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Prominent Utah Filmmaker Faces Fallout After Sex Abuse Allegations

Photo of temple statue.
Brian Albers / KUER

Filmmaker Sterling Van Wagenen, a co-founder of the Sundance Film Festival and a University of Utah professor, is facing growing fallout following an allegation that he molested a child more than two decades ago.

Van Wagenen was a producer of the Oscar-winning film, “Trip to Bountiful,” and is a prominent member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which reportedly learned of the molestation not long after it happened.

The University of Utah said this week that Van Wagenen has been placed on administrative leave while officials review the facts of the case.

A Sundance Institute spokesperson said Van Wagenen has no current connection to the Institute or to the festival and that he has not been affiliated with Sundance since 1993. In addition, the Salt Lake Film Society, where he was serving as an advisor, said they have severed all ties with Van Wagenen.

Van Wagenen did not respond to a request for comment.

KUER does not name sexual assault victims, and granted the victim’s request for anonymity to discuss his allegation.

The man, who is now 38, said he was 13 when the incident took place. He told KUER that he went public with his allegation to raise questions about how the church handled the matter. He also wanted to bring to light his experience to empower other potential victims to do the same.

“I've always wondered, ‘All these years — what was done?’” he said.

Police were notified years ago, but no criminal charges were filed. The allegation was made public this week by The Truth and Transparency Foundation, a nonprofit that calls out abuse within religious institutions.

‘Why would the police not have just arrested you’

The Truth and Transparency Foundation posted an audio recording made by the alleged victim in 2018 in which Van Wagenen admits he told the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office about the molestation.

“I was taken aback by that,” he said. “I said, ”Well, I was never told that. And why would the police not have just arrested you on the spot?’”

The victim said that Van Wagenen did not know he was being recorded.

The victim was not able to get a copy of a police report, but The Truth and Transparency Foundation obtained two related police reports, which were also posted on its website.

The victim alleges that in 1993 Van Wagenen molested him during a sleepover at the filmmaker’s Holladay home.

He says the next day he told his parents, who notified an official with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church reportedly “disfellowshipped” Van Wagenen for two years because of the incident.

“This individual ... said, ‘Turn it over to the church,’” he said.

Church officials declined to comment about the specific matter or about its disciplinary proceedings, citing privacy concerns, and instead pointed to a church website for more information.

In a statement, church spokesman Eric Hawkins said, “Church discipline is administered by local leaders who are familiar with the individual and his or her circumstances.”

The victim said he wants answers to how the matter was handled and why Van Wagenen was allowed to work at Brigham Young University — a church-owned school — the year the alleged abuse occurred.

He said he believes that the church also entrusted Van Wagenen to make films used in the sacred endowment ceremony after the alleged incident occurred, and he’d like to know why.

“I don't know if it was commonplace in that day and age to just turn it over the church,” he said. “I've heard a lot of people who have said ... it was frowned upon to go to the authorities.”

If you or someone you know may have been abused in Utah, contact the call the Child Abuse Intake Hotline at 1-855-323-3237.

Daysha Eaton reports about religion and cultural issues, including social justice, for KUER.
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