A bishop once advised me, (paraphrased) “Churches are public places. You never know who is in your congregation. I do. Never let your children go the bathroom or walk the halls alone.”
A few years later, I sat in a special ward meeting, befuddled as an angry, frightened audience grilled leaders with questions about why they weren’t warned about a convicted sex offender in their midst; why he was allowed to work with youth; and how he victimized more children under their watch.
These experiences made me a cautious parent. My small ward would tease me as a young mom when I would nervously look around for my kids at an activity or potluck. You could hear me calling their names in the hallways if one ran off on their own. I wasn’t trying to be paranoid and I really did feel comfortable with my fellow ward members. I did, however, want to normalize precautions to safeguard my children against abuse.
Today, I listen to primary teachers and leaders stress over the requirement to have two adults in every room, every car, and every activity. Doubling the number of teachers required for each primary class is an enormous ask. It places a special responsibility on the congregation to recognize their role in protecting the ward’s children and creating a safe environment.
This requirement also prioritizes primary in a way some adults may not be comfortable with. Some (rightly) claim that most adults won’t abuse children. In many situations, the one adult working alone with children is safe. Requiring two adults when working with children, however, is proactive and preventative, rather than reactive. It’s a safeguard in place to protect children; not a nuisance; not living in fear; not an overreaction.
Five years ago, I watched the film “Spotlight” and began seeking more information on protecting children from abuse. Consequently, I wrote a post on my personal blog that outlines important ways to talk to our children and to organizations about abuse. Just last week, I read the AP article about abuse and the LDS Church. As a result, I want to re-publish my post because it addresses many concerns that are still relevant today.
Original Blog Post from 2016:
After Watching Spotlight, I just kept thinking, We need to talk about sexual abuse. We need to stop whispering, wondering, or tip-toeing. We need to stop worrying that someone will see insinuation where there is none or that we will unnecessarily scare our children. It’s time to talk about sexual abuse and I am starting today.
KNOW THE FACTS ABOUT SEXUAL ABUSE
There are 42 million survivors of child sexual abuse in the United States alone.*
As the victims of the abuse scandal in Spotlight told of their abuse, familiar themes kept coming to light. Vulnerable kids were targeted by men in positions of authority. Most children remained silent. When they told an adult, the system often convinced their parents to remain silent. Victims felt responsibility and shame.
One in 10 children will be sexually abused by age 18.*
If we want these statistics to change, we have to talk about sexual abuse and be willing to speak up for practices and policies that protect our kids. While one-on-one relationships with adults and older children are valuable, they do not need to be built in private, behind closed doors, or in cars.
81% of child sexual abuse incidents for all ages occur in one-perpetrator/one-child circumstances.*
*Statistics are from Darkness to Light.
TALK ABOUT SEXUAL ABUSE WITH YOUR KIDS
Of children who are sexually abused, 20% are abused before the age of 8.*
Protecting our kids against sexual abuse begins early on in simple, age-appropriate ways. Talk openly with your children about their bodies and about sexuality and boundaries. Robie H. Harris books offer thoughtful, engaging, age-appropriate ways to start these conversations.
Here are 5 important conversation starters.
- Talk About Boundaries. I ask my 4 year-old son if he would like a hug, a kiss, or a high-five. I’ve done this with him since he was old enough to understand. Sometimes he says “yes” and other times he says, “No, thanks.” This may seem strange, but it’s my way of showing him that he has control over his body, who touches him, and how he is touched. There are many ways to introduce boundaries with your children, but the goal is to help them understand bodily autonomy.
- Question Authority. Absolute trust and obedience to authority was one of the most frightening revelations in Spotlight, in my opinion. Men in positions of authority groomed vulnerable children and took advantage of their status in the community. Our children need to know that authority figures are not immune from the word “no” and that it is their responsibility to protect children, never to hurt them. If an authority figure is behaving in a way that makes your child uncomfortable, they need to know they can walk or run away with your unconditional support.
- Use Proper Names for Body Parts. Kids need to gain confidence in their bodies. What better way than by learning about how their amazing body works and why? Use age appropriate materials to talk to your children about their bodies and always use anatomically correct names for private parts. You should also talk to your kids about sex and invite dialogue as they grow. Kids who are comfortable talking about their bodies and asking their parents questions about sex have essential tools to resist grooming by predators.
- No One Can Touch Your Private Parts Without Permission. Every once in awhile, I will bring up appropriate touching with my kids. It might happen at bed time, bath time, during diaper changes, or when we’re headed to the doctor. These are natural times to talk about private areas and clear boundaries around touching. We discuss how all body parts are good, but some are private. We also talk about how children should not touch each other’s body parts, even in play.
- Everyone is Included. About 60% of children who are sexually abused are abused by the people the family trusts.* We don’t want our children to be afraid of everyone around them, but they need to know that sexual activity between an adult and child is against the rules/law and that no one is allowed to make them feel icky about their body, show them nude photos, or touch their private parts. Not grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, parents, teachers, coaches, pastors, etc. Emphasize to your child, You will never be in trouble. You can always tell me. You can do so knowing that false reports of sexual abuse by children are rare.*
*Statistics are from Darkness to Light.
TALK ABOUT SEXUAL ABUSE WITHIN ORGANIZATIONS
8 out of 10 children who are sexually abused know their abusers.**
Spotlight encouraged me to take a long, hard look at the organizations my children participate in. Our church organization feels especially vulnerable. While I am not suspicious of any people in particular, I am weary of lax or non-existent volunteer checks, a lack of 2 adults at every occasion, and ecclesiastical interviews that leave children alone with an adult.
It might feel uncomfortable to challenge a system that places children in private with people in positions of authority – coaches, teachers, ecclesiastical leaders, troop leaders – most especially when they are volunteers, friends, and even relatives. We need to get past that discomfort to create safe, healthy spaces for our kids.
Nearly 70% of all reported sexual assaults (including assaults on adults) occur to children aged 17 and under.*
Darkness to Light has a wealth of resources for organizations that serve children and youth. Familiarize yourself with these resources and ask all organizations that serve your children what policies they have in place around sexual abuse. Some suggestions include:
- Minimize Opportunity. We need to demand that organizations – churches, schools, youth groups, sports clubs – eliminate or significantly reduce one-on-one time between adults and children. Organizations must take important steps through policies, training, and implementation to minimize the opportunities for abusers to gain one-on-one access to our children.
- Unscheduled Drop Ins. Drop in unexpectedly on any situation where an adult or older child might be alone with a child. This includes arriving home to a babysitter at an unexpected time.
- Appropriate Supervision. Ensure that there is appropriate supervision for adults and youth working with children.
- Open Door Policy. There is very little need for an adult to be in a closed, let alone locked, room with a child. If privacy is required, is there a window and regular check ups by supervisors? Can the door remain ajar? Is someone checking in unexpectedly? Can a second adult accompany the child?
- Choose Groups. Choose group activities, whenever possible. There is safety in numbers.
- Training. Are volunteers and staff trained to see warning signs, recognize abuse, talk to children about abuse, and appropriately report? If not, what is the organization doing to change this and when?
*Statistics are from Darkness to Light.
** Statistic is from Parents Protect.
THE GOOD NEWS
The good news is that you are not alone. Many parents, educators, coaches, and leaders in your community are equally concerned about protecting children from sexual abuse. Start a conversation and invite people to act.
Thank you for reposting this and thank you for your time and research. There are three things I would like to mention that concern me in our Latter-day Saint culture. One is fading away, but was very prominent when I was growing up. It used to be taught in classes, from the pulpit and in print: “Always do what your priesthood leader tells you to, and even if it’s wrong you will be blessed for doing it.” That is one of most damaging and dangerous things the church has ever taught. Thankfully, it’s not being said much anymore, but by teaching that, the church was doing a lot of the ground work for abusers of every kind.
The second thing that concerns me is still being said; I hear it multiple times every fast Sunday: “I know this is the only true church.” Please don’t lecture me on what that technically means, (all the ordinances, proper authority, etc.) what it means to a child is no other church is of value, all other churches are false, our church and everything and everyone in it is true and wonderful, and therefore trustworthy. All social statistic, divorce, abuse, crime, suicide, etc., apply equally to Latter-day Saints; we are not better than everyone else.
The third common teaching is: “Don’t speak ill of your priesthood leaders.” This teaches children (and adults) that we cannot speak up or defend ourselves when we are feeling uncomfortable about the behavior of a leader.
We need to stop teaching the unholy trinity of abuse:
1. “Do whatever your priesthood leader tells you to, and even if it’s wrong you’ll be blessed for doing it.”
2. “This is the only true church.”
3. “Don’t speak ill of your priesthood leaders.”
‘The unholy trinity of abuse.’ Thank you for naming this. All three of those things make me super squeamish.
Thank you for writing this. When my daughters joined Girl Scouts a few years ago it was eye opening for me to see how much more seriously they take safety of all sorts than the church does. The church line of ‘trust us’ never felt great. However, I didn’t know until I had a different experience what truly protecting those in an organization’s care actually looked liked. At least in the US, background checks would be an easy step for people asked to work with kids and teens. Also decent training for bishops. Actually, rather than trying to modify the current system, let’s burn it to the ground to start fresh with an administrative structure built around protecting the vulnerable.
One item that I suddenly thought of while writing this – why is a solid door or a door with a teeny tiny window the standard for church buildings? Why not a door that is full glass or half-glass? It takes away the secrecy aspect. Even as an adult I doubt I will ever sit alone in a classroom with another person – male or female – because of too many bad experiences in the past.
Yes, a glass door would eliminate secrecy but I can’t imagine trying to teach a class of kids that are distracted by every person that walks down the hall. I am in primary now and I love having two teachers in the room, for back up if nothing else. Think that is a good safeguard.
Thank for sharing this. I vividly remember myself being abused by an adult man at seven years old in the dark chapel overflow after the three hour block. That’s something that I carry as a constant reminder because the church held a “trust us with everything” mentality. I hope your article saves some poor child the same fate that occurred to me.
Please watch your children and keep them close. Just because someone believes the same things you do, doesn’t mean they aren’t a danger to your children.
Some friends and I were just speaking about how all this proactive protection feels pretty useless when even when we know about abuse we do the minimum required by the law to stop it. Rather than ask, “do I HAVE to report this?” Why aren’t people asking, “how do we make sure the most vulnerable people in this scenario are protected?” And if a child is being abused you better believe the spouse probably is as well, or has a history of abuse themselves, so don’t expect them to stop something they clearly weren’t able to prevent in the first place.
Thank you for writing this. I really liked the 5 conversation starters you included here. It’s important for children and teenagers to understand that their bodies are their own. They’re allowed to have boundaries and have every right to speak up when they feel unsafe. I also agree it’s important for children to know the proper names and terminology of body parts; using euphemisms and “kiddie names” for body parts is asking for trouble and makes children and even teenagers more vulnerable to abuse.