Film professor Sterling Van Wagenen has resigned following the release of a recording during which he is heard admitting to molesting a minor in 1993, according to spokesperson for the University of Utah’s College of Fine Arts, Marina Gomberg.
The recording is the result of an interview staged by the alleged victim, who goes by the pseudonym “David.” Van Wagenen was allegedly contacted by David to discuss details of the assault.
“I don’t like to be one of those people that dwells on things,” David can be heard saying in the recording. But he said, since the incident there have been “a lot of things” he’s “wondered” about.
The recording was released to the public by the Truth and Transparency Foundation, the non-profit behind MormonLeaks, a platform which releases reports from whistleblowers within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Van Wagenen confirmed to ABC4 that the recording was of him. He told the news outlet, “I only hope all this publicity helps the victim heal.”
The victim told ABC4 he released the interview to the public because he questions whether Van Wagenen has other victims, and said, “If there’s anybody else who’s had similar or worse done to them, I want to make sure they feel safe to come forward.”
Van Wagenen was a prominent filmmaker for the church, co-founder of the Sundance Film Festival and the founding executive director — along with Robert Redford — of the Sundance Institute. He was also affiliated with the local non-profit Salt Lake Film Society. The Sundance Institute told the Associated Press that Van Wagenen is no longer associated with the festival or the organization and they stand by survivors of sexual assault. According to The Salt Lake Tribune, the Salt Lake Film Society has “severed all ties” with Van Wagenen.
In his work as a filmmaker, Van Wagenen produced the 1985 drama, “The Trip to Bountiful,” for which actress Geraldine Page won an Academy Award. He later directed two installments of “The Work and the Glory,” a movie trilogy based on books by author Gerald N. Lund which give fictional accounts of early Mormonism. Last year, Van Wagenen worked as executive producer on “Jane and Emma,” a movie detailing the friendship between black convert Jane Manning James and Emma Smith, the wife of the church’s founder, Joseph Smith. He’s also worked on projects that aired on PBS and the Discovery Channel.
According to the Truth and Transparency site, Van Wagenen directed three films which were used as part of religious rituals performed in the church’s temples. These are some of the most sacred rituals performed by members of the church and are restricted to only those who are viewed by their ecclesiastical leaders as being “worthy.”
Van Wagenen did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
During the interview with Van Wagenen, David questions him directly about the incident. The assault allegedly occurred while David, who was between the age of 10 and 13 at the time, was sleeping over at Van Wagenen’s house after spending time with his son.
The two boys had fallen asleep on the couch when Van Wagenen came downstairs and, according to a transcript of Van Wagenen’s interview with police obtained by the Truth and Transparency Foundation, he began to “touch [David],” first on the “abdomen” and then on the genitals.
During the interview, David, now a grown man with children of his own, is heard telling Van Wagenen the incident changed everything for him and his childhood was “not so blissful anymore.” He told him he now sleeps with a knife under his pillow and is suspicious and anxious about a lot of things, particularly the safety and whereabouts of his children. In the interview, David said his children have asked why he is “the only dad that’s so paranoid.”
Throughout the interview, Van Wagenen can be heard empathizing and apologizing to David. At one point he can be heard saying, “I’m so sorry I did that damage to you.”
“I’ve always wanted to ask you, what was going through your mind that night, what was going on with you?” David said in the recording. Van Wagenen responded that it was a “dark time” for him and he was having marital and financial problems. He can be heard saying he suffers from depression and that, when he experienced dark episodes, he tended to “act out” sexually. Van Wagenen said in the interview, “The pain was just so great. I was trying to find a way to make a connection, a way to stop the pain. You were the victim, I’m so sorry for that.”
In the interview, he told David repeatedly these occurrences never involved other minors but did, however, occur with males, females and, at times, prostitutes.
“After this happened with you, I was just horrified at what I had done,” he told David. “I’ve always been cautious about it. I’ve probably been cautious with my own kids and cautious with my grandkids because I just don’t want anything like that to happen again.” Van Wagenen continued, “But would I consider myself a pedophile? I’ve never thought of myself in that way.”
Van Wagenen mentioned in the recording that he reported the alleged assault to the police, a stake president — which is a local ecclesiastical leader in the church — and his therapist. He also said he was disfellowshipped from the church for two years as a result.
In the Church of Jesus Christ, disfellowshipment is used as a consequence for the commission of what the religion views as serious sins. According to the church’s website, “Someone who has been disfellowshipped is still a member of the church, and they are encouraged to attend meetings, though in those settings they are not permitted to pray, teach, take the sacrament, attend the temple or give sermons in public settings.” Men are also prohibited from performing duties such as giving blessings.
Disfellowshipment is the religion’s method of discipline which falls just short of excommunication.
Records of police reports and transcripts of Van Wagenen’s interview with police obtained by the Truth and Transparency organization confirm much of what was said in the interview with David.
Transcripts of the police interview published by the Truth and Transparency foundation reveal Van Wagenen told the officer who interviewed him that he was willingly confessing. He said he had already spoken to a therapist who advised him to report the events. Therapists must, by law, report incidents of sexual assault against a minor, disabled or elderly persons to the police.
Van Wagenen told the officer he “would like to get this resolved” rather than wait for his therapist to report. The officer asked him how the victim’s parents reacted, and he responded, “remarkably well.” Van Wagenen said he had told David’s parents he would do whatever he needed to “right the situation.”
He said he had continued to talk with David’s mother who informed him that, immediately after the molestation, David was “confused” and “not like himself” but he was “fine” by the time of the interview with police and there had “been no nightmares.”
When describing why he molested the boy, Van Wagenen told the officer much of what he repeated to David in his interview — that he was depressed and “acting out.” He also added it was as if he had lost all “will power.” He said at the time of the assault it was almost as if “a choice [was not] even being made.”
The police reports obtained show no charges were filed because David’s parents decided not to take any legal action against Van Wagenen. The documents say contact was made with his parents, however in his interview with the former U professor, David said his parents told him they were “never contacted by police.”
He said the church had also failed to contact them and to provide him with any counseling. In the recording, David asked Van Wagenen if he thinks his punishment of disfellowshipment from the church was too lenient.
During the interview David also wondered why police did not take more action. He said he thought no approval from his parents would be needed to press charges in the case of sexual abuse on a minor. Van Wagenen is heard responding that perhaps the laws were different “25 years ago.”
Professor at the University
Van Wagenen’s career as an educator did not begin at the U. Prior to being hired on campus, he was adjunct professor of film at Brigham Young University, manager of that university’s TV group and director of content for BYU Broadcasting from 2007 to 2010.
From 1999 to 2004 he served as the director of the School of Film and Digital Media at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
At the U, Van Wagenen taught a film internship course before being placed on administrative leave and subsequently resigning.
One of Van Wagenen’s former students, Chaz Evans, told The Daily Utah Chronicle he was “disgusted” and “disappointed” to find out about the professor’s past. Evans said he graduated from the U in fall 2017 and took classes from the former U professor over two semesters in 2016 and 2017.
He said that, although Sterling had been his mentor, he feels there are “no excuses” and Van Wagenen “should be held accountable.” Evans said, “This news is detrimental to the film program [at the U]” and to the victim “who has had to live with this for the past 25 years.” He feels the “last thing we need” is to “[brush] off his behavior as something of the past.”
The former U student said it’s time for “young filmmakers and storytellers” to “stand up” and “call out” perpetrators of sexual assault. He says he is also concerned people at the Sundance Institute and the U may have known about the molestation but remained silent. Evans additionally accused the church of “not doing much” after finding out about the assault and said he feels this attitude is a “common occurrence” for the church.