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Van Wagenen Pleads Guilty To Sexual Abuse Of A Child

Photo of Van Wagenen.
Daysha Eaton / KUER
Sterling Van Wagenen and his attorney appeared in court Thursday morning.

What happened in two Utah courtrooms this week changed everything for one man who had been wrestling with a childhood trauma that had haunted him for years.

On Tuesday, Sterling Van Wagenen, a prominent member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and cofounder of the Sundance Film Festival pleaded guilty in 4th District Court to aggravated sexual abuse of a child, a first-degree felony.

And again on Thursday, Van Wagenen entered another guilty plea on a second identical charge in the same case in 3rd District Court. The incidents allegedly took place in two different counties.

Outside the courtroom after Van Wagenen’s Thursday sentencing in West Jordan, his attorney Steven Shapiro said, “What he wanted to do at all steps in this proceeding was allow the family to begin to heal as quickly as possible and so he acknowledged his responsibility and wrongful and illegal conduct and here we are. This is the first step in a number of steps that hopefully will allow the family to begin to heal.”

When Sean Escobar heard about the new victim, he said he wept.

“I just cried, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I just cried and cried and cried.”

I just cried, I couldn't believe it — Sean Escobar

Earlier this year, Escobar alleged that Van Wagenen molested him during a sleepover with Van Wagenen’s son two decades ago.

He said he was compelled to confront his abuser over the past few years, “as my kids had become that age that I was abused.”

In September 2018, Escobar taped a conversation during which Van Wagenen admitted to molesting him. It took him until February 2019 to share that tape, and when he did, it was anonymously through The Truth and Transparency Foundation, a nonprofit that calls out abuse within religious institutions.

Escobar said he’d often worried that Van Wagenen might still have access to children and he was concerned for the children and grandchildren in the filmmaker’s large family.

“Now that another victim had come forward, I felt obligated to divulge my identity,” he said. “Where there is two, there is more.”

In court, Van Wagenen pleaded guilty to the charge of inappropriately touching a girl when she was 7. The abuse continued until she was 9.

Court documents say it happened between 2013 and 2015 and the victim is a member of Van Wagenen’s family.

“My whole life I knew there was other victims, I just knew it,” Escobar said. “Then the victim came forward — that changed everything.”

Escobar said he was sad for the victim, but also felt his experience had been validated. He said if there are other victims in this case, he hoped that sharing his story would help them to also come forward. He said he wants to start a movement in Utah.

Escobar grew up a Latter Day Saint near Salt Lake City. He said his family reported Van Wagenen to LDS leaders more than 20 years ago.

“I hope that people will start to take sexual abuse of children far more seriously,” said Escobar. “I see a lot of negligence in my circles and in my communities — people trusting, far too trusting in their church, with leadership, the patriarchy.”

I see a lot of negligence in my circles and in my communities — people trusting, far too trusting in their church, with leadership, the patriarchy. — Sean Escobar

Escobar wanted the Church to explain why Van Wagenen began working at Brigham Young University — a church-owned school — the year Escobar’s alleged abuse occurred and remained employed there for six years.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has acknowledged that Van Wagenen had worked there on and off as a producer and director.

Escobar wondered why the church later entrusted Van Wagenen to make films used in the sacred endowment ceremony after the alleged abuse was reported.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reportedly “disfellowshipped” Van Wagenen for two years because of the incident.

A church spokesperson said in an emailed statement that it took appropriate disciplinary action and has since put safeguards in place to prevent future incidents. The church declined to comment to KUER about its disciplinary proceedings, citing privacy concerns.

The spokesperson added: “The Church was unaware of any of the behaviors alleged in recent criminal proceedings, and reported the matter to authorities as soon as it learned.”

Escobar said hundreds of people have been reaching out to him since he went public with his story in the New York Times, many of them men.

“They’ve told me privately that they think I’m so brave because it is not socially acceptable, culturally acceptable for a man to show such weakness,” Escobar said. “And for a man to drop his pride or his ego and admit that he was harmed and that it affected him.”

Escobar fears there are many additional Mormon victims of child sex abuse and that a reckoning is coming for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He called it the Mormon Church’s “Spotlight moment,” after the film about the Catholic Church’s cover-up of clergy sex abuse in Boston.

Van Wagenen is best known for producing the Academy Award winning 1985 film, The Trip to Bountiful.

Sentencing for Van Wagenen is scheduled for July 2 in 4th District Court and for July 9 in 3rd District Court.

His lawyer said Van Wagenen faces as sentence of six years to life.

“The length of time that somebody spends in prison is determined by the board of pardons, not the judge. And that’s not just this case, that’s every case,” said Steven Shapiro. 

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