Sundance Festival Co-Founder Accused of Sexual Abuse by Whistleblowing Organization 


On Monday, the Truth and Transparency Foundation, a nonprofit focused on abuse within religious institutions, published records relating to a 1993 assault of a then-13-year-old boy by Sterling Van Wagenen, a prominent producer and film lecturer as well as the co-founder of the Sundance Film Festival.

In an interview allegedly recorded by the survivor decades after the assault, the director, a prominent member of the Church of Latter-day Saints, says that “the label I would put on [the assault] is bisexual rather than pedophile” and suggests the incident was part of a dark time in his life, equating it with other moments of infidelity to his wife during that period.

The Truth and Transparency Foundation is the umbrella organization responsible for both FaithLeaks and MormonLeaks, which have in past years released large troves of documents related to the handling of assault allegation within the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Church of Latter-day Saints communities. This recent case, brought by the survivor decades after the assault and corroborated with police documentation, indicates the incident resulted in a minor disciplinary measure within the Mormon church.

Van Wagenen is the producer of over a dozen feature films, including the Academy Award-winning 1985 film The Trip To Bountiful. He has chaired the Arts and Television Panel at the National Endowment of the Arts, and has been a guest lecturer at Columbia University, the University of Florida, as well as several other colleges. In 1978, he co-founded the Sundance Film Festival and, in association with Robert Redford, started the Sundance Institute (now Sundance) in 1980. He was the latter organization’s first director.

Twenty-five years ago, according to an interview with the survivor published in TTF, Van Wagenen put his hands down the pants of one of his son’s friends during a sleepover. (In a 1993 police interview, Van Wagenen characterized the incident as more of a “pat.”) The man, who has chosen not to be named and goes by “David” in the report, tells TTF he spent the rest of the night locked in the bathroom. Shortly after the incident, the boy told his parents what happened that night, and the family reported the abuse to a mutual friend. All parties were at the time members of the same Mormon congregation in Utah, where Van Wagenen lives. The incident was then relayed to Harold Brown, the families’ local Stake President, the administrative leader of their branch of the Church of Latter-day Saints.

According to alleged audio of a conversation between Van Wagenen and the survivor recorded decades later, the church leader met with Van Wagenen to discuss the incident. (Brown was also at the time the commissioner of what was then LDS Social Services, a private Mormon-owned nonprofit that provides family counseling to church members, along with other services. The survivor alleges he was never contacted by the church.) According to Van Wagenen’s account, he confessed fully to his crime and was encouraged to turn himself in to the police.

According to a police report obtained by TTF, Van Wagenen called police about a week after the incident, met with local law enforcement and submitting to an interview. During the interview, he described going downstairs and submitting his son’s friend to what he described as an over-the-clothes “pat.” According to police reports, Van Wagenen also said he told the victim’s parents, as well as his wife, about the incident, and a Salt Lake City county sheriff spoke to the child’s father. The police report filed in 1993 suggests the family did not want to press charges, writing that they were “supportive of Mr. Van Wagenen in working out this problem,” and didn’t wish to discuss the incident further. (The sheriff’s office did not immediately comment on the full police report, or law enforcement’s response to this report, though it did confirm the case number and the parties involved.)

According to audio provided by the survivor that ostensibly portrays a conversation between himself and Van Wagenen in 2018, the film producer says he was placed on a two-year disfellowshipment from the church following the assault, a probationary measure in which members are encouraged to take part in church activities, but are not allowed to hold positions of power or vote within the community. The incident does not appear to have impacted his status within the church in later years, and he continued to work with young people with no criminal record relating to the alleged assault.

In the years following 1993, Van Wagenen taught for six years as an adjunct professor of film at Brigham Young University, and again from 2007 to 2011 as the director of content for the Mormon university’s television channel. He currently teaches at the University of Utah, and was chosen in 2011 as the director of a series of ceremonial videos produced by the Mormon Church. According to TFF, the boy he molested was never contacted by church leaders or offered assistance or therapy.

Van Wagenen appears to have escaped any controversy unscathed—a fact that, in part, inspired the man he molested to reach out to Van Wagenen in 2018. According to the man, now an adult, he contacted Van Wagenen through the producer’s children in an attempt to gain some closure, and recorded the difficult conversation the two had.

In the recording, the man describes nightmares and sleeping with a knife next to his bed, along with paranoia about the safety of his own children. “From that point forward [it] just changed everything for me,” he says. Van Wagenen apologizes for what he did a number of times, though he says the time of the assault was “a really dark time for me,” and cites struggles with depression, financial trouble with his production company, and the threat of divorce from his wife. “I was acting out sexually and that was what was going on with me,” he says, adding he was visiting sex workers at the time. In the audio posted by TTF, The man pushes Van Wagenen further on the issue:

[redacted]: …. What do you think about when people say that a child attraction is like … I’ve read so much on the subject. What do you say when someone says that’s a very unique, pedophilia is a very unique attraction and that it’s not curable and that it’s like really addictive? What do you say to that? That’s always been my struggle. Is how can I be the only one knowing what I’ve read about pedophilia, knowing how powerful of a thing that is? So what would you say?
Sterling: Well, you’ve obviously done more research on this than I have. After this happened with you, I was just horrified at what I had done. I was just horrified because I’ve never done anything like that before. So I guess and again, I’m being as honest as I can, I’ve never considered myself a pedophile. That one instance was so horrifying to me and I’ve carried the awareness of that. Not to the degree, you have for sure but I’ve carried the awareness of that. So I’ve always had some anxiety about it, anxiety and question in my own mind … But would I consider myself a pedophile? I’ve never thought of myself in that way. I certainly thought of myself as being sexually addicted for sure.

Van Wagenen allegedly says he received counseling outside of the church for depression and “sexual addiction,” though not specifically for an attraction to children.“If I had to put a label on it, I guess the label I would put on it is bisexual rather than pedophile,” he says. The Church of Latter-day Saints has a long history of persecuting its LGBTQ members, many of whom have been compared to pedophiles or banned from interacting with children, if they weren’t immediately excommunicated.

Van Wagenen has not yet responded to Jezebel’s request for comment on the report, or on the distinction between bisexuality and pedophilia. He did, however, respond to TFF’s report shortly after it was published with the following statement:

I went through the Church disciplinary process and was disfellowshipped for about two years. I repented and there were no further incidents. I reported the abuse to the police, as I was instructed to by my Stake President, and the parents elected not to press charges.

Van Wagenen is still listed as a lecturer at the University of Utah and is slated to teach a film internship program in the spring of 2019. In response to Jezebel’s query regarding the director’s relationship to the film festival and institute he co-founded, a Sundance Institute spokesperson wrote:

Sundance Institute always stands in solidarity with those whose brave truth-telling shines light on abusive behavior. Recent reports in the press have made us aware of an admission of sexual abuse by Sterling Van Wagenen, who played a role in founding both the Festival and the Institute. He has no current connection to either entity, and hasn’t since he left our Utah Advisory Board in 1993. We categorically denounce his behavior as described in recent reports.

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