Two Oregon men have filed a civil lawsuit against the local and national branches of the Seventh Day Adventist church. They allege that church elders in Veneta, a town near Eugene, knowingly allowed a convicted sex offender to lead a youth program in the 1970s.
The men are represented by O’Donnell, Clark, and Crew LLP, a Portland firm known for winning civil liability sexual abuse lawsuits against the Boy Scouts of America and the Portland Archdiocese.
The Seventh Day Adventists and the firm have already settled three lawsuits over abuse committed by Les Bovee, formerly one of the church’s youth group leaders in Oregon. The two new plaintiffs who filed suit today served as witnesses in those earlier cases, according to their attorneys.
The civil suit stems from events that took place in Oregon in the 1970s.
In 1970, according to court documents, Les Boyee was sentenced to two years in state prison for fondling a child. Shortly after his release, he moved to Veneta and was chosen to lead an Adventist church youth group called the Pathfinder Club there. The lawsuit alleges that church leaders knew of Boyee’s criminal history when they selected him to lead the club, and allowed him to continue serving as a youth leader even after reports surfaced in 1975 that he was abusing children in the club.
One of the plaintiffs in the case filed Tuesday is using the initials “D.M.”
D.M alleges Bovee began sexually abusing him when he was about 10 years old. D.M. says he is still an active member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. He says he decided to sue to help deal with the pain and shame he has felt, and because he wants the church to make it easier for children to report abuse.
“The child has to believe that something is going to happen on their behalf. And that has not always been the case,” he said.
D.M. says he believes the church failed to protect him and other children from abuse in part because of the importance that Christian circles place on forgiveness and the belief people are capable of change. “When a person comes forward, and professes their repentance, you want to believe them,” he said.
But D.M. says the church crossed a line by allowing Bovee to supervise children. “He was placed in a position of responsibility and authority over kids, which put him in direct contact with children in an unsupervised role on a regular basis. I cannot fathom how that occurred,” he said.
The second plaintiff in the case, who is using the initials F.D, alleges that starting around the time he was 11, Bovee repeatedly abused him. F.D. said he eventually cut ties with the church as a result of his abuse and the way church officials responded when he first reported it. He says the abuse profoundly damaged his relationship with his family and led him to abuse drugs. F. D. says he’s suing to make sure it doesn’t happen to others.
“Hopefully, it’s not just holding them accountable, it’s forcing them to make policy changes. It’s forcing them to stand by their convictions. They preach in their church that Jesus said whatever you do unto the least of these, you do also unto me,” he said.
The plaintiffs have asked for $13.5 million in damages.
Richard Whittemore, attorney for the Seventh Day Adventists, says he couldn’t comment any of the alleged facts in the suit, but said the church had hoped to settle out of court. “The church feels very compassionate about these gentlemen. We’ve been working hard for several months to try to get these cases settled and we reached an impasse,” he said.
Whittemore said the church has evolved since the 1970s, and officials have put new policies in place to safeguard children. The Adventists’ 2010 Child Protection Plan, posted online, recommends that individual churches adopt policies like having two adults present during children’s activities and checking references for volunteers.