Series: Breach of Trust: Utah’s Troubled Handling of Sexual Assaults
When health care workers sexually abuse their patients in Utah, survivors confront obstacles to justice: in the law, in the courts — and in the culture as a whole.
This story details allegations of sexual assault.
This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.
Former Utah therapist Scott Owen was arrested Wednesday in connection with accusations that he sexually abused patients during sessions.
The Salt Lake Tribune and ProPublica reported in August on a range of sex abuse allegations against Owen, who had built a reputation over his 20-year career as a specialist who could help gay men who were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He gave up his therapy license in 2018 after several patients complained to state licensers that he had touched them inappropriately. Some of the men who spoke to The Tribune said their bishop used church funds to pay for sessions where Owen allegedly also touched them inappropriately.
Owen, 64, was booked into the Utah County jail on suspicion of six counts of object rape and four counts of forcible sodomy. A Utah County judge has ordered that Owen remain in jail without the opportunity to post bail, finding that he could be a danger to the community and would likely flee if released.
Owen had not been formally charged as of Friday morning. He has not responded to detailed lists of questions previously sent to him on two occasions regarding allegations that he touched his patients inappropriately. He co-founded Canyon Counseling in the late 1990s and continued to have an active role in the business until recently. The counseling center cut ties with him after sexual assault allegations became public before announcing in September that it was closing altogether.
In a probable cause statement released Wednesday, a Provo police officer wrote that the department had interviewed 12 former patients of Owen’s since August. Owen was arrested on allegations connected to two former patients, who both say Owen engaged in sexual contact with them during therapy sessions. That alleged touching included kissing, cuddling and Owen using his hand to touch their anuses. One man also alleges Owen performed oral sex on him.
Provo police allege in the statement that Owen used his position of trust as a therapist to coerce his patients into engaging in kissing, cuddling and sexual touching during therapy sessions. According to arrest records, many of the 12 former patients told officers that they began seeing Owen for treatment of “same-sex attraction.” The therapist told them their relationships with men were “broken” and that therapy could help them have “normal” relationships with men and eventually women, the men told police. From there, the patients allege, Owen would engage in touching that some say became increasingly sexual in nature.
Utah law says patients can’t consent to sexual acts with a health care professional if they believe the touching is part of a “medically or professionally appropriate diagnosis, counseling or treatment.”
Under a negotiated settlement with Utah’s licensing body, Owen was able to surrender his license without admitting to any inappropriate conduct, and the sexual nature of his patient’s allegations is not referenced in the documents he signed when he gave up his license.
Prior to the August publication of The Tribune and ProPublica article, Provo police said they had no record of anyone ever reporting Owen to law enforcement for alleged sexual misconduct.
Both state licensers and the local leaders in the LDS Church knew of inappropriate touching allegations against Owen as early as 2016, The Tribune and ProPublica reporting showed, but neither would say whether they ever reported Owen to the police. In Utah, with few exceptions, the state licensing division is not legally required to forward information to law enforcement.
The church said in response that it takes all matters of sexual misconduct seriously, and that in 2019 it confidentially annotated internal records to alert bishops that Owen’s conduct has threatened the well-being of other people or the church.