SANTA FE – A San Miguel County woman is suing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, claiming she was raped countless times over a four-year period in the 1960s by a branch president of the church in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
The lawsuit, filed in March in the 4th Judicial District Court in Las Vegas by the Rothstein-Donatelli law firm on behalf of “Jane Doe,” alleges that Mark S. Webster sexually abused the girl numerous times while he was head of the church in Las Vegas.
“In this position, he had authority over the local congregation and was a leader amongst the Defendant LDS community in Las Vegas, New Mexico, acting with their apparent and/or formal authority and approval,” the lawsuit states. “Obedience to church leaders and their directives is a major tenet of participation in the LDS community and the LDS faith.”
Webster, now deceased, is alleged to have started abusing the girl when she was about 7 years old and continued the conduct for about four more years.
“For instance, Webster would ask for Plaintiff’s assistance at the church, to which her father would readily agree due to Webster’s position as a leader with the local LDS church,” the suit states. “This led to Webster bringing Plaintiff home after her tasks were completed. Only, rather than head straight to Plaintiff’s home, Webster often drove to a hilltop at the edge of town where he raped her in his vehicle.”
Attorney Jeffrey Croasdell of the Rodey, Dickason, Sloan, Akin & Robb law firm is representing the church. He referred questions to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spokesman Sam Penrod, who provided a statement:
“The Church learned of these allegations only recently when the legal complaint was filed in Court. The complaint identifies that the incidents occurred in the 1960s. Our hearts go out to all survivors of abuse. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has zero tolerance for abusive behavior of any kind, and we are committed to addressing these incidents wherever they are found.”
Croasdell in April had the lawsuit moved to U.S. District Court in Albuquerque because it is a civil action involving an out-of-state entity (the church is a Utah corporation) and potential damages could exceed $75,000.
The lawsuit asks for compensatory, incidental, consequential and punitive damages, as well as attorney’s fees. Both sides seek a jury trial.
The lawsuit begins by stating, “The people of Northern New Mexico have been the targets of child predator wolves in religious leader sheep clothing for decades,” an apparent reference to child sexual abuse cases filed against the Catholic church and its leaders. The Archdiocese of Santa Fe currently lists 78 parish priests, deacons and seminarians that over the years have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of children.
Paul Linnenburger, an attorney representing the San Miguel County woman, said the Rothstein-Donatelli law firm has represented several alleged victims in lawsuits filed against the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
“We also have been fairly extensively involved in sex abuse cases in other realms as well,” said Linnenburger, whose firm has brought lawsuits on behalf of a dozen former students of convicted child rapist Gary Gregor, a former Española and Santa Fe school teacher.
As with many other child sex abuse cases, the suit against the LDS church was filed decades after the alleged sexual abuse occurred.
“It is not at all unusual and I think the norm, really,” Linnenburger said. “It takes victims years and often many decades to not only acknowledge what happened to them but to begin to understand the damaging effects it had on them. This situation isn’t all that uncommon.”
Based on the contents of the lawsuit, the plaintiff is likely now in her 60s.
The lawsuit states that the alleged victim’s “ability to formulate and maintain positive meaningful relationships was dismantled and her young soul was crushed under the weight of repeated kidnapping and rape.”