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Jana Riess: How Latter-day Saints deal with sexual abuse: Too little, too late

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Like many people, I was disgusted to read the Associated Press investigative report on how two Arizona bishops of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints failed to report a horrific case of father sexual abuse. In this decision, they were guided by a “hotline” for lay bishops set up to answer questions about sexual abuse cases.

According to the article, the hotline asked the first bishop who called to “do nothing” and avoid reporting to the police the father’s ongoing rape of his daughter. As a result, the abuse continued for another seven years, with the father, Paul Douglas Adams, continuing to rape the eldest daughter and post videos online. When another girl was born into the family, Adams began sexually abusing her when she was only 6 weeks old and also uploaded these videos to the internet.

Other than ultimately excommunicating Adams from the church, the bishops appear to have done nothing to ensure the safety of his daughters.

And since Arizona doesn’t require clergy to report child sexual abuse to the police, what they did may have been perfectly legal. It’s not enough.

I want to clarify some things. First, this column is not an attack on bishops. They do superhuman jobs as volunteers. There aren’t many benefits to being a bishop, and there are countless minefields. I’ve seen unfair online discussions that portray these men as power-crazed egomaniacs who would constantly twirl their mustaches if only they were allowed to have facial hair.

It’s ridiculous. Most Latter-day Saint bishops strive to do the right thing. The fact that the institutional church often pushes them to failure is not their fault.

The second point is that I have seen no credible evidence that the incidence of sexual abuse is higher in Latter-day Saint communities than anywhere else. I’ve certainly seen allegations to that effect – here’s one from, surprise, surprise, a personal injury law firm – but no supporting data.

In fact, there has been very little academic research on sexual abuse in Latter-day Saint communities, apart from an interesting Dialogue article from the 1990s and some large, small-scale qualitative studies exploring the experience of trauma victims but do not offer reliable estimates of the extent of the problem.

What we can say with confidence is that when sexual abuse has occurred in the LDS Church, it has too often been mishandled, further compounding a traumatic experience for victims. Many of the same factors that allowed abuse to flourish undetected in other religions are also present in Mormonism, including:

• A closed and non-transparent leadership system run almost exclusively by men.

• A widespread cultural mandate to show only the best parts of our community and hide the flaws from outsiders.

• A “culture of purity” that silences victims of sexual violence.

• Hierarchical leadership in which some men are expected to have special religious authority over others – especially women and children – and should not be criticized.

• A sense of superiority over other communities, such that many believers believe “it could never happen here”.

How did I make this list?

Reading the news again and again about how it happened in religions not so different from mine.

You can read here how Southern Baptists tried for years to deny the problem of sexual abuse and attack whistleblowers, only to see that approach explode dramatically when the evidence became impossible to ignore.

Or read here how the Roman Catholic Church tried for years to deny the problem of sexual abuse and attack whistleblowers, only to see this approach explode dramatically when the evidence became impossible to ignore.

Or, since we’re on a roll, read here or here or here how evangelical Christian mega-churches have tried for years to deny… you get the idea.

Latter-day Saints have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of other groups. But will we? Judging by the church’s response to the PA story so far, I have to say that we probably won’t.

In a testy and defensive statement last week, the church claimed the AP “seriously misinterpreted” the “nature and purpose of the church’s hotline”. However, he did not specify where the story got it wrong, other than that the helpline exists to ensure “all legal reporting requirements are met”. (How is this supposed to convince us that the church is doing the right thing for the victims?)

It also brags about the “numerous safeguards the church has in place” and says any member supervising children or young people must undergo training every few years on “how to monitor, report and deal with abuse”.

In an ideal world, that would be true. But in the world we actually inhabit – where we are an almost entirely volunteer work force at the church – the claim simply does not stand up to scrutiny. Online training, as it stands, was put in place because of lawsuits. He explains church policies (such as asking another adult to be in the room when working with children and young people) and periodically quizzes members to make sure they understand. At 20-30 minutes, it’s too brief and general, although the actual examples are helpful.

Although the church’s website now states that all Primary children’s workers are expected to complete the training within one month of their calling, rollout of this requirement has not been universal. I have served in Primary for seven years without ever being asked to take this training, and I continue to fill in as Primary teacher when needed, all without this magical training that the church touts as “one of many safeguards” against abuse. But since it is available to members on the church website, I went through it myself.

To learn more about how the church handles reports of abuse, I interviewed a therapist this week who worked for its family services division for many years and counseled people at inside and outside the church on sexual abuse, domestic violence and mental health issues.

The therapist, who asked to remain anonymous, has generally had a “good experience” helping bishops and stake presidents. By paying to make therapists available to counsel bishops, he pointed out, the LDS Church is “quite progressive” compared to other religious groups. He did not work directly on the helpline team, but because of his work he was aware of the changes it was going through over time.

In previous years, he said, calls from bishops were often answered by a therapist; if necessary, the therapist can call on one of the lawyers on the support team. Over the past two years, however, lawyers have started to answer all calls and it is still unclear how often therapists are involved.

Additionally, bishops who mentioned the abuse to therapists on advice calls who did not go to the helpline were quickly redirected there, and therefore to the legal team.

“I would say it was about four years into my work for the church when it became a very clear instruction that if the bishop starts revealing details of abuse to us, we were to stop the conversation immediately and Tell the bishop to call the Abuse Helpline.”

He speculated that this change occurred because therapists are mandated reporters in all U.S. states, while bishops in some states (including Arizona) are protected by penitent clergy privilege and are not necessarily commissioned journalists.

The change was frustrating for him, he said, as therapists are trained to protect victims, including making urgent and mandatory reports to child welfare agencies, advising bishops on how to helping victims and sharing the resources available to them and their families.

“Imagine the difference if the helpline were to focus on helping victims more consistently instead of just ‘you don’t have to report anything,'” he said. “It would potentially save lives and prevent ongoing abuse.”

By routing all abuse calls to the helpline’s legal team, the church has protected its own interests and reduced its liability – in fact, the therapist pointed out that the helpline is part of a division of the church bureaucracy called “risk management”. “Unfortunately, this focus on church self-protection has actually increased the risk to victims.

If I had to guess what will happen next, it’s that the church will continue to repeatedly and vehemently publicly deny that any of its representatives have ever done anything wrong, and that they will never fail to address the systemic issues listed above that enable abuse and its subsequent concealment. We will have learned little from the examples of Catholics, Southern Baptists and mega-churches.

Because it couldn’t happen here, of course. Just move.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)