeley and the Church, claiming that “church leaders did not report the incident to police or to the girls’ parents. Church leaders say they encouraged Neeley to go to police or the Church would report him. They also say they cooperated with police during their investigation.

The civil suit was originally scheduled for trial August 8. Only days before it actually went to court, the Church settled out of court. As part of the settlement Natalie, her parents, and other parties agreed not to talk about the terms or the amount.”

from the Deseret News on 1995-06-09:

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has established a telephone help line for lay leaders attempting to deal with cases of abuse, especially child abuse.

Child advocates and counselors praise the concept, but several question the church’s motives.A May 10 internal memorandum from the church’s Presiding Bishopric mandates that local ecclesiastical leaders in the United States and Canada who become aware of abuse involving church members are to call the toll-free help line.

“This will enable the caller to consult with social services, legal and other specialists who can assist in answering questions and in formulating steps that should be taken.

“Information about local reporting requirements will also be provided,” and the calls will be confidential, the memo concludes.

Church spokesman Don LeFevre said the church published a pamphlet 10 years ago that gives ecclesiastical leaders guidance on dealing with child abuse cases. The hotline was implemented recently as an additional resource, he said.

Counselors and attorneys who deal with child sexual abuse cases unanimously praised the idea of a hotline, although some characterize it as belated and merely an attempt to ward off legal liability.

Others believe the church should insist its leaders immediately call the proper police or social agency as required in the child abuse laws of most states.

“Far be it from me to question their motives,” said Marion Smith, a retired sex abuse counselor and founder of the Intermountain Sexual Abuse Treatment Center. “But it concerns me that they feel it necessary to run it through their team instead of saying that any abuse has to be reported to police, which is the protocol anyway.

“It’s great that they’re responding to the need, and if people feel more comfortable going through that line,” she said.

The memorandum, signed by Presiding Bishop Merrill J. Bateman and counselors H. David Burton and Richard C. Edgley, terms abuse of any kind “tragic” and “in opposition to the teachings of the Savior.”

It instructs bishops and counselors in stake presidencies to consult with their stake president (who oversees several congregations) about “incidents of abuse that come to their attention.”

Published reports indicate the 9 million-member church has been forced to settle several lawsuits involving cases of abuse.

For example, Jefferson County, Texas, court records show the church in January settled for an undisclosed amount a lawsuit filed by the parents of an 8-year-old girl who was repeatedly molested at an LDS chapel by a member of the congregation. The suspect, Ralph Neeley, was sentenced to life in prison.

The lawsuit named as co-defendants the church and Neeley’s bishop, who apparently knew about the allegation but failed to report it. Church leaders said they encouraged Neeley to turn himself in.

The church has long struggled with the topic of abuse. The conflict is often magnified because those church leaders who most often deal with it firsthand are those least prepared to do so. The church’s bishops and stake presidents are laymen appointed to their positions.

“This is a challenge of lay leadership with no training in pastoral care,” said Brigham Young University sociology professor Larry Young. “Clearly this would be something you would expect to see.”

One problem for the lay leaders is that church doctrine, with its strong emphasis on forgiveness, often runs headlong into the complexities of sexual abuse pathology.

“Time and time again, you’ll come across a well-meaning but misguided bishop who will try to help these people by sending them on a mission or helping them keep their job,” said Martha Pierce, who heads the Utah State Bar’s Needs of Children Committee. “You can’t fault them, but it is a terribly difficult area.

“The legal, social and psychological complexities of, say, dealing with pedophilia, a lay person can’t even begin to comprehend.”

Utah law mandates that anyone who learns of child abuse – including doctors, social workers and teachers – must immediately report it to the Division of Family Services or police.

There is one exception: Confessions given by a perpetrator to a priest. The Utah Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that the priest-penitent exception extends to LDS lay leaders.

Even so, LDS bishops and stake presidents need to act responsibly with that confidential information, said Kristen Brewer, who directs the Utah Office of Guardian Ad Litem, a group of attorneys appointed to represent a child’s best interests in court.

“If the perpetrator is seeking forgiveness, then the minister needs to tell them that the only way to be forgiven is to go to the authorities and instruct them to do that,” Brewer said. “I’ve known bishops who have done that.”

And if the bishop or stake president learns about the abuse from another source – say, the victim – then they are obligated to report, she said.

“Personally, I think this is a good thing,” said Brewer, who believes a single memorandum from church leadership “will have a far greater impact than the Legislature passing another law.” “

Case facts

Case photos

Case information sources

  1. Ralph E. Neeley, Beaumont, Texas, 1994
    view source details | 1 Jan 1995 | Mormon Alliance - vol. 1, 1995
  2. LDS hotline to help leaders deal with abuse
    view source details | 9 Jun 1995 | Deseret News
  3. Mormon Church Opens Advice Line on Abuse
    view source details | 10 Jun 1995 | Salt Lake Tribune
  4. source 4
    view source details | |
  5. Two more Texas prison inmates with COVID-19 die
    view source details | 4 May 2020 | KWTC 10

Case information source details

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