Child Sexual Abuse, the Associated Press and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
For any who may have missed it, here is a quick update (as of August 2022) on the current Associated Press coverage of a child sexual abuse case in Arizona and how it involves the LDS church.
Two weeks ago, Michael Rezendes wrote an article for the AP following the heartbreaking story of an LDS family where sexual abuse was being perpetrated by the father towards at least two children. (https://apnews.com/article/Mormon-church-sexual-abuse-investigation-e0e39cf9aa4fbe0d8c1442033b894660).
The editorial board of the Washington Post published their concerns about the need to do more for the safety of children in the LDS church. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/08/10/mormon-church-child-sexual-abuse/)
A follow up on the case was published on August 18th by Michael Rezendes (https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/judge-limits-privilege-defense-in-az-mormon-sex-abuse-case/2022/08/18/22f77020-1f15-11ed-9ce6-68253bd31864_story.html)
Mr. Rezendes, it should be noted, received a Pulitzer Prize in journalism for his reporting and work on the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal.
The Church has responded to both articles (not the editorial board piece). You can read their responses here: https://www.deseret.com/faith/2022/8/5/23293667/arizona-sex-abuse-church-responds-to-ap-story-latter-day-saints-mormon-hot-line-coverup
A few important notes.
Anytime children are harmed, high emotions get involved, and rightly so. Focus should be, primarily, on the victims and getting them the help and healing tools to increase their safety. The next focus should be on creating system solutions to decrease the likelihood of this issue repeating itself.
The helpline may have been initially created to aid in reporting, and many may have had a positive experience with it. This is a valid experience for those who share it. It is also created situations, intentionally or unintentionally, where harm has been done. Both these things can be true at the same time, and do not cancel each other out. Listening to the experiences of those who have been harmed is essential to improving outcomes for victims.
How we respond when given feedback communicates something important to those around us. It is hard to receive feedback that something we are doing isn't working, especially when we have the best intentions. However, attacking the person providing the feedback does little to instill confidence in the organization. It communicates that we value being nice over doing the right thing. Instead, taking feedback and responding with concrete changes increases confidence in an organization.
Mr. Rezendes is not the first person to express concerns over the way the way victims can be harmed by the institutional response to sexual abuse. These concerns have been expressed by those within the pews for some time. However, when members organized to compile case reports and issues with child sexual abuse in the 1990's in an organization called "The Mormon Alliance," a number of people involved were publicly excommunicated for apostasy. Those speaking up have made some advances and some changes, such policy changes for primary teachers, the Church's training on handling sexual abuse, and the institution of the helpline itself. However, had the church listened to those with concerns from within the organization, and made structural and systemic changes, it may have been able to avoid this situation entirely.
Rather than pick a fight with the Associated Press, I wish the Church instead focused on identifying vulnerable points within the organization and developing creative solutions to these complex problems. This does not need to be cast as an attack on the Church, or on individuals within the faith. It can be viewed as an opportunity to improve, increase safety and adjusting policies.
The CDC has published guidelines and resources for organizations looking to prevent child sexual abuse, and improve their response to it. Their publication is here: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/preventingchildsexualabuse-a.pdf
Looking through the suggestions, I can see a few simple things that potentially could significantly improve safety for the organization as a whole.
Background checks for all adults who work with youth.
Clearly communicating policy that anyone with a past issue of harming children should not be put in future positions of working with children, regardless of where they are at in the repentance process.
This is supported by LDS scripture, as illustrated in the story of the Anti-Nephi-Lehi's who, after having a history of violence, renounce their weapons of war, bury them in the earth and never touch them again. Full repentance does not need to include ongoing exposure triggers.
Limitations and restrictions on participation for those with a history of harming children. Excommunication does not prevent access to children by itself, except in formal callings. Additional limitations may be needed, such as prohibition on being in the church building on weekdays during children and adolescent programs, or creating a supervision while being in the church building may be more effective.
Better education about appropriate and inappropriate boundaries. If we don't know what to look for as warning signs, then it is unlikely that we'll be able to recognize abuse in our community even if it is happening in front of us.
These are complex issues, and they are issues that all organizations face. Child sexual abuse is an issue that effects a large variety of communities, faiths, traditions and cultures. Talking about it in the LDS context is not an attack on the faith or on the community.
As a therapist focused on trauma work, I don’t need or expect perfection from the LDS Church. What I want to see is willingness to put reputation aside for the priority of safety, and evidence of a willingness to do better. Our children deserve protection, and anything preventing that needs to be set aside until all our children are safe.