The abuse of a child or any other individual is inexcusable. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”) believes this, teaches this, and dedicates tremendous resources and efforts to prevent, report and address abuse.
Jennifer Roach’s presentation from the 2023 FAIR Conference dealt directly with abuse and the LDS (“Mormon”) church. You can watch the presentation and read the transcript here.
This is a must-see for anyone with questions about the recent Netflix series “Scouts Honor.”
Question: What are the best practices around issues of abuse in general?
Answer: Everyone working in the field of child protection agrees that there is no single practice that will perfectly identify all potential threats. Instead, it’s better to think of the various practices as the pieces of rope that make up a net. A determined person could get around any one of them, but it’s harder to get past an entire net of them. But in general, a school or church that wants to follow the best practices would be doing the following:
- Screening of volunteers. Volunteers must go through some process that allows the leaders of a church or school to know who they are and some basic facts about them. This is the first layer of protection intended to keep someone from attending a church on one Sunday and being given access to children the next.
- Training of volunteers. Adults who desire to work with children should be given some form of training where they are instructed directly about what abuse is, how children should be treated, and the rules that govern how adults may interact with children while at activities run by the church or school including healthy boundaries.
- 2-Deep rule. Adult volunteers should never be alone with a child. At least 2 adults should be present at every activity.
- Sometimes private conversations are required when working with older children and teenagers. If this needs to happen the parents of the child are informed of the scheduled date and invited to join the conversation if they and their child wish. If they do not wish to join the conversation for any reason, including giving their child privacy, they should be informed about what will take place during that conversation.
- Adults should not transport children or teenagers they are not related to in a vehicle alone.
- All electronic communication should include 2 adults. For example, if a leader needs to text a student a reminder about an event they will include another adult in the text. No private social media conversations or sharing of photos is allowed.
- If a young child needs help with toileting a parent should be called out of their class to assist.
- Windows in all classroom doors.
- When background checks are required by state law they should be completed before the adult is allowed to volunteer with children. (Please see the note below about the controversial nature of using background checks)
Question: Does our church follow best practices?
Answer: Yes. Each of these practices is followed by our church. See below for a full description.
- Screening of volunteers. Yes. In our church volunteers must be known to their local leaders, called and sustained. A person could not attend church one Sunday for the first time and be given access to children the following week.
- Training of volunteers. Yes. Adult volunteers are required to complete the church’s training on abuse called, “Protecting Children and Youth.”
- 2-Deep rule. Yes, Section 20.7.1 of the General Handbook requires this.
- Private conversations. Yes. As stated in handbook section 31.4 and in the Protecting Children and Youth training, volunteers are instructed to avoid one-on-one conversations with children and youth. When one-on-one conversations are required for privacy (such as a Bishop’s interview) the parents are invited to attend if they choose and the parents are informed about the questions that will be asked.
- Transporting children alone. Yes, this is covered in the Protecting Children and Youth training.
- Electronic communication. Yes, as stated in the Protecting Children and Youth training electronic communication should include 2 adults, and no use of private social media messaging is allowed.
- Toileting for young children. Yes, this is covered in the Protecting Children and Youth training.
- Windows in all classroom doors. Yes, this is practiced in our church.
- Background checks. Yes. Some states have laws requiring background checks for any adult who works with children in any capacity. When this is the case the church follows local law. Please see the note below on why background checks are controversial because of their unreliability.
Question: What are background checks and why aren’t they trusted more?
Answer: To answer this question we have to think about what a background check is – and is not. If your child’s school used the phrase, “This adult has a clear background check” you might trust that more than if the school said, “No previous charges involving child abuse were found on this person’s legal record.” The first one sounds like all possible sources were checked, maybe people who know this person was interviewed, discipline records from their current and previous jobs were checked, there was a check for aliases, a complete criminal history was obtained, a check on if they’ve ever voluntarily or involuntarily sought out treatment for being attracted to children, and more. But in reality, these two statements are the same thing.
The term “background check” is a generic term and very often only means that the state’s official registry of sex offenders was checked and this person’s name is not found there. More sophisticated checks will also include the use of fingerprints to check the person’s criminal history, an alias check, and an address history.
But even the more sophisticated check is relying on a charge showing up on a person’s criminal history. Using fingerprints gives access to more criminal databases to check (state and national databases can both be checked this way) but if no criminal charges have been brought against this person, they will have a “clear background check,” which feels better than saying, “no charges involving child abuse were found on this person’s record.” But they’re the same thing.
Due to the shameful aspect of child sexual abuse, most victims never report their abuser. Or, if they do, they report long after the statute of limitations has run out and nothing can be put on the person’s criminal record.
Question: So, background checks aren’t perfect – but they’re better than nothing. Right?
Answer: Yes and No.
Yes, they occasionally catch a previously charged abuser who thought they could sneak through the cracks. For that reason alone they might make sense to do. But also no, because of the deceitful nature of saying, “He has a clear background check.” Parents take this to mean that this person is not an abuser and frequently lower their guard around this person. When a “clear background check” is taken to mean, “We checked everything possible and there is nothing there at all,” then parents relax their vigilance. Not only can children end up exposed to a predator, but now their parents believe this volunteer is safe because they, “passed a background check.” An abuser senses that trust and takes advantage of it.
Question: Does our church have any unique protections that go above and beyond the list of best practices?
Yes. Our church has a number of unique features not found in other places. Some of these are things you might not even recognize as protections, even though they function as such.
- The calling system. If you’ve been in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for all of your life you might not be aware that obtaining volunteers works differently in other churches. For example, in most other churches when there is a need for someone to work with the primary age children one of two things will happen. Either someone will volunteer unprompted by contacting someone in church leadership directly, or the church will issue a general announcement altering members to the fact that volunteers are needed with the children and anyone who is interested should contact a designated leader. After this happens that volunteer is likely given some kind of training, perhaps a background check, and then sent to work with the children. There are 2 problems with this system. First, because adults can self-select to be around children it is never clear what the adult’s motivation is. They may be volunteering due to their love of God and church and a desire to serve the children. Or they may be volunteering to get access to children for evil purposes. No amount of training or background checking can discern the difference. In comparison, in our church volunteers are called to positions of service. If an adult in the congregation had evil intent toward children they would have to wait and see if they received a calling to work in that area. Just like every other protection, this one is not perfect, but it is an additional aspect to our safety net that most other churches do not have.
- Sustaining. When you raise your hand during Sacrament Meeting to sustain this or that calling you might not think you are participating in a safety measure, but you are. Looking at how this is handled elsewhere will illustrate the point. In most churches when a volunteer is added to the children’s ministry, for example, this is not a public event. Their name is not presented to the congregation, and likely won’t even appear on any materials published by that church. It is very common that an adult can be serving in an area without the knowledge of 95% of the other adults in the church. In contrast, our church publically names everyone who be serving and those who have a concern about that person are given an avenue to voice it. This does not happen in other places.
- Existing associations. Our wards and branches are made up of people who live near each other and this provides an additional layer of protection. Admittedly, this layer functions best in areas where there is a higher density of church members. When all the members of a ward live within a few blocks of each other they will naturally know a great deal of information about each other, including potential concerns about safety. In contrast, churches that are not arranged geographically often draw people from a wide distance. A predator who has a bad reputation in their own neighborhood could easily drive across town where no one knows him and be given fresh trust.
- The member-number system. Again, if you’ve grown up in our church you’ve probably never given much thought to your member number and how that system provides protection. But having a member number means that number follows you anywhere in the world that you might move. When the church is aware that a member has engaged in something that makes them unsafe to be around children or teenagers an annotation is added to their record. If a new person moves into your ward and has been unsafe with children in the past, your bishop will be able to see that annotation.
- Bishop interviews. Abusers isolate their victims. If someone was abusing a teenager he would not want that victim to have a confidential conversation with anyone for fear of being exposed. This kind of isolation is pretty easy for abusers to achieve in many church structures. One invisible protection we have in our church is that every young man or woman has the opportunity for a private conversation a couple of times a year. Disclosing abuse is very difficult and complicated (see note below on how disclosure usually happens) and simply meeting with a bishop alone is no guarantee that the adolescent will disclose. But it can be the kind of open door to do so that many victims don’t have.
- Gender-specific leaders for adolescents. This is specific protection that adolescent girls in our church enjoy. Statistically speaking an adult man is far more likely to commit abuse than an adult woman. In fact, 97% of abusers are male¹. In many other church situations, adolescent girls and boys are both led primarily by male leaders. There are likely to be women volunteers around, but those who make the decisions and set the culture are all male. Girls in our church sometimes receive teaching from male Sunday School or Seminary teachers among other roles, but they also have adult women in their Presidency who are given authority to watch over the girls in a way that most other teenage girls do not have access to.
- Disfellowshipping. As shocking as this sounds, abusing a child is not necessarily grounds for being disfellowshiped in most churches. If the church is aware of a convicted abuser in their church they may put some restrictions on him, but they are very unlikely to withdraw his membership. In fact, First Presidency approval is even required before a person can be baptized if they are convicted of a crime involving sexual misconduct Handbook Section 18.104.22.168
- The Helpline. In recent years the helpline has been featured in both the media and in some high-profile abuse cases. What is the helpline? Created in 1995 the helpline exists to assist bishops and stake presidents to best serve victims of sexual abuse or other crimes. They are resourced toward getting help to the victim, and to make sure all local laws about reporting are followed correctly. Prior to the advent of the helpline, bishops, and stake presidents had to rely far more on their own judgment and experience to deal with these cases. And while some bishops were prepared for such a task through their outside employment, most were not. The helpline changed that and made it so that it didn’t matter if a victim’s bishop was unsure of what to do, he had access 24 hours a day to how to get help. Today victims are better off because of the help line’s ability to quickly resource their bishops. In most other churches pastors and other leaders are left on their own to figure out how to assist a victim.
Sometimes individuals claim that the helpline is there to, “keep the church out of legal trouble,” and nothing else. The implication is that the helpline wants to protect the church from the appearance of anything negative so they instruct bishops to hide abuse. No one denies that the helpline is there to keep the church out of legal trouble – but the best way to do that is to help the on-the-ground leaders of wards and branches prevent abuse in the first place, and follow the law directly if abuse is ever discovered. Keeping the church out of legal trouble is a good thing – and we do that by following the law.
¹Mona A. Hassan, Faye Gary, Cheryl Killion, Linda Lewin & Vicken Totten (2015) Patterns of Sexual Abuse among Children: Victims’ and Perpetrators’ Characteristics, Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 24:4, 400-418, DOI: 10.1080/10926771.2015.1022289
Question: Are critics of the church correct when they say we are an insular community that enables abuse?
Answer: No. But the accusations are still made. One lawyer working in the area of child abuse claims, “The insularity of the Church … has created a culture of secrecy and turning a blind eye to sexual abuse within the church….(They) care more about protecting the church from outside backlash than protecting victims.”¹ It’s an emotionally charged claim, but is this what the evidence shows? No.
The case that may come to mind here might be the case involving a father abusing his own children in Bisbee, Arizona. A prominent reporter wrote about the case in 2022 and claimed that the family’s bishop knew the children were being abused and allowed the abuse to continue in an attempt to protect the church². It’s a sensational claim and it drew national and international attention. Many people who read the claim believed it. The problem is that it’s not based in fact. Publicly available documents in that case prove that the bishop learned about the extreme abuse of these children the same way everyone else did: in the newspaper when the father was arrested.³ The father did make a partial confession to the bishop at one point, but the bishop was told, and had every reason to believe the structure of the home had changed (the father was supposedly no longer allowed to be with the children unless the mother was there supervising) and that no abuse ever occurred again. The bishop would periodically ask the mother about this specifically and she denied that abuse was happening, despite having knowledge of it still going on.
That news article asserted a claim which is easily disprovable based on the publicly available court documents.
Question: I hear a lot about abuse in the church these days. Does it happen more in our church than in other places?
Answer: This is a frustratingly hard question to answer. There is no direct source that lists the religion of all known abusers. For that matter, there is no source for a complete list of abusers at all. However, we can get an idea of what the answer is through two sources. Both are imperfect, that is they are not guaranteed to be complete, but they both provide a window on the question. The first source is the Boy Scouts abuse database; the second is the Southern Baptist abuse database.
The Boy Scout Database
First, some facts to be understood:
- During the long relationship between the Boy Scouts and the church between 20% and 30% of troops were sponsored by the church, depending on the year.
- The Boy Scouts have been documenting sexual abuse in their ranks since the 1940’s in a collection of documents called the “Ineligible Volunteer Files” or P-Files (“P” for perversion.) Those files have been put into a searchable database by the LA Times. There are roughly 5,000 adults listed in these files as either being suspected or convicted of abuse.
- These files usually (but not always) list the religion of the abuser, or they list the sponsoring organization of the troop. This makes it fairly easy to determine which abusers had a connection to the church.
If 20%-30% of troops were associated with the church it would stand to reason that roughly 20-30% of the abusers listed in these files would have a connection to the church.
25% of 5,000 is 1,250.
So, what percent of abusers were in LDS-affiliated troops?
Another way to say the same thing is that LDS-affiliated troops experienced 1/4th the abuse that would have been expected statistically.
The Southern Baptist Database
In 2019 the Houston Chronicle released a list of 263 names found through their own research. Then in 2022, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was forced into allowing an external investigation of sexual abuse in their churches by Guidepost Solutions. This list includes those who have been criminally accused of abuse, those who confessed to abuse, as well as those accused by reputable media sources. Those two lists have been merged together into a document that lists 700 total abusers over the last 20 years. All stakeholders involved acknowledge that this list fails to identify some abusers and that it identifies some abusers as being Southern Baptists when they are not. In theory, some of the accused may actually be innocent, and some of the guilty might only have tangential ties to the SBC. It is far from a perfect data source. However, it is a very interesting one because of the similarities between the SBC and Latter-day Saints.
- The SBC has just over 16 Million members. Our church has 17 million.
- The SBC is headquartered in the United States, but has congregations around the world, just like our church.
- Members of the SBC tend to express higher levels of religious commitment, just like our church.
According to the Pew Research Center, many other traits are similar between us including education and income levels, racial makeup, and age distribution (See makeup of Latter-day Saints here; and Southern Baptists here)
Several attempts have been made to collect a complete list of abusers who are Latter-day Saints. By far the most complete of these projects is Floodlit. They manage a database of every accused or convicted abuser with ties to our church. This data set has similar problems that the SBC database. Some abusers are missing, some are counted as abusers when they’ve been proven innocent, and others had only a tangential relationship with the church. But because both data sets are subject to the same types of errors comparing them seems fair. The Floodlit database contains 508 cases going back to the 1800’s. The SBC database only lists cases from the last 20 years, and when we isolate the last 20 years in Floodlit, there are 77.
The 2 faiths are roughly the same size and composition.
The SBC has 700 abusers in the last 20 years.
Latter-day Saints have 77 in the last 20 years.
77 is too many. But if the question is, “Are children more likely to be abused in our church than in another church?” the answer, at least according to this data, is no.
Question: What makes the Catholic Church’s situation so different than ours?
Answer: The way they moved abusing clergy around.
In the Catholic Church clergy are full-time church employees who are assigned to a congregation by the central administration of the church. When their term at one church is done, they are assigned to another. The individual priest rarely gets input into where he is stationed, and clergy can be moved at any time.
When the central leadership would learn about an abusing priest they would simply restation him somewhere else and hope for the best. Many priests would continue to abuse, be discovered, and the central leadership would move them again to a new location. The church members in the new locations were never warned about the priest’s past abuse.
This dynamic of moving priests from one location to another to hide abuse simply does not exist in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We are not structured in a way that would allow this to happen. Leaders of wards and branches are chosen from among the members living in that geographic area. The church never moves a Bishop from one state to another to lead a new ward.
Question: Why am I hearing so much more about abuse in the church these days?
Answer: Society has gone through a very rapid shift on this. Even 5 years ago it was very common for friends, family, and people in authority to tell abuse victims that they are better off not talking about abuse and moving on. And then the MeToo movement made abuse a national conversation.
Since that time many states have changed their laws regarding reporting abuse. Previously the statute of limitations (the time in which a crime had to be reported) was as short as 2 years. Victims could attempt to go to civil court, but most were unsuccessful. Today statute of limitation reform has taken hold in many places and the allowances are far more reasonable considering the difficulty abuse victims have in reporting. Some states, like California, decided to open a “look back window” for a short time and allowed any abuse case, no matter how old, into civil court.
So, yes, it’s true. You probably are hearing more about abuse these days, but part of that is due to the fact that new legal avenues have opened for victims, and society as a whole has been more open to discussing certain aspects of abuse.