San Francisco Chronicle - March 20, 2011
'The Sins of Brother Curtis,' by Lisa Davis
by Don Lattin, Special to The Chronicle
The Sins of Brother Curtis: A Story of Betrayal, Conviction, and the Mormon Church
By Lisa Davis (Scribner; 354 pages; $27)
During my final years covering the religion beat for The Chronicle, there were months when I felt more like the paper's court reporter, or perhaps its sex crimes correspondent. The story of the child abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church had all the elements of sensational journalism - sexual perversion, spiritual hypocrisy and a shameless abuse of power. But in the end, the story wasn't as much about the crimes of pedophile priests as it was about the attempted cover-up by church leaders. It was a depressing and often tedious story to cover, especially the endless legal fallout that left some victims penniless, some lawyers rich and some Catholic dioceses filing for bankruptcy.
Those repressed memories came rushing back as I read investigative reporter Lisa Davis' impressive new book, "The Sins of Brother Curtis: A Story of Betrayal, Conviction, and the Mormon Church." In this narrative, the villain is not the Church of Rome but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yet the story's pretty much the same. Mormon Church leaders knew that Frank Curtis had a habitual need to molest young boys, yet they continued to place him in positions where he had access to more victims.
Davis finds her hero in a scrappy Seattle lawyer named Tim Kosnoff and tells the story through his eyes. This gives her complex tale a clear narrative line, but it also inspires the author to devote too many pages to the inevitable chain of boring depositions and minor court hearings that accompany third-party damage suits against defendants with deep pockets and too much to hide. This would have been a better book with 30 fewer pages.
That said, "The Sins of Brother Curtis" is a doggedly reported, cleverly organized and well-written book that can be both painful to read and hard to put down.
Davis, who has worked for SF Weekly and now teaches journalism at Santa Clara University, allows her readers to discover the grim details of Curtis' long, destructive life as Kosnoff uncovers them in his lengthy investigation.
It turns out there were at least 20 young victims, and Curtis found most of them by exploiting the Mormon community's trust, compassion and willingness to care for a lonely and seemingly harmless old man. Curtis, who was convicted of criminal sex abuse charges, died in 1995, three years before Kosnoff and plaintiff Jeremiah Scott filed their civil suit against the church. Curtis was in his 80s when he repeatedly molested 11-year-old Jeremiah in 1990 and 1991.
The book is most compelling in its early chapters, when Davis gives us a child's-eye view of what it's like to be courted and then sexually abused by an adult. "Bobby was unclear about exactly what had happened," she writes. "At the same time, a paralyzing mixture of panic and shame moved through his chest toward his stomach. He wanted to run away, become invisible, find a place where no one knew him." Later in the book, the story soars again when Davis recounts how an adult Bobby reacts when Kosnoff calls him decades later to ask if he remembers a guy named Frank Curtis.
Of course, it's harder to turn endless legal maneuvering into a page-turner. Yet Davis provides an enlightening (albeit repetitive) account of how the Mormon Church's lawyers tried to use "clergy-penitent privilege" as grounds for withholding any and all information about how the church dealt with Curtis, who was excommunicated and then re-baptized as a Mormon in good standing. One Mormon lawyer argues that "the law does not require churches to abandon the mission of saving sinners or to become mini-police states in order to avoid punitive damages."
As Kosnoff's case against the Mormon Church grows larger in scope, he and his partners bring in some heavy hitters - including Minneapolis lawyer Jeff Anderson, best known for litigating countless millions out of the Roman Catholic Church. According to lawyers familiar with both churches, the Mormons put up a relentless, scorched-earth defense - much more than the Catholic Church normally mounts. In the end, they say, the Catholic Church showed more compassion for its victims, apologizing and allowing them to be heard.
The book abruptly ends when Jeremiah Scott overrules his lawyers and settles out of court for $3 million. This keeps the Mormon Church from having to disclose detailed information about its vast financial assets and internal procedures. Other victims in a follow-up suit settle for much less, but we find out very little about those cases because Kosnoff agrees to keep the terms of that settlement secret.
Meanwhile, some of the men most damaged by the sins of Brother Curtis end up with nothing but lives full of despair and substance abuse. Then, Kosnoff turns his guns on the Catholics, settling a multi-victim damage suit for $46 million and sending the Diocese of Spokane into bankruptcy.
In the end, there are no clear winners in the case of Jeremiah Scott v. the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Don Lattin is the author of "Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge." His most recent work, "The Harvard Psychedelic Club," is now in paperback.
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