TW: Sexual abuse, ecclesiastical abuse
This morning the LDS Newsroom released a statement regarding its effectiveness of preventing child sexual abuse.
The statement includes:
“The Church has long had a highly effective approach for preventing and responding to abuse. In fact, no religious organization has done more. Although no one system is perfect and no single program will work with every organization, the Church’s approach is the gold standard.”
My initial reaction on reading this is surprise at the willful ignorance of how other churches in the United States operate. Based on my own experience attending the local congregation of the United Church of Christ (UCC), I found that other churches do background checks (not required for LDS leaders of children outside Boy Scouts) and hire professional childcare workers to watch over children. There is an outdoor playground structure with visibility. Furthermore, there is a corner of the sanctuary/chapel with beanbags, books, and crayons so that parents can have their children with them at all times. Not only is this safer, but it’s more welcoming to families like mine with small children.
But digging deeper into the assertion that the LDS Church has the “gold standard” on preventing abuse, I have to stand in amazement at the chutzpah in stating so. Take into account one common practice: closed-door interviews between untrained, lay clergy and children as young as eight years old. In my LDS upbringing in Utah, these “chastity interviews.” as they were called by my bishopric, were conducted every six months between the ages of 12 and 18. I and my fellow youth were interviewed by the bishop or one of his counselors about our adherence to the law of chastity. The leader may feel inclined to define chastity further in these interviews and question the youth about genital exploration or self-arousal and romantic and sexual practices with others. This created a norm beginning in the sixth grade for children to talk to untrained older men about sexual practices, a type of behavior that is grooming the child for abuse.
This predatory grooming behavior of interviewing children about sex behind closed doors is alarming. Minors (age 18 and under in Utah) cannot legally consent to sex. Because all sexual relations under the age of 18 are defined as non-consensual under the law, chastity interviews are completely inappropriate screenings of the sexual experiences of children. They are also ineffective for detecting any sexual abuse experienced by the child interviewed as they violate protocol for how trained professionals interview children where suspected abuse has taken place, including side-by-side positioning and placing the child in a higher position than the interviewer. The clergy member, attired in business uniform and sitting across a desk creates a physical position of power, which can convey a feeling of shame to the interviewee, even one who has very little sexual experience to discuss with this lay leader.
If we are serious about protecting children from abuse, we must stop all private interviews of minors by lay clergy behind closed doors. As members, we must demand that the Church stop interviewing children about their inherently non-consensual sexual experiences and mandating repentance. This is abuse in itself, which means that every child member who has been asked about sex/chastity/virtue/masturbation alone behind closed doors by untrained lay clergy has been a victim of both ecclesiastical and sexual abuse due to the questions asked, the power dynamic at play, the age of the child and legal definitions of age of consent, and the public and social consequences of not submitting to interviews, including missing out on youth temple trips and social events requiring these interviews and a limited use temple recommend. The majority of our teenage children are victims of this common practice, as are many adults who were children of record who experienced this as legal minors.
As I reflect on my own experiences in light of this morning’s statement, I’m nothing but sick considering the scale and harm of this practice.