This Must Stop: A Call to End Sexually Invasive Interviews Between Priesthood Leaders and Minors in the LDS Church

TRIGGER WARNING: sexual and spiritual abuse

When I was 13-years-old, I was violated in a very personal way.  A middle-aged man from my neighborhood pulled me aside, brought me into a private room, and asked me explicit sexual questions. It was a traumatic experience. It triggered severe anxiety, and I spent the next 15 years worried that something like that might happen to me again.  I developed obsessive-compulsive rituals to avoid finding myself back in such a situation.  I internalized a tremendous amount of shame from the experience and struggled with feelings of self-loathing.

For many years, I had no idea that what had happened to me was wrong.  My culture, and even my family, made me feel that such an experience was normal and acceptable.

You see, I was at church, in my bishop’s office, when I had this experience.

It is very difficult to speak of such a tender subject.  It goes against several taboos.  It opens up a very private, personal experience–one from which I have largely healed, thanks to excellent counseling and by the grace of God–but it’s not something that I like to revisit regularly.

But for several months now, I’ve felt as though I should speak up about what happened to me and advocate for other children who might be in a similar position.  I want to encourage parents to set boundaries to protect their kids.  I hope our LDS community will demand change so that the frequency of these situations can be diminished.

A Common Problem

I’m not sure if this is still the case, but when I was growing up, youth aged 12-18 were interviewed by the bishop or one of his counselors every six months.  They’d bring us into an office and ask how we were doing.  On one particular occasion, my bishop deviated from the standard “script” and took the opportunity to ask very inappropriate questions.

I’m not sure why he did it.  It could have been for perverted reasons.  Part of me wants to paint him this way because it’s less complicated.  But I actually believe he did it because he thought he was being helpful.  Because he genuinely believed it was his role as bishop.  Because he had been raised in a tradition that has some very unhealthy notions about sexuality, stewardship, and worthiness.

Unfortunately, this was not the only time it happened.  Throughout my years as a teenager and young single adult, I had at least two other experiences where priesthood leaders asked very explicit questions.  Each time it was disconcerting and stressful. I’ve heard of similar things happening to others.  This makes me believe that it’s a relatively widespread problem–one that we simply must correct.  It’s not necessary, acceptable, or even understandable.

It’s abusive.  

Confession Must Be Voluntary

As far as I can tell, the “logic” behind the practice of conducting regular interviews is to encourage confession of sin.  And certainly, confession is a Christian principle.  It is the acknowledgment of wrongdoing and the fruit of a repentant heart.  Scripture has several injunctions to confess, including 1 John 1:9 (“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”), James 5:16 (“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you might be healed”), and Proverbs 28:13 (“Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy”).

Most Christians view confession as a private affair; you confess your sins to God in prayer and to those whom you have wronged.  Some groups include confession to a leader or small group.  There are a few Christian congregations that practice public confession–that of naming your sins out loud to everyone.  Mormons practice a blend of the first two: for the most part you confess your sins to God in prayer, but some sins are deemed “bad enough” that they require confession to an ecclesiastical leader.  Included in this “extra bad” category are certain types of sexual sins.

I have serious reservations about the idea that some sins are “worse” than others in the first place, and the reservations are compounded when we’re speaking about sexuality.  If we’re going to “rank” sins at all, I believe that sexual sins are probably less serious than what C.S. Lewis called “diabolical vices”–sins that rise from hatred or hardness of heart as opposed to passion or weakness of flesh.  I see nothing in scripture, ancient or modern, that supports the categorization we currently use, and I pray we do away with it.

But even granting that it is legitimate to require special confession to ecclesiastical leaders for certain types of sin, such confession must be offered voluntarily and not coerced in any way.  Asking graphic, probing questions in an attempt to elicit confession is anathema to the spirit of repentance.  There is absolutely no theological justification for such invasive interrogations.

Protecting Minors

Even more problematic is that these interviews take place between authority figures and minors, behind closed doors, without parents or witnesses present.  It’s one thing for two adults to be sitting across from one another. It’s entirely another to put minor children in this situation, especially in light of the fact that LDS bishops are volunteers with no training in pastoral care or counseling. Even though I’m sure that in a majority of cases, bishops aren’t asking graphic questions (or worse!), is it worth the risk?  It’s a set-up that makes abuse extremely easy to perpetrate.  There is no other context where this would be acceptable–not in school, scouting, extra-curricular activities, or even at the doctor’s office (a nurse always comes in when I’m getting a breast exam, for example).  It’s just too dangerous.

Further, sexuality in minors is the purview of parents.  I don’t want an untrained neighbor, who might have ideas and beliefs about sexuality that are diametrically opposed to mine, using his authority to co-opt conversations that should be happening at home.  If youth approach trusted leaders of their own accord to address questions or problems they are having about sexuality, that may be acceptable if the conversation remains respectful and careful, with proper regard for boundaries.  But there is no situation in which it is appropriate for leaders to “take matters into their own hands” and initiate these conversations. We have an obligation to protect our children from such egregious violations of their privacy and abuse of authority.

A Call for Change

With these things in mind, I call on the LDS Church to take fast action to protect children and minimize the instances of ecclesiastical and sexual abuse.   Suggestions for change include…

  • Explicit instruction to bishops to avoid questioning minors about sexuality.
  • Extensive training on how to deal with reported incidents of sexual abuse or activity in minors, including protocols on when to notify authorities, parents/guardians, and/or refer out to therapists or other trained professionals.
  • “Two-deep” interviews, so that minors and priesthood leaders are never alone in a room together.
  • Re-examination of teachings and policies that require special confession for sexual sins in light of scripture, the Holy Spirit, and the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Setting Boundaries

Until the church makes policy changes to protect minors from ecclesiastical abuse, it’s up to parents and concerned leaders to do so.  Here are some practical things we can do to set boundaries and prevent this practice from damaging our children.

1) Insist on being present in interviews.  It’s a no-brainer that “two-deep” interviews should be standard policy, but until such time as it occurs, parents can create a safer environment by insisting on being present in any interviews that occur.  The policy in our family is: there will be no interviews between priesthood leaders and our children unless we are present, period

2) Teach children principles of sexual agency.  Help children protect themselves by teaching them that their bodies belong to them and no one else.  Teach them that no one has the right to ask them intimate questions about their bodies, genitals, masturbatory practices, or personal relationships.  Teach them it’s okay to say, “No, I won’t answer that; it’s none of your business.”  Stand by them if there are repercussions by domineering priesthood leaders who withhold access to religious ceremonies and rights of passage as a result of children’s refusal to compromise their sexual agency.

3) Foster a healthy questioning of authority.  This problem exists in the church because no one has thought to question the practice in the first place; it’s simply “what we do.”  Teach children that as they mature, their objective is to internalize their own spiritual authority and stand before God as fully actualized spiritual agents.  Let them know that it’s healthy and important to question what they’ve been taught and come to their own conclusions.

Conclusion

Christ said: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:5-6).

It’s time to cast this millstone off.  We cannot claim to be Christ’s people while we tolerate and perpetuate practices that harm children.

This simply must stop.