Faith, hope and sex abuse

Vile. Depressing. Newsworthy.

That pretty much sums up a Page 1 story in The Salt Lake Tribune this week about a children's charity co-founder charged with sex abuse:

A Wasatch County man known for co-founding the Village of Hope to aid Ethiopian orphans and adopting Ethiopian children has been charged with multiple counts of child sex abuse and child pornography.

Charges filed in Heber City's 4th District Court allege Lon Harvey Kennard Sr., 68, sexually abused two of his adoptive daughters who are now adults.

Kennard faces 24 first-degree felony counts of aggravated sex abuse of a child, 21 second-degree felony counts of sexual exploitation of a child and one count of witness tampering, said Wasatch County Attorney Scott Sweat.

As soon as I saw the orphanage's name, this struck me as a story with a strong religion angle. Now, I realize that "hope" doesn't always connotate a faith emphasis. But in this case, I felt relatively confident it did. So I kept reading. And I made it to the end of the story -- without finding any mention of religion. Instead, the story described the orphanage simply as a "non-profit organization" and referred to its work in bringing clean water and health care to an impoverished village.

My bad.

Take that back. After a bit of research, I'm going to blame this one on religion ghosts haunting the Tribune.

A quick Internet search turned up this archived article from Meridian Magazine -- "The Place Where Latter-day Saints Gather," according to its Web site -- about the suspect and his wife. The piece includes an anecdote about the couple asking God to help them find African children to adopt:

One day, when their youngest child was thirteen, Brother Kennard's usual 50-minute commute from their home in Heber City to Salt Lake City became the start of something unusual. He remembers listening to the radio as he drove down Parleys Canyon. The radio reporter was interviewing a woman who had formed an agency known as Americans for African Adoption.

After listening to the story, Brother Kennard thought about it throughout the day. That night he came home and told Sister Kennard about the many children in Africa who needed homes. He said, "Maybe we're too old now. Maybe we've passed our goal to adopt. But I think we need to think and pray about this."

The Kennards did, and soon felt inspired to move toward adoption. Knowing the homogeneous nature of Heber City, DeAnna told Lon, "We'd better get two kids so they're not the only black ones." Then they talked to each of their children individually to see how they felt about adopting a brother and sister from Africa. Each of them expressed excitement and support.

So the Kennards began to pray that, as Sister Kennard put it, "Out of all the millions of African children, the Lord would help us find two we could love as if we'd given birth to them."

Unlike the Tribune, Salt Lake City's Deseret News did not miss the religion angle entirely. The Deseret News buried this important detail in its story:

The sexual abuse outlined in court records allegedly began in 1995, around the time Kennard was serving as bishop of his LDS Church ward and one year after he and his wife founded Village of Hope.

Now, for the Tribune, this is one of those embarrassing cases (been there, done that) where the newspaper did a feel-good feature story about Kennard and his orphanage last year. The headline: "Adopting kids, adopting a village." In that story, a reference was made to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donating $175,000 for a well project undertaken by Kennard and the orphanage. So, obviously, the newspaper was aware of a religious connection, but chose not to report on it in this week's front-page story.

I suppose it could be argued that it's just assumed that everybody in Utah is a Mormon. I mean, in a state where members of the LDS church make up 60 percent of the population, that assumption would be right a majority of the time. And yes, the Tribune could waste valuable dead-tree real estate on peripheral, unnecessary references to Mormon ties in stories with nothing to do with religion. But this is not such a case. Far from it.

This is a story about a high-profile ministry leader whose religious connections and espoused beliefs played a key role, it appears, in the orphanage's development and his family's adoptions. That is true regardless of whether the ministry has official or formal ties to the church. It would seem highly relevant to provide at least minimal details on Kennard's church membership and leadership positions, and to question whether his good standing in the church allowed him to perpetrate alleged crimes.

Yes, this is a court story -- a vile, depressing, newsworthy one.

But it's a religion story too.

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