A few months before her 18th birthday, Katie Wallace hatched a plan to overdose on heroin.
She and a male friend who had her hooked on the drug would do it together, ending years of misery to which the 17-year-old saw no way out.
It was not the path the Mormon church, in which Katie had been raised, had ordained for her.
But it was one that she holds the religion responsible for, after church leaders allegedly covered up years of rampant sexual abuse and incest within her family.
For Katie, now 39, it began when she was four. Unbeknown to her, her abuser, a close relative, had assaulted her older sister, Becky, years before.
Katie Wallace, aged 1, sits on the shoulders of her older sister Becky Welch, aged 10. Becky, now 48, claims a church bishop told her not to inform police or her parents of the abuse she was suffering at the hands of a close relative, who went on to also abuse Katie
Becky, now 48, (pictured left) says she blamed herself for decades for her sister’s abuse because she agreed to keep her own abuse a secret. She says it was only later that she realized the church had failed her. Two years before Becky reported her abuse to the church, the same perpetrator had also started abusing Katie, now 39, (pictured right), when she was just four years old. Katie was later abused by another family member, who had also been abused by the sisters’ attacker
The church knew but did nothing, allowing a ‘vicious circle’ of abuse to break out within the family, the sisters claim.
They have bravely shared their story with DailyMail.com to expose what they believe is an ‘epidemic’ of sexual abuse in Mormon homes, which they and countless other victims claim is buried by ecclesiastical leaders in a bid to protect the church’s reputation.
It comes after our investigation revealed last week that the church is facing legal action over allegations it has ‘maintained a pattern and practice’ of hiding abuse from authorities.
More than a dozen current and former members of the church have come forward with shocking claims of a culture of ‘cover ups’ – defying leaders who are alleged to have ‘silenced’ and ‘threatened’ those who speak out.
A model Mormon family
Becky, now 48, was the second eldest and Katie the second youngest of five siblings raised in an authoritarian Mormon family in Colorado.
They were taught to obey their parents, who dictated strict rules on clothing and routines.
Their mother was picky about the company they kept; childhood friends who didn’t dress in the appropriate manner would be discarded.
On Sundays, the only activity allowed was attending church, while Monday evenings were reserved for religious lessons.
As the children grew older, they were expected to go to seminary classes before school, meaning 5am starts became the norm.
The Dawsons, as they were then, appeared to be model Mormons. Part of a tight-knit community who dedicated their lives to their faith and followed church rules to a tee.
But behind closed doors incestual abuse was spreading through the family like wildfire.
Becky (left) and Katie (right) were raised in an authoritarian Mormon family in Colorado in which their parents dictated strict rules on clothing and the company they kept
The sisters believe this created an atmosphere of fear in the family, which prevented them from telling anyone about the abuse that was spreading through it like wildfire. Pictured: Becky (left), 9, and Katie (right), aged 1
Becky says she was abused between the ages of four and 11. It was not until she was 15 that she felt able to speak about the abuse during a session with a church therapist. Pictured above aged 9 with one-month-old sister Katie
Becky was the first victim aged four, assaulted by a close relative. It continued for seven years.
She remembers vividly the final time it happened.
‘I remembered him coming into my room, rubbing himself against me on top of the bedding and then he ejaculated on the covers,’ she says.
‘I told him I knew what he was doing. I told him to leave my room.’
For years, Becky was too afraid to tell anyone. But after struggling with depression, she sought out her bishop when she was 15, who set her up with a church-approved unlicensed therapist at $10 a session.
It was during therapy that Becky first mentioned her abuse, prompting the counselor to convene a three-way meeting with the bishop to discuss possible action.
But in the eyes of the church, there was one major problem – and apparently, it was not the abuse.
The alleged perpetrator was away on a mission, a rite of passage for young Mormon men to spread the gospel in far-flung parts of the world.
The bishop decided it would be too embarrassing for the young man and the church to bring him home early, so the abuse was to be kept under wraps, Becky claims.
‘I remember the bishop saying something about arresting a returned missionary the moment he stepped off the plane and that he didn’t feel like that would be a good thing for anyone,’ she says.
‘Vicious circle’ of abuse
This has been a recurring theme in DailyMail.com’s interviews with victims.
Church leaders are alleged to have repeatedly brushed abuse under the carpet to allow young men to complete missionary programs.
The inaction leads to reoffending, in the sisters’ case and in others.
Had the church decided to intervene when Becky first reported her abuse, they may have discovered that her assailant had also started abusing Katie around two years prior.
Katie’s abuse continued for around a year until the relative left for his mission.
But aged nine, Katie began being abused by another family member, who themselves had been abused by Katie and Becky’s previous abuser.
Katie admits that she later started repeating some of the behaviors on younger relatives. The abuse had become a ‘vicious circle’, she says.
It was only when she was about to turn 11 – seven years after she was first abused and five years after the church was made aware of Becky’s abuse – that Katie felt able to tell her parents.
Then, the whole can of worms came spilling out.
‘It transpired that all of us had been dealing with sexual abuse and that my sister had gone for help from the bishop years prior and everyone had kept it a secret,’ Katie says.
By this time, the family member who had abused Becky and Katie had returned from his mission and had been allowed to marry in a Mormon temple – an aspirational privilege for members that is subject to a ‘worthiness’ interview by officials.
Those who conducted this particular interview were fully aware of the allegations against the groom, Katie claims.
She believes there was a warped belief at the time that allowing the young man to marry would redirect his sexual urges towards his wife instead of his family.
Christmas suicide watch
Katie, now an artist and ceramicist, says she spiraled into drug addiction following the trauma of her abuse, leading to a failed attempt to overdose on heroin when she was 17
The end of Katie’s abuse also marked the start of her ‘spiral’ into drugs and destitution.
She started smoking pot and drinking after school aged 13. At 15, she was taken into foster care, before moving back home a year later.
But it wasn’t long before she ran away, becoming homeless and addicted to drugs.
Katie admits to using ‘massive amounts’ of ecstasy and ‘getting hooked’ on heroin and crack.
She remembers it ‘being around this time of year’ – 22 years ago – that she planned to end her life.
‘I was just so exhausted,’ she says. ‘My life was a nightmare. It felt like the easiest out was for me to overdose.’
She never did. Her friend stole all her money and abandoned her, leaving Katie without the cash she needed to buy the drugs.
It wasn’t the first time she had been betrayed. But it marked a turning point in her life.
‘Sitting there crying, I came to the realization that it wasn’t that I wanted to die, I just couldn’t live in my life anymore’, she says.
‘I knew that if I continued down the path that I was on, there was only one end and I was going to end up dead.’
Katie went home for the first time in months and asked her mom to take her to the hospital. She spent Christmas on suicide watch, recovering from withdrawals.
Decades of hurt
When the Dawson family abuse bombshell blew up, they took the matter up with the church.
Katie says it initially accepted responsibility for failing to report the abuse and began paying for mental health care for the family.
But after a while, the powers that be decided the bills were getting too high and pulled the plug.
The Dawsons threatened to sue for breach of fiduciary responsibility and the matter was settled privately – Katie claims the church paid out $150,000.
At no point, however, did the church report the abuse to the authorities, the sisters claim.
Becky, pictured age 12, believes the strong patriarchal structures within the Mormon church make it hard for victims to speak out against their abusers
Katie pictured aged 14 on the Mormon trail in Wyoming, a trek undertaken by many young church members to replicate the journey undertaken by the pioneers
Katie fell into a gopher hole while pushing a handcart on the first day of the trek. It was her last real engagement with the church before she began distancing herself from the community
Katie, pictured above aged four, says she formally left the church last year after a case in Arizona revealed the church’s failure to report a member who was sexually abusing his daughter allowed the attacks to continue for a further seven years
Katie, pictured above aged nine, says the case showed to her that little had changed in the decades since she was abused
A journal entry written by Katie on December 22, 1996, when she was ten years old, details the family fallout after a close relative was taken to court over allegations he ‘mulisted’ (molested) Katie and Becky
Another journal entry written by Katie in November 1998, aged 12, details the emotional trauma she experienced following the abuse. She writes that her ‘life has been ruined ever since I was 4’, that she is always ‘depressed’ and that ‘no one knows all that I’ve been through’. She later mentions that Lee, the man who she later married aged 19, is the ‘only one who understands me’
Katie believes their case was a major contributing factor to the establishment of an abuse hotline by the church in 1995.
An idiosyncrasy of Mormonism is that its bishops are supposedly divinely called by God, yet they are lay people without ecclesiastical or pastoral training selected to serve a term of five years.
The hotline provides them a number to call for advice when abuse is reported.
A recent case in Arizona, however, has revealed the hotline does little to encourage church leaders to involve the authorities.
In fact, church lawyers on the end of the line told a bishop he could not report a member of his congregation who had confessed to sexually abusing his daughter due to ‘clergy-penitent privilege’.
It allowed Paul Douglas Adams to continue his abuse for another seven years until he was arrested by Homeland Security agents in 2017.
He killed himself in custody before he could stand trial.
Katie says the case proved to her that little had changed following the establishment of the hotline, despite church protestations to the contrary.
‘It was so similar to mine,’ she says. ‘It really triggered everything for me. I was really upset with how the church handled it.’
After having gradually removed herself from the Mormon community over time, she formally rescinded her membership last year.
Becky remains a member, but hasn’t attended church since she graduated from Brigham Young University in 1993.
She says she spent ‘decades’ blaming herself for Katie’s abuse.
‘I felt like if the church was responsible, then I was guilty as well. I agreed to sweep it under the rug.
‘It took me 20 years to finally come to peace. These people failed me. I was a child and I trusted them to do the right thing.
‘I had absolutely no thought in the world that this was also happening to my siblings.’
She has since forged a successful career as a nurse practitioner in Orlando, Florida.
‘Church washes its hands of abuse’
Family life, understandably, remains fractured.
Katie says her relationship with her parents improved after she left the family home. They accepted her no longer going to church and ignored, rather than punished, small acts of rebellion, such as her getting tattoos.
But things broke down again over the Arizona case after Katie’s parents defended the church, claiming it was ‘following the law of the state’.
Legally, this is correct. Arizona and more than 20 other states require clergy to report child sex abuse and neglect, but have an exemption for information gleaned during spiritual confessions.
Earlier this month, a judge dismissed a complaint by Adams’ three children, in which they accused the Mormon church of negligence and conspiring to cover up child sex abuse.
The judge ruled officials had no duty to report the abuse.
During the trial, the church’s lawyers even suggested that moral arguments over whether the church should or should not report abuse were irrelevant.
Katie believes this is telling of its attitude towards victims. She accuses leaders of ‘hiding behind the law’, which allows it ‘cover up’ abuse.
‘The church just washes their hands of the situation, which is so problematic,’ she says.
The case destroyed her relationship with her parents. They are now estranged.
The gift of discernment
Becky, who has forged a career as a nurse practitioner in Orlando, Florida, technically remains a member of the church but has not attended any events since graduating from Brigham Young University in 1993
Katie says her life was transformed after her plan to overdose on heroin went awry and she married her husband Lee (pictured, 40), when she was 19
Katie, now a mother-of-two, says she strives to raise her children Hunter (left), 16, and Grayson (right), 19, in a completely different way to her own upbringing
Katie, now a mother-of-two in Harford County, Maryland, says her life has been transformed since marrying her husband, Lee, when she was 19.
Unsurprisingly, she strives to raise her children, Grayson, 19, and Hunter, 16, in a very different way to her own upbringing.
Looking back, she believes the authoritarian culture within Mormon families is a breeding ground for abuse.
For years, she was too terrified to tell her parents about what a close relative had done to her.
Becky agrees. ‘Any system where there’s a really strong patriarchy makes it more likely that kids keep secrets,’ she says.
‘If you over-punish your children to the point that they’re scared of you, they’ll do anything to protect each other. That’s where the secrecy came from.’
The Mormon church has not responded to a request for comment on the sisters’ allegations.
But its 2010 handbook for church leaders says ‘the first responsibility of the church in abuse cases is to help those who have been abused and protect those who may be vulnerable to future abuse’.
It adds: ‘Abuse cannot be tolerated in any form.’
But Mormon leaders have also given a number of talks stressing the need to forgive abusers.
A page on the church’s website titled ‘Is it possible to forgive?’ cites a passage from Book of Mormon intended to help abuse victims ‘forgive those who have harmed you’.
Ultimately, Mormons are taught that all their leaders, right down to their lay bishops, are led by divine revelation. Their authority cannot be questioned.
Katie sees the obvious flaw.
‘The church teaches how priesthood holders have the gift of discernment from God,’ she says. ‘That they decide what is right.
‘Clearly, the gift of discernment doesn’t work so well if they’re sending a child predator out on missions.’