MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Jury selection began Thursday morning for a trial in Berkeley County (W.Va.) Circuit Court on a lawsuit claiming Mormon church leaders covered up the sexual abuse of several children by a member who since has been excommunicated and imprisoned.
The selection of the jury was moved to the training facility of the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Department’s law enforcement division to accommodate the 100 prospective jurors who were summoned to hear evidence in the civil case.
Given projections the trial could last six to eight weeks, the jury pool was first advised to fill out a questionnaire to allow 23rd Judicial Circuit Judge Christopher C. Wilkes to determine whether individuals had a cognizable hardship claim that could relieve them of jury service for the trial.
The questionnaire was generated by the court, not by any of the attorneys involved, Wilkes said.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has adamantly denied the claims in the case, which are connected to criminal prosecutions of Christopher Michael Jensen dating to 2004 in Berkeley County and Provo, Utah.
Jensen, now 26, is serving a 35- to 75-year prison sentence for his conviction in Berkeley County on two counts of sexual abuse and one count of sexual assault.
Jensen was convicted in February 2013 of sexually abusing two boys while babysitting them in 2007, but the children didn’t report what occurred until 2012, attorneys said.
Mediation to possibly reach a settlement in the case has been unsuccessful, court officials said.
Wilkes initially arranged to use the Berkeley County Council chambers for selecting six jurors and four alternates, but parking for the administrative office building is limited.
The judge had to issue an order deeming the sheriff’s department to be an annex of the courthouse to hold the proceedings in the special venue, which Sheriff Curtis Keller said Thursday seats about 150 people.
The jury pool was first vetted by security Thursday morning at the judicial center before being escorted across the street to the sheriff’s department and then through a side entrance, Keller said.
Wilkes publicly thanked the sheriff for assisting the court before the jury pool was sworn in.
The actual courtroom for the trial already has been modified to accommodate more than a dozen attorneys who are involved in the case.
The lawsuit by nine minors and their parents alleges various negligence claims, fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault, battery and civil conspiracy related to Jensen’s known and alleged sexual abuse of the victims.
The lawsuit alleges that the church was repeatedly put on notice and/or had knowledge of Jensen’s predatory acts, but actively covered up the abuse and assisted him in committing further “unspeakable acts” by enabling him to babysit for and live with other church families with young children, court records said.
The lawsuit contends that Jensen first was charged with felony counts of sexual abuse of a child in late 2004 in Provo involving female victims who were 12 and 13 years old.
On both occasions, the defendant allegedly waited for his victim to exit a classroom before pinning her against a wall and grabbing her buttocks and breasts without her consent, court records said.
The lawsuit claims that the church influenced Jensen’s criminal proceeding, which resulted in the two felony charges being reduced to misdemeanor sexual offenses.
The church contends that the plaintiffs have no evidence that it influenced Jensen’s proceeding and that affidavits and declarations from the prosecutors involved in the Utah proceeding refute the existence of any influence, court records said.
The families allege that although the church knew that Jensen had pleaded guilty to two sex offenses in Utah, “it did nothing to warn or protect,” records said.
The Jensen family moved to Martinsburg in the summer of 2005, records said.
The lawsuit alleges that by April 2007, through her role as relief society president, Jensen’s mother was arranging for him to babysit the children of area church families.
The lawsuit further alleges that there had been no disclosures concerning Jensen’s previous sex offenses in Utah by his family or the church, setting the stage for subsequent abuse to occur.
Source: Herald Mail Media
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