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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A federal judge on Wednesday denied a Mormon church push to move a lawsuit claiming sexual abuse of Navajo children in a church-run foster program out of tribal court.
U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby ruled the church hasn't shown any compelling reasons why Navajo Nation courts should be blocked from considering the suit filed by four people who say the church didn't do enough to protect them from abuse when they were children.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wanted the case moved to federal court in Salt Lake City because the allegations do not involve any abuse on tribal land.
Church officials didn't immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs contended the case should stay in the Window Rock, Arizona-based court because decisions about where to put children in the now-defunct program had occurred on tribal land as did failures to act on reports of abuse.
Navajo Nation lawyers have said they want to keep control of the case to protect tribal sovereignty.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs welcomed the decision by Shelby.
"It's a real victory for all tribes," attorney Craig Vernon said.
The people say they were sexually abused between the 1960s and early 1980s in the Indian Student Placement Program, which put thousands of Navajo children in Mormon foster homes in Utah, Idaho and New Mexico.
The Mormon church hasn't commented on the abuse allegations, though lawyers have said families volunteered to participate in it and a large number never reported any problems.
No criminal charges were filed in the decades-old allegations.
Defense lawyers say some of incidents were reported to program leaders but nothing was done to protect the children.
The people being accused are associated with host families, not church leaders.
Thousands of American Indian children participated in the church program from the late 1940s until it ended around 2000.
The church didn't give an official reason for closing the voluntary program, though church officials say it may have been linked to better educational opportunities for American Indians and increased sensitivity to Native cultures.
Children participated in the Indian Placement Program at a time when the church believed it had a duty to restore the heritage of American Indians.
Associated Press writer Brady McCombs contributed to this report.
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