From registered sex offender to church leader
(FOX 9) - A small chapel in southern Minnesota sits on the edge of the town of Kasson.
Unknown to members of the Mormon congregation until three years ago, one of its leaders, Michael Adam Davis, 34, was a lifetime registered sex offender from Utah, the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS).
The congregation only learned of Davis background when he was charged in March 2019 with sexually assaulting a 13-year-old boy whose family were members of the church.
The case raises troubling questions about what Mormon church leaders knew about his past, whether red flags were ignored, and why a simple criminal background check wasn’t conducted.
While at the Kasson church, Davis’ title was "Elders Quorum President." It is a respected position in local congregations and one of the holders of the ‘sacred keys.’
What the congregation did not know is that Davis had a history of sexually assaulting children and was allegedly grooming new victims.
A traffic stop, discovery
It all began with a routine traffic stop.
On Feb. 17, 2019, a Dodge County Sheriff’s deputy pulled Davis over because he saw a child moving around the front seat while not wearing a seat belt.
The deputy ran Davis drivers’ license and discovered he was a lifetime registered sex offender in Utah.
According to court documents, the boy "knew Davis from church," "considered him family." Davis would give him expensive gifts and "guy" hugs.
The boy would later admit Davis repeatedly sexually assaulted him and tried to rape him.
The Dodge County Attorney has charged Davis with four counts of criminal sexual conduct in the first and second degree, as well as indecent exposure. The charges say Davis abused his "position of authority".
Three years later, Davis has yet to go to trial in Dodge County. The FOX 9 Investigators have learned a possible plea bargain is in the works.
That would fit another pattern with Davis. He also got plea bargains when he was charged in Utah with sexually assaulting an 11-year-old boy in 2003 and exposing himself to a 13-year-old girl with cerebral palsy in 2005.
He has never done any prison time.
A Dodge County judge had previously ruled Davis’ previous cases would be inadmissible if the current case goes to trial.
The case has rocked the faith of Mormons like Michael Benjamin, an LDS member and former leader in the Rochester Stake, who is also a licensed social worker.
"I would say that part of my being mentally out and starting to kind of distance myself from the church has to do with this case," Benjamin said. "Some people think I'm anti-Mormon, and it's actually the opposite. The church has been such a part of my life that I want to make the church a safe place for kids."
A pattern of plea bargains
Davis pleaded guilty in two separate cases of sexual abuse in Utah before coming to Minnesota. The cases foreshadow the alleged crimes in Minnesota.
"Michael is a master manipulator. He is an extremely brilliant man," said the mother of Davis first victim in 2003, when he lived in Sunset, Utah.
Back in 2003, when Davis was 19, they were neighbors and fellow church members. Davis befriended the boy, bought him gifts, and showered him with attention, the boy’s mother said.
Davis exposed himself to the child 10 to 20 times, according to the criminal charges.
"We had approached our bishop about it. But he said, ‘please don't go, talking to a lot of the neighbors about it because we don't want somebody coming up with false accusations’" the mother recalled.
As part of a plea bargain, Davis was sentenced to 30 days home confinement and 18 months’ probation.
Two years later, in 2005, Davis was charged with sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. Once again, police reports indicate the local bishop was informed.
For the second time there was a plea bargain, charges dismissed and reduced. Davis received six months home confinement and three years’ probation.
Allegations of church calling lawyers, not police
Sam Young is a former bishop in the LDS church, who was excommunicated three years ago after criticizing so-called ‘worthiness’ interviews, when a bishop meets one-on-one with a child, and may ask sexually explicit questions
"I was not aware how common it was for bishops to, really conduct an inquisition into a child's sexual activities in very specific detail that can cause great harm," Young said.
He believes it’s an opportunity for "grooming" and "desensitization," techniques used by sexual predators.
"And you know, there are pedophiles in the Mormon Church, just like there are in the Catholic Church and any church," Young stated.
The LDS church does not require criminal background checks for church leaders unless it is required under state law. In Utah and Minnesota, it’s not.
In many states, however, background checks are required if the work requires direct contact with children.
All states have mandated reporter laws that require members of the clergy to contact law enforcement if they receive credible reports of sex abuse.
But most states, including Minnesota and Utah, grant some kind of ‘ecclesiastical privilege,’ like a confession, that could hinder reporting.
But other states, like North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas, and West Virginia have laws requiring disclosure even in those circumstances.
Sam Young says in the LDS there was an additional reporting structure altogether.
"If a bishop became aware of an issue of sexual abuse, he was supposed to call an 800 number, which was to the law firm of the church, basically to give them a heads up," Young recalled.
"But I know there's been many, many cases, where the bishop did not report the issue to the police, even after they talked to Salt Lake," Young said.
Davis instructed young men in church
What Minnesota LDS leaders knew about Davis and his past is unclear.
According to a harassment order taken out before the latest charges, Kasson Church President Brent Larson was concerned about Davis’ relationship with the victim and thought it was "inappropriate."
Davis had given the boy a cell phone, cowboy boots, and a key to his home.
Even after the family ordered Davis to stay away from their son, the mother discovered the two of them in Davis’ car in the church parking lot, according to the harassment order.
In sworn affidavits, church leaders say Davis was a church leader, but was not in a position of authority over children.
The affidavits were signed by Kasson President Larson, and Rochester Stake President Randall Thomas, who is a medical director at Mayo Clinic.
Former members of the congregation tell the FOX 9 Investigators that’s not true.
A father provided emails from Davis, in which he was instructing young men on lessons from the Book of Mormon.
The father told the FOX 9 Investigators Davis was also grooming his son to be a victim.
Benjamin, the Rochester LDS member and former leader, said there was no doubt in his mind that the Elders Quorum President is a position of authority in the church.
Church leaders declined to comment for this story, instead directing us to a previous statement from three years ago.
Stake President Thomas wrote: "abuse of any kind is not tolerated" in the LDS. That "anyone who abuses a child is rightfully subject to both criminal prosecution" and "formal discipline from the church, including loss of membership."
Other LDS cases
Recent history might suggest that is not always the case.
The co-creator of the Sundance Film Festival, Sterling Van Wagenen, was charged with sexually abusing a seven-year-old girl. He had admitted to abusing another child to church leaders and police decades earlier but was never charged.
And there’s Noel Anderson, a Texas Sunday School Teacher who sexually assaulted at least four children.
Instead of background checks, the LDS church said its leaders use church records, and what they call ‘personal discernment.’
The mother of Davis’ 2003 sex abuse victim is upset about the plea bargains Davis received in Utah.
"I personally cannot blame the church as much as I do the legal system," she said.
Those who have tried to protect children say they’ve learned nothing is more important than the reputation of the church.
"As I've spoken out about it, local leaders have in many ways tried to silence me by taking certain kind of membership privileges away from me and things like that," Benjamin said.
"The church’s number one priority is, to quote, ‘protect the good name of the church.’ They're not out to protect the victim," Young, the former LDS bishop said.
The FOX 9 Investigators tried multiple times to talk to Davis and his attorney but neither of them responded to the requests.
The prosecutor handling the case for the Dodge County Attorney declined to comment on the case or a potential plea deal.