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Filmmaker, Former U Professor Sterling Van Wagenen Charged with Sexual Abuse of a Child

Sterling Van Wagenen, who has now resigned from his position as a professor in the Department of Film and Media Arts, has been charged with sexual abuse of a child. (Photo by Emily Anderson | The Daily Utah Chronicle)


Warning: This story includes graphic descriptions of sexual abuse.

Former University of Utah professor and noted filmmaker, Sterling Van Wagenen, was charged on April 2 with one count of aggravated sexual abuse of a child, a first degree felony.

Court documents allege that 71-year-old Van Wagenen inappropriately touched a young female relative twice between the years of 2013 and 2015 when she was between 7 and 9 years old. Van Wagenen posted bail of $75,000 and is next scheduled to appear in West Jordan’s Third District Court on May 2.

Court documents state that the child told her parents, who contacted police. The first incident occurred in the child’s home in Salt Lake County. She was allegedly sitting in Van Wagenen’s lap on the stairs leading to the home’s basement when he reached under her clothing and “rubbed” her genitals. On a separate occasion, he touched her genitals at his Utah County home.

The documents allege he later told her that he touched his wife similarly and asked her whether she was uncomfortable with it. When she said yes, Van Wagenen told her it wouldn’t happen again.

“The presumptive sentence for a conviction of this offense is 15 years to life,” the documents say. “Imprisonment is mandatory.”

Van Wagenen resigned from his position as a film professor at the U on Feb. 15 following the Feb. 4 release of a recording in which he admitted to molesting a minor in 1993. The school had placed him on administrative leave on Feb. 5.

He is known for his role as a co-founder of the Sundance Film Festival and the Sundance Institute, although he has not been associated with the institute since 1993. Van Wagenen has worked on numerous religious films, including some which have been shown in rituals performed in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ temples.

In the recording released by the Truth and Transparency Foundation — the non-profit behind MormonLeaks, a platform which releases reports from whistleblowers within the Church of Jesus Christ — Van Wagenen was confronted by the victim, who goes by the pseudonym “David.”

David alleged that when he was between the ages of 10 and 13, Van Wagenen touched him during a sleepover with Van Wagenen’s son — first on his abdomen, then on his genitals. Van Wagenen is heard acknowledging the incident on the recording, which he confirmed to ABC4.

At one point in the interview, Van Wagenen said, “I’m so sorry I did that damage to you.”

He told David in the recording that he suffers from depression, which he said has caused him to “act out” sexually. While he said he had sexual relations with males, females and, at times, prostitutes, Van Wagenen claimed to have never abused other minors.

“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 — 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. It falls just short of excommunication.

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 priesthood duties such as giving blessings.

Police reports indicate Van Wagenen did, in fact, turn himself in to the police. According to the documents, charges were never filed because David’s parents decided not to go through with them. In the recording, however, David claimed the police never contacted his parents.

Although Van Wagenen claimed David was the only minor he had abused, David came forward with his allegations, at least in part, because he wondered whether Van Wagenen had other victims. He said he hoped that, if so, they would feel encouraged to come forward as well.

In response to the charges against Van Wagenen, Church of Jesus Christ spokesperson Eric Hawkins stated, “This individual periodically worked for the church as a producer and director over many years and on a variety of projects — at various times as a contractor or an employee. Until recently, 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.”

Hawkins declined to answer questions about whether Van Wagenen had been working on any film projects for the church recently, and about what standards the church expects individuals to live while working on projects involving religious rituals it views as sacred. According to the Truth and Transparency Foundation, the films that Van Wagenen had produced for temple rituals were implemented in 2013, which coincides with the time frame during which he allegedly abused the child.

Commenting on sexual abuse in general, Hawkins said, “Jesus Christ taught that the abuse of a child is among the most serious of sins. It was not tolerated by Him, and cannot be tolerated in His church today. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are taught to live high standards of personal morality. Anyone who seriously violates those standards must be accountable for their actions, both in relation to the laws of God and man. As it relates to the church, this may include formal discipline, including a possible loss of church membership.”

Citing individual privacy, Hawkins said the church does not provide information on specific cases of disciplinary actions or proceedings.

Hawkins concluded, “Our hearts ache for victims of abuse, and the church is committed to addressing incidents of abuse wherever they are found. We continue to ask members and leaders to surround those harmed by such tragic situations with love, help and the hope available through Jesus Christ.”

This article is part of the Poynter College Media Project. Click here for more stories and information on the topic “Are U Mormon?”

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About the Contributor
Elise Vandersteen Bailey
Elise Vandersteen Bailey, Investigative Coordinator
Elise is the Investigative Editor at the Daily Utah Chronicle. In her almost four years at the paper, she has won nearly 20 awards from professional journalism organizations. She currently attends graduate school at the U, studying Public Policy and Population Health Sciences, and spends her free time wondering whether it's too nerdy to Tweet whatever "cool" graph she's found most recently.

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    HollyApr 12, 2019 at 1:51 pm

    Extremely disturbing story but you did a really good job Emily.