While at a sleepover with a friend in 1993, David woke up in the middle of the night to something that would haunt him for the rest of his life. His friend’s dad had his hand down his pants and was rubbing his penis. He jumped up and ran to the bathroom. He was scared and did not know what to do. He spent the rest of the night locked in the bathroom and the next 26 years traumatized by the events of that evening.
The perpetrator was Sterling Van Wagenen, a Mormon film producer and co-founder of the Sundance Film Festival, and, while he made a full confession of the crime to both his religious leader and the police, he never completely faced justice. More importantly, David was never given the resources to properly cope with the trauma and heal.
In an audio recording obtained by the Truth & Transparency Foundation (TTF), Van Wagenen describes a double life he lived for decades. When asked if he is a pedophile, Van Wagenen denies that label, but admits to multiple extramarital affairs with both men and women. He also admits to one single instance of sex abuse perpetrated on a minor. That minor was David.
David, whose name has been changed at his request, sought closure and reached out to his perpetrator through Van Wagenen’s children in an attempt to broker a one-on-one meeting. Van Wagenen agreed to meet with him in September 2018. David, not knowing what to expect, decided to record the conversation. What ensued was a candid conversation in which Van Wagenen was open about the incident and what he thinks may have led to it.
Van Wagenen admits to having “acted out sexually” on many occasions. He cites being abused as a child by his mother as a contributing factor to this behavior. On the night of the abusive act, he and his wife were arguing. He went downstairs, where the kids were sleeping, and “acted out” by molesting David.
Van Wagenen’s recollection of the details are fuzzy, but David fills them in during the conversation. David says he woke up to Van Wagenen’s touch and, as he realized what was happening, quickly ran to the bathroom, locking himself inside and spending the rest of the night there. David recalls Van Wagenen came to the bathroom door multiple times and urged him to exit. He was unsuccessful and eventually went back upstairs.
David mustered up the courage to tell his parents about the abuse. They went to a mutual friend of Van Wagenen who they knew through their Mormon congregation. This mutual friend informed Van Wagenen that he was going to tell the Stake President, Harold Brown, about the abuse. According to David, the friend, who was a Bishop of a nearby, different congregation at the time, encouraged his parents to let the church handle the situation.
In the recording Van Wagenen says that he was called into see Brown a few days after the abuse. Brown, was not only David's and Van Wagenen’s ecclesiastical leader, but also the commissioner of LDS Social Services, known today as LDS Family Services, a Mormon-owned non-profit providing members with professional counseling.
Because of this, David seemingly hit the jackpot regarding his chances of finding care and understanding after the traumatic experience. However, that was not the case.
Van Wagenen claims he fully confessed to what he did and that a disciplinary council ensued. The result was a two year disfellowshipment from the Church.
Disfellowshipment is described by the Mormon Church as:
“...the council may take is to disfellowship the member. Disfellowshipment is usually temporary, though not necessarily brief. Disfellowshipped persons retain membership in the Church. They are encouraged to attend public Church meetings, but are not entitled to offer public prayers or to give talks. They may not hold a Church position, take the sacrament, vote in the sustaining of Church officers, hold a temple recommend, or exercise the priesthood. They may, however, pay tithes and offerings and continue to wear temple garments if endowed.”
Brown apparently encouraged Van Wagenen to turn himself in to the police. Van Wagenen told David he confessed to a detective and never heard from the police again. He did not recall being told why he was never charged with a crime, but that he always assumed it was because David's parents declined to press charges.
The TTF was able to corroborate Van Wagenen’s claim of reporting the incident to police. Via open records requests, two police reports were obtained documenting that Van Wagenen did speak with a detective, claiming to have touched both David's abdomen and penis “over his clothing” and describing the penile contact as a “pat”.
In the report, Detective Steve Jentzsch of the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office reported contacting David's father who stated he did not “want to talk about what happened” and that he was “supportive of Mr. Vanwagenen in working out this problem.” Jentzsch concluded that “the victim refused to pursue [the] complaint.” The case was subsequently closed and Van Wagenen was never charged.
The report indicates that the interview between Jentzsch and Van Wagenen was recorded. The TTF was denied access to this recording by the Unified Police Department (UPD) claiming that because Van Wagenen was never charged, the recording is classified as private under Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) Section 302(d). The TTF has appealed the denial.
David denies that the contact was only over his clothing and reports it as a stroking motion, rather than a pat. He also states that he was not aware that police ever contacted his parents. Additionally, in the recording, he repeatedly said he was ten years old when the abuse happened, but dates on the police reports show that he was actually 13.
The TTF also submitted records requests to multiple police departments across the country in areas where Van Wagenen has lived. The only other offenses returned were minor traffic violations. A request of his personnel file from the University of Central Florida, where he taught from 1999 to 2005, yielded nothing but employment agreements and no evidence of any complaints from students or colleagues.
Who is Sterling Van Wagenen?
Van Wagenen has been involved in the film industry as a producer and director since the 1970s. In 1985, Geraldine Page was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her performance in Van Wegenen’s film, The Trip to Bountiful. He worked for BYU from 1993 to 1999 as an Adjunct Professor of Film and then again from 2007 to 2011 as the Director of Content for BYU Broadcasting. According to a profile published by the Deseret News, he was working in 2011 as an Executive Producer for the Mormon Church. He currently works for the University of Utah and, according to his online employee profile, is overseeing an internship class for the current Spring 2019 semester.
But his roots in cinema are much deeper.
In 1976 Van Wagenen and a friend decided to organize a film festival in Salt Lake City, Utah to commemorate the bicentennial celebration of the United States. The idea was to put on wide display an overview of American cinema. To his surprise, it was successful and they decided to host the festival again two years later. Robert Redford caught wind of the plans and contacted Van Wagenen to get involved. The rest, as they say, is history. The two went on to found the Sundance Institute and Van Wagenen served as the first Executive Director.
Mormon Temple Videos
Mormon temples are shrouded in, what many would call, secrecy. The ceremonies that take place are rarely, if ever, talked about outside the temple. The principal ceremony is called the Endowment Ceremony. The Endowment, in part, serves as an instructional session to teach attendees about the foundations of the Earth’s creation and other core doctrines of the Church. This instruction is delivered by a movie played throughout the ceremony. Up until 2013, two videos rotated in these sessions, one was produced in 1988, the other in 1990.
In 2013 those two videos were replaced with three brand new films, all directed by Sterling Van Wagenen. Multiple sources involved in the production of these films told the TTF that Van Wagenen was brought in by the Mormon Church to direct these movies in an effort to produce a high quality product. These sources tell the TTF that, of the pool of possible directors, Van Wagenen was likely the best candidate to bring a high production value to the films due to his extensive experience in the film industry. Given the sacredness of these ceremonies, the selection of Van Wagenen implies good standing with the Church.
In January of 2019, due to doctrinal changes in the ceremony, the Mormon Church discontinued the use of the new videos in the Endowment Ceremony in favor of an audiovisual presentation that uses still images from the three movies directed by Van Wagenen.
In addition to directing the temple videos, Van Wagenen has directed or produced a number of films through Excel Entertainment, a for-profit subsidiary of the Mormon Church, including their most recent film, Jane and Emma.
Life After Abuse
David tells the TTF that he was never contacted by Harold Brown or anyone else from the Mormon Church to check on his well being. No therapy or other assistance was ever offered to him. As he described in the recording, this trauma has greatly affected his life and he has never fully recovered from what happened.
According to an undated press release from the Mormon Church, counselling is offered to victims of abuse and often paid for by the Church. Somehow, that policy was not put into action in David's case, even when his Stake President was an integral part of the Church’s social services.
When asked why he decided to make this recording public, David told the TTF that there are several motivating factors. He is surprised that Van Wagenen has not faced any real consequences for his actions and went on to enjoy church employment that many would consider prestigious and privileged. He wonders if there are other victims who may feel encouraged to come forward and seek much needed healing. Finally, he feels that sharing his story could provide hope to many who have suffered similar abuse and feel silenced for one reason or another.
David tells the TTF that he does not blame the Mormon Church for the abuse he suffered, but hopes that his case is an exception to the rule and that the Church normally ensures that perpetrators are held accountable and proper counseling is offered to survivors. If it is not an exception, he hopes that the Church takes proper steps to address the problem, specifically the issue of providing help for the victim.
Van Wagenen provided the TTF with the following comment on the morning of February 4th:
“I went through the Church disciplinary process and was disfellowshipped for about two years. I repented and there were no further incidents. I reported the abuse to the police, as I was instructed to by my Stake President, and the parents elected not to press charges.”
The Mormon Church has not responded to a request for comment.
David revealed his identity in the New York Times on April 28, 2019.
Update February 4, 2019 7:55 am: The TTF apologizes for any implication that Van Wagenen’s sexual orientation is tied to this abusive act. That was not the intent and the sentence has been clarified.
Ethan Gregory Dodge contributed to the reporting of this story.
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