“Five men and one woman were selected Thursday morning to hear a case accusing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormon Church, and local church officials of covering up allegations that Michael Jensen sexually abused several children over a period of more than five years.
Jury selection began Thursday morning at the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Department due to the size of the jury pool. Around 100 potential jurors were pulled for the civil case due to the nature of the case and the estimation that the trial could last six to eight weeks.
An order was signed by 23rd Judicial Court Judge Christopher C. Wilkes Tuesday to name the Sheriff’s Department as an annex of the courthouse to allow the jury selection to take place there.
Six individuals and four alternates were sworn in at 12:50 p.m. Thursday, quicker than anticipated, Wilkes said.
The case against the church was initially investigated after Jensen, now 26, was found guilty and sentenced on July 29, 2013, to 35 to 75 years in prison for sexually abusing two minors — ages 4 and 3 at the time of the abuse.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has denied the claims, and all attempts to reach a settlement have been unsuccessful, according to the court.
Thursday afternoon, court proceeded with the jury hearing opening statements from the plaintiffs on behalf of the nine families in the suit and from the defendants on behalf of the church, Jensen’s parents, Chris and Sandra Lee, and church officials, Steven Grow and Don Fishel.
The jury was instructed ultimately to make its decision based upon the evidence including witness testimony, exhibits and facts that both parties have agreed on. The opening statements are meant to tell the jurors what they will be hearing in the case.
The plaintiffs alleged that the church had been repeatedly made aware of and had knowledge of abuse Jensen was convicted of and other alleged incidents, and “did nothing to warn and protect”their children.
The beginning of the alleged abuse dates back to 2004 in Provo, Utah. The plaintiffs took the jury through a timeline of events beginning in 2004 during which the alleged abuse occurred.
At the age of 13, Jensen was arrested at his middle school and charged with two felony counts of sexual abuse for pinning two 12 and 13 year old females against a wall and fondling them inappropriately and without consent, according to court documents.
During opening statements, the plaintiffs also alleged that Jensen’s grandfather, a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints leader in Utah, influenced Jensen’s criminal hearing in that case, which resulted in the charges being reduced to two misdemeanor counts of lewdness. They allege that Jensen’s grandfather was present for Jensen’s court proceedings.
The defense denied those claims in their opening statements saying his name did not appear on the list of those who attended and there is no evidence that he had any influence.
Plaintiffs allege the church knew a Sexual Behavior Risk Assessment was done on Jensen and indicated that he was highly likely to reoffend, however, the defense said the church was legally unable to view the report.
In the summer of 2005, the Jensen’s moved to Martinsburg, according to opening statements, and both of Jensen’s parents accepted leadership roles in the church.
While maintaining a role as church leader, Jensen’s mother allegedly recommended Jensen as a babysitter for families with young children within the church in 2007, according to the suit.
According to the defense, the church is not responsible for Michael Jensen, does not control its member’s lives and does not run a babysitting service. The defense also stated that the abuse never occurred at the church or at a church function.
The lawsuit alleges no one in the church in Martinsburg nor his family disclosed Jensen’s previous sex offenses, which allowed the abuse to occur.
In April and June of 2007, Jensen was accused of forcing a 4-year-old girl to touch him inappropriately and fondling a 14-year-old girl outside of a movie theater. Jensen’s mother allegedly knew about the movie theater incident and asked the girl if she was OK and if there was “a problem.”
Following the movie theater incident, Jensen’s mother once again recommended Jensen as a babysitter for young children without disclosing his prior sexual convictions or other allegations. The two children assaulted in 2007 later reported the sexual abuse to their parents, and it resulted in Jensen’s subsequent conviction and sentence.
In 2008, Jensen allegedly abused three more children under the age of 8, and the parents of the children confronted Jensen’s parents. Jensen’s mother allegedly told the child victim to “just ignore it.” Jensen’s father allegedly appeared at the family’s home to aggressively deny the abuse as well.
The family allegedly told the former church bishop about the abuse, and he said he spoke to Jensen and did not believe Jensen had abused the minor. The former bishop later denied having a conversation about Jensen’s alleged abuse, and he promoted Jensen to assistant bishop.
Jensen allegedly assaulted a family member in 2010, and the family held a meeting with Bishop Chris Vincent about the incident. Vincent said he told no one else in the church about the alleged instances of abuse, and he gave Jensen keys to the church so he had a place to sleep.
Jensen continued to hold esteem within the church, and was on a church mission in June 2011 when the parents of two victims reported Jensen to the West Virginia State Police.
The defense told the jury that the Church cooperated by flying Jensen back to West Virginia early from his mission.
In addition, the defense said in its opening statements that abuse cannot be tolerated in any form as written in the church’s handbook of instructions. The defense also said the Church is a leader in child abuse prevention among religious organizations and took appropriate actions in 2012 when it were made aware of the abuse claims.
The attorney representing Chris and Sandra Lee Jensen said any mistakes they made with Michael were made as his parents and not as church leaders. The Jensen’s allegedly no longer held their roles when made aware of the abuse.
The defense closed by saying Michael Jensen fooled everyone, and repeatedly lied to church officials.”