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Sundance Film Festival co-founder charged with sex abuse

Sterling Van Wagenen, Oscar-winning filmmaker and co-founder of the Sundance Film Festival, has been charged with sexually abusing a 9-year-old girl.
/ Source: The Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah filmmaker who co-founded the Sundance Film Festival and produced an Oscar-winning movie in the mid-1980s has been charged with sexual abuse of a young girl.

Sterling Van Wagenen, 71, is accused of inappropriately touching a girl on two occasions between 2013 and 2015, according to a probable cause statement filed with the charges on April 4. The alleged abuse occurred in two northern Utah cities when the girl was between the ages of 7 and 9, online court records show.

Van Wagenen's attorney, Steven Shapiro, declined to comment. Van Wagenen didn't return an email and phone call. He has not yet entered a plea to one count of felony sexual abuse of a child.

Van Wagenen co-founded a Utah film festival that came to be known as Sundance Film Festival with Robert Redford and was the Sundance Institute's founding executive director, according to his biography page on the University of Utah website, where he was a part-time instructor until his recent resignation.

Sundance Film Festival officials didn't immediately return an email and phone message seeking comment. His affiliation with the organization ended in 1993 when he left the advisory board, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Van Wagenen, who posted $75,000 bail, is scheduled to be in court on May 2 for a scheduling hearing. The case was reported to police by child protective services after the girl told her parents about the alleged abuse.

"Peace Officer" - 2015 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival
Executive producer Sterling VanWagenen on March 15, 2015 in Austin, Texas.Dustin Finkelstein / Getty Images for SXSW file

Van Wagenen produced the 1985 film, "The Trip to Bountiful," a story of an elderly woman who longs to return to her home that earned the late actress Geraldine Page an Oscar for her starring performance.

He also directed the 1992 film "Alan & Naomi" about the trauma of the Holocaust on children and was a producer of the 1991 move "Convicts" starring Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones.

More recently, he was a director of the 2009 documentary called "Learning from the Light: The Vision of I.M. Pei" about a well-known architect and an executive director of the 2018 historical tale "Jane and Emma" about a black woman's friendship with the wife of Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints.

Van Wagenen resigned from his part-time instructor position at the University of Utah's Film and Media Arts Department on Feb. 15 after being put on administrative leave on Feb. 5, university spokesman Chris Nelson said. He said the university can't provide any more details other than to say he had worked at the university since October 2012.

Van Wagenen's resignation came after a man came forward to accuse Van Wagenen of molesting him as a boy in 1993. No charges have been filed in that case, which was made public by a website that serves as a watchdog for The Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon church.

The church-owned Brigham Young University in Utah has employed Van Wagenen as an instructor and director of content for its broadcasting arm. University spokeswoman Carri Jenkins didn't immediately return an email and phone message seeking comment.

Van Wagenen also periodically worked for the church as a producer and director for many years on a variety of projects, church spokesman Eric Hawkins said. The church wasn't aware of any of Van Wagenen's alleged behaviors until recently and reported them to authorities, Hawkins said. He declined to say if Van Wagenen has been kicked out of the faith, citing church policy to keep personal matters private.

The church considers child abuse to be among the most serious sins and that anyone who commits the act should be held accountable, Hawkins said.