A Kent man who says he was the victim of sexual abuse more than 20 years ago has filed a lawsuit against the Mormon church, alleging that church officials shielded the abuser for more than a decade, effectively allowing him to molest at least five other local children.
Ken Fleming, 42, said he brought the case against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because he wanted to hold officials accountable for turning a blind eye as family after family reported that Jack Loholt, the leader of a church-sponsored Boy Scout troop, had molested their children.
In an interview, Fleming, an office administrator at a local sand and gravel company, said Loholt abused him hundreds of times between 1976 and 1980, making plaster casts of his genitals, posing him provocatively and sodomizing him.
"I remember begging him, please not to do that," Fleming said, his voice choked with sobs. "I remember praying my little heart out that something would happen to make it stop, but nothing ever did."
Lawyers representing the church said yesterday that they had not yet investigated the claims but would vigorously contest the allegations. Loholt said in an interview that he'd been "set up" by Fleming, whose suit was filed Monday in King County Superior Court.
Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, in which priests are rigorously trained and live under numerous social restrictions, clerics in the Mormon tradition are culled from the church's general membership. Nearly every man or boy older than 12 who becomes part of the priesthood and bishops are selected by their congregations to serve as volunteer leaders. They hold regular day jobs and conduct most of their church duties at night or on weekends.
Tim Kosnoff, the attorney representing Fleming, said this wide-cast net allows more potential child abusers to gain the authority and respect accorded to clerics. The attorney, who has brought numerous sexual abuse cases against the Catholic Church, is involved with at least seven involving Mormons here and in Utah. Washington state has the fourth-highest Mormon population in the country.
"It's more or less the same thing you see in the Catholic Church," Kosnoff said. "Except that I think it's much worse because there's a far greater number and all of these men are held out as clergylike, worthy of the highest respect and trust, with an imprimatur of moral worthiness."
Kim Farah, a spokeswoman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, disputed that argument, saying that having a lay leadership achieves the opposite effect.
"Most bishops have children of their own, often young ones, who attend church and participate in its activities," she said. "They are therefore already heavily invested in the safety and well-being of their church community. When a child abuser threatens the safety of their congregation, they have no incentive -- financial or otherwise -- to do other than protect the church family as they would their own."
In his lawsuit, Fleming contends that the drive to maintain an image of scandal-free propriety silenced church leaders who knew what was happening. Fear of being shunned by them -- and of Loholt himself -- discouraged him from reporting the abuse while it was happening, Fleming said. But at 19, before embarking on his own work as a missionary, he said he finally told Mormon Bishop Richard Petit.
"He apologized," Fleming recalled. "He said they'd known about Jack and then he specifically asked, 'Do you know if he abused my children?' I couldn't believe it."
Efforts to reach Petit, whose last known address was in Nauvoo, Ill., were unsuccessful.
Though Fleming had long kept silent, others were speaking out. The lawsuit says that in the early 1970s, Loholt masturbated in front of a neighbor's 7-year-old son and when the boy's parents complained, Bishop Herman Allenbach, now deceased, assured them that he would "take care of it."
Yet the bishop never reported Loholt to law enforcement authorities or warned church members, the suit alleges, and Loholt, a sometime-contractor and handyman, continued to serve as an assistant scoutmaster until 1980, even as more accusations emerged.
In 1973, the suit says, parents in the same church ward as Fleming complained that Loholt had molested their 13-year-old sons, and when church elders asked the Boy Scout leader about this, he denied the charges, though he admitted to abusing other children.
Contacted at his current residence in Lake La Hache, B.C., Loholt, now in his 50s, denied the bulk of Fleming's accusations, saying, "I don't know where Ken gets these ideas."
He added, "There's no problem whatsoever. I don't let that happen any more. I don't even get near anybody like that -- people who set me up. I don't have anything to do with kids."
Loholt, who has since changed his surname to Onofrey, is married to a woman with two children, but they do not live at home, he said.
Church officials, who like teachers are required to report suspected child abuse, handled the allegations by sending Loholt to church-sanctioned therapy, the suit says, where he allegedly admitted to having "constant, uncontrollable urges to have sex with children."
Loholt, the suit continues, was told to repent, read Scripture and pray. Afterward, it adds, he was allowed to resume his work with children for another seven years, during which he met and abused Fleming, then 12.
Tom Frey, a Seattle attorney representing the Mormon church, said he had yet to investigate the specifics of Fleming's account.
"I don't know if Loholt had counseling -- or anything else about the allegation -- whether or not it's even true," he said.
Marcus Nash, a Mormon elder also legally representing the church, said his experience was completely at odds with that described by Fleming.
"The church takes issues of abuse very seriously," Nash said. "These allegations are very hard to believe," especially those concerning the leaders' lack of action, he added.
In 1980, after Loholt was accused of molesting two 12-year-olds on a campout, Mormon bishops removed him from Kent's scouting program. Loholt, still unknown to police, moved to Kenora, Ontario.
There, according to the suit, he joined another scouting program, abused five more boys, and served six months in prison on a conviction of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Upon his release in the mid-1980s, Loholt moved back to Kent and, according to police records, he repeatedly abused an 8-year-old girl, often driving her in his pickup truck to the Southcenter mall and molesting her in the front seat.
A Washington jury convicted the onetime scout leader in 1991 of indecent liberties with the girl -- even as numerous Mormon church members wrote letters to the court pleading for leniency. Loholt, said one, had been "very diligent and gave outstanding service" during his years of work with children.
Church officials said the former Boy Scout leader had been excommunicated, though Loholt maintains that he has been reaccepted as a member in good standing.
For Fleming, the most galling aspect of the case is the number of people who reported Loholt, and the knowledge that much of his pain could have been avoided.
"Finding out that they knew about him, that it never had to happen, was heartbreaking to me," he said.