Sterling Van Wagenen is one of the co-founders of what became the Sundance Film Festival, a former employee of the Mormon Church, a notable LDS film producer… and, as of yesterday, a man who has admitted to molesting a 13-year-old boy.
The Truth & Transparency Foundation (founded by the guys who created MormonLeaks) posted audio of Van Wagenen confessing to the crime to the victim himself. That victim, identified by the pseudonym David, got in touch with Van Wagenen last year to seek closure about what happened. He also recorded their conversation. In it, Van Wagenen admits he “acted out” when he assaulted David.
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.
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.
The only Church punishment Van Wagenen received was a two-year disfellowshipment… which meant that he couldn’t hold any leadership roles within the Church, but he could still attend public meetings, wear temple garments, and pay tithes (of course).
David encouraged Van Wagenen to turn himself in to the police. Van Wagenen said he had confessed to a detective, but nothing ever came of it, perhaps because David’s parents decided not to press charges.
The Truth & Transparency Foundation has a lot more about Van Wagenen’s history and importance to the Mormon Church. If you’re a member, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with his name. Yet David says no one in the Church ever reached out to him to help him deal with the situation, even though an LDS leader was told about the incident.
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.
The Mormon Church, however, has refused to comment on this story.
It’s only the latest instance in which a religious institution celebrates the success of one of its own, but wants no responsibility when the same person is guilty of abuse. They knew what was happening. They could have taken the abuse seriously. Instead, they gave him a faith-based slap on the wrist and offered nothing to his victim. And then, in 2013, they asked Van Wagenen to “direct three new films to be used in Latter-day Saint temple rituals,” which only certain members ever get to see.
No wonder David finally went public with his story — and his recording.
(Screenshot via YouTube)