The Sins of Brother Curtis: A Story of Betrayal, Conviction, and the Mormon Church by Lisa Davis. Scribner, 368 pages.
I met Lisa Davis six years ago, in a creative nonfiction workshop at Goucher College, and I read her recently published The Sins of Brother Curtis first out of loyalty to a friend and then with increasing admiration for her work. Davis, a San Francisco journalist and a teacher at Santa Clara University, has painstakingly crafted a gripping narrative about a serial pedophile within the Mormon church. Publishers Weekly called it an “insightful examination of hard-won justice.”
It’s really two stories: one about what Frank Curtis did, how he got away with it, and what the abuse did to his victims; and a David-and-Goliath story of a plucky legal team that took on a phalanx of legal talent funded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS).
This is a disturbing story. Various LDS leaders knew Curtis was a pedophile but kept giving him access to children—especially to boys, his preferred prey. In Davis’s telling, this is connected to the church’s policy on serious transgressions: excommunication but with opportunity for repentance, re-baptism, and readmission. Curtis was disciplined at least three times and excommunicated twice. Usually he shifted locations, and although he was known as someone with a problem, under church policy and belief he had wiped the slate clean.
Davis, trying to be fair, points out another way a miscreant can take advantage of LDS ecclesiastical idealism since, in the church, bishops come from the ranks of the male laity:
The truth was that most of these men had no idea that one of their brethren had molested children. They were untrained in professional counseling and could barely keep up with their gargantuan responsibilities. They all had full-time jobs and large families of their own, on top of which they’d been called into a volunteer position leading hundreds of people. One day they might be helping someone who faced eviction and the next they faced a dying mother or a child who needed special help. Given the insular nature of the Mormon community, most bishops didn’t know anything about sex crimes, certainly not enough to understand a serial pedophile.
But, frankly, the LDS church as it emerges in The Sins of Brother Curtis seems, as an entity, uncaring—more eager to avoid revealing its considerable assets than in atonement or in helping victims heal. Its tactics were to stall, to pressure, and to buy off people as cheaply as possible.
In researching the book, Davis learned there are about twenty survivors of this one pedophile’s abuse, which stretched over decades and into multiple states. The secrecy began to unravel when two Seattle attorneys took the case of Jeremiah Scott, then eighteen, in 1997. Scott had been abused repeatedly when he was twelve by Curtis, then a Mormon elder in Portland. Curtis had since died. Scott and his mother decided to sue when they learned that bishops had known about Curtis’s past abuse of boys.
Scott eventually settled for $3 million, at that time the largest individual settlement ever reported in a church sex abuse case. Other lawsuits against the Mormon church followed, including one in which two women, abused as girls by their Mormon stepfather, won $4.5 million; the amount was later reduced on appeal, but still included the first penalty for inflicting “intentional emotional distress” against a church in the U.S. And Scott’s lead attorney, Tim Kosnoff, having become an expert in this area, in 2006 helped win $46 million from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Spokane for many victims of abuse by priests.
More recently, Davis told me, Kosnoff helped represent native American survivors in Alaska, Washington, and Montana in an historic $166 million settlement, reached in March, with the Pacific Northwest chapter of the Roman Catholic Church’s Jesuit order. A Reuters story reported, “The victims, most of them Native Americans from remote Alaska Native villages or Indian reservations in the Pacific Northwest, were sexually or psychologically abused as children by Jesuit missionaries in those states in the 1940s through the 1990s, the plaintiffs’ attorneys said.”
Lisa Davis answered some questions about the book and her working method.
Q. Did you gain any insight into why churches seem vulnerable to perpetuating or concealing abuse?
Certainly, sex abuse is not a problem exclusive to the LDS Church, the Catholic Church or any other. That said, there are some things that were unique about the case I wrote about. The Mormon faith places a great deal of emphasis on the idea of personal worthiness. Essentially, members have agreed to live by a certain moral code. It’s what binds the community together, this idea of a shared belief that everyone lives by. Unfortunately, it also can create a sense of false trust. People within the ward regard one another in a trusting way that they don’t view the outside world. That made the community more vulnerable to a serial manipulator like Frank Curtis.
Q. You didn’t appear to have had any cooperation from the LDS church or its attorneys. Is that accurate, and how did it affect your reporting and writing?
I contacted the defense lawyers and key church leaders involved in the Scott case, and sought to to interview them. I also spoke several times with the LDS Church’s public information office. In the end, the Church offered only to speak about the case in a way that was unacceptable to me. I wanted to keep my interviews on the record.
Q. You created, through skillful interviewing, a sequence of events—a story—from events you didn’t witness. I was struck by how vulnerable such a project must be, how contingent. Your relationship with attorney Kosnoff seemed crucial. But then, so did your ability to get some of the victims to open up. How and when did you know this could be a book, that you had enough to build a story even if some sources fell through?
In all, I worked on the book for about eight years. Mostly that was because I wasn’t able to work on it full time until near the end. I saw that it could be a book fairly early, after my first trip to Portland, because there were just so many layers. But I didn’t fully commit to the idea of writing the book until I was in the MFA program at Goucher College.
The long time span was problematic because there were often many months between my interviews with Tim Kosnoff, Joel Salmi and some others involved in the case. So, I had to re-establish a rhythm and get them back into thinking about the Scott case every time we met. Everyone’s life had moved forward and the lawyers were involved with other cases. I learned early on that it all worked much better if I met them somewhere outside the office.
I also benefitted tremendously from my time with the survivors, and I am extremely grateful for their bravery. Stanley Saban walked through his old neighborhood with me and we went to some of the places where Frank Curtis lived. He was able to point at this or that and tell me stories about what happened there when he was growing up. I interviewed other of the survivors in prison. And while that brought logistical challenges, the men were tremendously helpful in piecing together the puzzle. Jim Goodall was older and had a pretty clear memory of neighborhood details. Bob Goodall was amazingly reflective and willing to share what he’d experienced.
Mothers, sisters and other family members were able to put things in time and context, and provide some background to various events.
Other folks who had known Frank Curtis drove me around Grand Rapids, Michigan and shared with me what they remembered. The court clerks in Racine, Wisconsin led me around the court building where that part of the story unfolded. Really, a lot of people were willing to help me tell this story.
And eventually, you get used to asking things like “what color was the car?” I learned that people tend to have a soundtrack to certain memories. So, it helped if they could remember what songs they were listening to during a certain time.
Q. While working, did you focus your reading on immersion journalism as you worked? What books or authors were models for you and why?
I’m very fortunate to have learned the power of the details in storytelling from two masters: Jon Franklin and Tom French. I studied Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action because he did such a great job of structuring the tale of a lawsuit. Also, Tulia, by Nate Blakeslee, because it grew out of his reporting on the court cases in Texas. I’m a big fan of Dennis Lehane, so I looked a lot at how he keeps up the pacing in his stories.
Q. You were an experienced journalist when you began your MFA in creative nonfiction. What did you learn that helped you in bringing your book to fruition?
A lot. I could find out pretty much anything, but I had to learn how to write a book. I’m still working on developing the patience to let a story unfold in front of the reader. I love playing with language and finding which detail is going to make a scene pop. But, quite honestly, my inner-journalist still wants to cut to the chase.