The Confession

By Elisabeth

For my first post (hi!), I’d like to continue the discussion started by Jessawhy’s excellent post about the appropriate role for confession of sexual sins in Church, particularly regarding young adults.

The Confession
The Confession, by Pietro Longhi


Even though I was lucky enough to have supportive youth leaders and bishops as I grew up, I dreaded the semi-annual worthiness interviews, and the bishopric interviews before we went on temple trips to do baptisms for the dead.  I dreaded these interviews because (1) I felt uncomfortable being in a room as the sole center of someone else’s attention and scrutiny, and (2) I never had anything interesting to confess. I felt really awkward answering the vague questions about being “morally clean”, as the bishop peered at me intently, expectantly. I always felt I was disappointing him by not coming up with at least something for him to counsel me about.

Except once. The Young Women and Young Men had just come back from an awesome “Super Activity” trip to Yellowstone, and some of the youth had used NoDoz to stay awake goofing off and talking all night.

I, not being part of the cool crowd, did not partake in the NoDoz binge, but the YM leaders got wind of it and we were all hauled into the bishop’s office one by one to discuss the incident. (as a side note, wouldn’t it be nice if teen experimentation started and ended with NoDoz?)

Again, I had nothing to confess. But this time, the bishop kept asking me the same questions over and over again about how much NoDoz did I take, and didn’t I realize that taking caffeine pills to stay awake was dangerous, and I soon got the feeling that he didn’t believe me. Maybe he had never believed me.

So, confused and upset, I eventually admitted to taking a NoDoz, even when I hadn’t. This seemed to satisfy him, however, his mood immediately lightened and he told me that he cared about me and wanted me to be happy and keep the commandments, and that I should try just a little harder to resist temptation.

Recalling this incident worries me about the personal worthiness interviews for my child(ren). I checked out the Church Handbook of Instructions, and it’s fairly vague about what bishops are supposed to ask during these interviews, particularly about sensitive topics such as sexual behavior.

The CHI says:

When discussing moral cleanliness, the bishop adapts the discussion to the understanding of the youth. He also ensures that the discussion does not arouse curiosity or experimentation.

It seems that there is a lot of leeway for inappropriate lines of questioning. Because the CHI provides very little guidance to bishops here, it depends on the individual bishop to determine the specific questions he asks during youth interviews. I’m assuming boys get more questions about their sexual behavior, but I could be wrong.

Looking back, however, it seems to me that many of these interviews with the bishop were about asserting control and consolidating authority.

What do you think about the relationship of the bishop to the youth of the Church? Would you encourage your children to confess to the bishop? Do you think it’s important to have another adult in the room?


  1. this is a very sensitive subject in my house.

    my husband and i have decided that when our children are old enough for these worthiness interviews, either he or i will be present as well. i have never had a questionable experience in this realm, but my husband has had several–including very detailed questions asked by a priesthood leader about masturbation and other sexual acts. things my husband was not comfortable answering. questions that are not listed for bishops to ask.

    i also had a friend who was sexually harrassed by a bishop when she went in to confess. as a result of that single experience she is no longer active in the church.

    the truth is that i believe the majority of the time there probably isn’t anything objectionable going on in these interviews. but the risk is that something extremely inappropriate could be. just like i wouldn’t leave my child alone with a babysitter i didn’t really know so well, i wouldn’t leave my child alone with a priesthood leader i didn’t know so well.

    even bishops have the potential to be abusive.

  2. I’m going to focus more specifically on sexuality (and boys do, or at least did, get asked specifically about masturbation). In our last couple of years of activity in the church, Jana and I taught our children that as adolescents, no Church leader had any right to pry into their sexual lives, and that this was information they should keep private.

    Now that I have some distance from the Church, this whole adult men questioning adolescents about their sex lives in particular seems really freaky to me. I can understand youth wanting to confide in and seek counsel from trusted adults other than their parents, but the air of religious coercion and authority that surrounds these interviews only exacerbates and perpetuates unhealthy attitudes towards sexuality.

  3. A post close to my heart!

    I’ve thought a lot about this, and I’m particularly concerned for my son. I don’t want the bish asking invasive questions about masturbation. So, my plan is to have an appointment with the bish before the interview to find out exactly what questions he will be asking. I will tell him that I feel it is inappropriate for a stranger to be asking him about masturbation, so please refrain. I will then tell him that my child has been instructed to not answer any questions about masturbation.

    Hopefully that will head off any potential problems. I’ll also talk to my children beforehand to tell them they should feel free to refuse to answer any questions they feel are inappropriate. I’d also be willing to be there with them during the interview, if they’d like that.

  4. I was under the impression that the interviewing instructions specifically stated NOT to deviate from the scripted temple recommend interview questions, except for highly unusual circumstances. Even then, I understand that confession of specifics is still inappropriate. Am I wrong in remembering these instructions in the CHI?

    I have familiarized myself with the temple recommend questions, and if a bishop asks anything unscripted, i call him on it (respectfully, of course). Depending on the age of the children, it may be appropriate to give the kids the list of recommend questions with the instructions not to answer questions not on the list.

    That being said, interviews should also be times for youth to discuss whatever they feel like with the bishop, who is hopefully sensitive and wise.

  5. Great first post Elisabeth!

    As a young teen I felt very uncomfortable in Bishop’s interviews. At the time I attributed my discomfort to feeling guilty about my behavior. Now I think much of my discomfort came from having to discuss such personal issues with a stranger, in particular because it was always a male stranger. I had similar anxieties when I needed to discuss my periods with a physician, or even when I was shopping for tampons or bras. But because I wasn’t aware of the source of the anxiety (that it had nothing to do with sinfulness, but was the product of being highly uncomfortable discussing my body) interviews simply reinforced my feelings of guilt and shame.

    Your experience with your bishop shows that he had some preconceived ideas about you that were wrong. I wonder how many bishops have had ideas like that about sins more serious than NoDoz. And what might that do to the esteem of a young girl who is already feeling horribly guilty about even being in such uncomfortable circumstances? Or how might that affect a bishop’s choice about a young man’s worthiness for a mission or a single woman’s opportunity to take out her endowment?

  6. I had several interviews with several bishops as a teenager, and I can’t recall ever being asked a question that had anything to do with sex. Never. Once one of them asked if I was dating anyone, but the only follow-up question was whether he was LDS (he wasn’t–and even that, apparently, did not merit a follow-up).

    I must say, I only had very non-creepy bishops. I suppose I got lucky. (In the non-sexual way, of course.)

  7. I have mixed feelings about the relationship of the bishop with youth. Overall I had a very good experience with bishops and felt like their personal interest in my life was needed since my parents so clearly were not.

    However, I am very concerned about how my children will interact with bishops as they become “Young Women”.

    My sister was repeatedly sexually abused by a male peer in high school. Cops should have been called. Instead, my sister’s bishop forced her to sit directly in front of him, knees-to-knees with him, and repeat over and over again what this boy had done to her. My husband’s evaluation is that the only reason the bishop would do this is because he was *enjoying* it. Disgusted, I agree.

    I am terrified for my children, but I will also, after a healthy discussion of bishops not always acting appropriately, let them decide how involved they want me to be.

  8. Why can’t females confess to the Relief Society President?
    There is no equivalent for males to confess sexual sins to females. I think that would change a lot of things. This is extremely hard, especially with people with past sexual abuse histories.

  9. umm…Well, I personally think it’d be a lot better to confess to Jesus because I’m pretty sure he has no power trip/ego/male dominance issues. This is unfortunately, something SOME Bishops DO have. Yes, it’s unfortunate, but it’s a reality.

    It’s also a reality that some Bishops DO in fact deviate from the standard questions they are ‘supposed’ to ask for temple recommend interviews.

    I did not know this as a young woman, confessing, and unfortunately was asked extremely graphic questions by a Bishop while at BYU. It was so awkward and an extremely humiliating experience- but at the time I didn’t know he was crossing his line. I can’t go back and change it, but I can be sure to educate my children as to what is and is not appropriate.

    I also strongly support the idea of females ‘repenting’ to females.

  10. Welcome to Exponent, ECS!
    We’re so glad to have you.
    This is a great topic, and one I have thought about more recently.
    Sometimes I think male leaders may be nicer to girls than boys. I wonder if female leaders would be less sensitive to girls. I suppose it would all depend on the specific leader, too.

  11. You’ve got to watch out for that NoDoz, Elisabeth. It’s a short, slippery slope from there to heroin and a wasted life on the streets. Oh, that terrible little pill, and the wrecked lives it leaves in its wake. 😛

    So — nice post. I agree, there are all sorts of questions that the whole interview process brings up. The power differential is huge, and people in conversation with a church leader — especially young teens — have vastly unequal status in the conversation. It’s awfully easy for a bishop to think that he knows the answer, and to be wrong. (Such as with your NoDoz.)

    In the context of sex discussions, such errors are very potentially harmful. What would have happened if this bishop had taken such an uninspired approach there. A yes-no question becomes a farce; answering no is simply proof that you’re lying.

    The church does not have accountability for local leaders, and so the whole interview system is very problematic. I’m planning on taking an approach a lot like John.

  12. I’ve been questioning this a lot. I have even gone into deep discussion with many friends who wouldn’t read an exponent post. If you are interested in it, you can go here:

    But, here are some of my thoughts, forgive me if I get wordy:

    Many religions, throughout history, have required the confession. When a member of a the Catholic faith or LDS faith commit larger sins, they are required to confess these sins to one in authority. The person is generally male (in the LDS religion it is ALWAYS a man) and this person is supposed to act as an agent of God to work on getting the person forgiven. I am not sure how the confession process works in other religions, like Baptist or Methodist. Is there a method of confessing?

    Confession is called the “Sacrament of Penance” as:
    1. the recipient must be truly repentant of their sins
    2. be determined to avoid these sins in the future
    3. be willing to make reparations to any parties injured

    I believe that confession has been used for hundreds of years as a way to protect and enforce orthodox belief and practice. And the churches today have several methods for insuring adherence to orthodox belief– excommunications, ecclesiastical courts, public expiation…and I have been wondering this week if this is simply cultivating within us a culture of guilt.

    A question I have been thinking about this week is “why confess to a man you may not know, instead of to God directly?”

    And what is the purpose of confession?

    Have you found that when you confess something you feel better? Is a weight lifted? Does it purge your soul?

    For me, I’ve come to find out that I don’t need that confessional with the Bishop. When I pray directly to God and talk to him I feel better. The LDS church doesn’t agree with me on this, and I no longer take their sacrament or go to their temple (though I was “worthy” to do so for a decade). But somehow I feel more at peace than I did before.

  13. King of Texas (I’m assuming that you’re male in my response): Would you feel any discomfort in having your TR interviews with a woman? What if you needed to go into some detail about a personal medical situation where you couldn’t wear your garments or about being a victim of sexual abuse? Can you imagine a situation where you would be uncomfortable with your sister/wife/daughter discussing her sexuality with her bishop?

  14. Hi, Elisabeth! This is an interesting topic. What a funny (and also sad) story!

    I think it’s important to teach kids that they shouldn’t do anything that makes them uncomfortable just because someone claims to be God’s spokesperson–and that includes discussing topics they’re uncomfortable discussing. We set up a situation that’s ripe for abuse of various kinds when we hand the social weight of God’s Unswerving Authority to usually well-intentioned but all too fallible humans.

    But I also think youth need their privacy, and it’s helpful for them to interact with other adults outside their parents’ ken, so I don’t think having parents tag along is the solution.

  15. Thanks so much for the welcome and comments, it’s
    great to be here!

    I didn’t write this in my original post, but Jana
    brought up how the bishop’s own prejudices about
    you may color his ability to objectively listen
    to your “confession”. Even though I was known
    as sort of difficult, because I’d ask questions and
    complain when the YW had to do yet another service
    project for their activity, while the YM took
    a trip to Lake Powell, I lived the standards of the
    Church (no drinking, smoking, sex, etc.) and plaed b the
    rules. I wonder whether the bishop thought that I
    was a hiding something from him during
    our interviews because I was vocal and
    assertive and didn’t quite fit the stereotype of
    the demure, submissive young woman.

    SingleSpeed – the bishop can ask pretty much
    any question he wants to ask during youth
    interviews, but I’ve heard that bishops are
    supposed to stick to the script for temple
    recommend interviews. Which is why (like Kaimi,
    Caroline, and other commenters) I’m a bit
    worried about trusting the discretion of local
    leaders in not prying and asking intrusive questions
    of the youth.

    On the other hand, madhousewife’s experience is
    fairly common, I think. Quite a few of my friends
    (all women – haven’t asked the men), said their
    bishops never asked them anything beyond the stock
    question of “are you morally clean”.

    And K makes a good point that it can be
    beneficial for young adults to trust adults
    other than their parents. I guess I’d prefer
    my son come to me or my spouse instead with any
    issues he might be struggling with.

    I enjoyed reading D’Arcy’s comment about the purpose
    of confession. I’ve never felt particularly
    liberated after confessing, but confession of
    our sins is a major tenet of most religions.
    I think it might make confession a bit more
    comfortable if you could confess to someone
    through a curtain instead of sitting on a chair
    directly in front of the Church authority – interrogation

  16. Some singles’ ward bishops treat singles like adolescents, asking the same intrusive personal questions of them, such as “Do you masturbate?” or even “When was the last time…?”

    Even in temple recommend interviews, bishops sometimes expand the Law of Chastity definition and pointedly ask singles whether they do. This is inappropriate on so many levels.

    I once had a roommate who fantasized about her (married) bishop, who was five years older than she was. Having him ask her about touching herself sexually didn’t help.

  17. So I know that we believe in confession, but we definitely don’t believe in it the way some others do (i.e. Catholics)

    I am always a little confused as to what needs confessing …

    murder or violent crime, definitely (and should coincide with legal recourse)

    physical or child abuse, definitely

    sexual sins, definitely maybe …

    rape – fits the category of above
    adultery – yes
    premarital sex – yes
    heavy petting – yes

    but I think it becomes a lot more unclear, with other actions that we also consider sins

    we need to reconcile ourselves with God, but I am wondering what everyone thinks is at the level of public confession, because most people don’t ever have to report the above big sins

    basically, I’d like to know how strictly people interrupt the law of chastity

  18. A question I have been thinking about this week is “why confess to a man you may not know, instead of to God directly?”

    My impression of the Bishop’s role in hearing confessions is that, when a sin is serious enough, the confessor may not be sensitive to personal revelation. So, while they are able to pray, they may be unable to feel the spirit in response to their prayers. In which case Bishop’s job isn’t so much to hear them talk about what the sin is, but to act as an intermediary- communicating to them those things that one would normally get from feeling the spirit.

    This fits with my personal experiences in having confessed to Bishops. Because of released bishops, moves, and whatnot I had the, uh, opportunity of counseling with four different bishops about the exact same thing. The most effective* bishops seemed to have nothing to say to me except to repeat how much Heavenly Father loved me, and wanted me to be happy. They hardly seemed to care at all what I was there for, one of them didn’t even want to know.

    *effective in this case meaning helping me change my behaviors.

  19. My view is that there can be no compulsion in this. Priesthood leaders ask some to the point yes and no questions concerning worthiness and invite their charges to discuss anything of concern to them, related to those questions or not. And, in addition, can certainly add any council they may genuinely feel is revealed to them. But they should not, even by subtle means, attempt to wring out a confession. As soon as that happens, if I understand the scriptures correctly, the necessary influence of the Holy Spirit will withdraw, and it will no longer be Priesthood leadership but management of another kind.

    ‘We’ve leaned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.’ That is, they will begin to attempt to compel obedience. (Though the majority of my experience with Priesthood leadership has been good – giving me space and promoting my well being.)


  20. Very great post and very similar to one I posted a few months ago called “Why do we have to meet with the Bishop to confess?” You can view it here:

    After reading through the scriptures, and as I point out in my post, there seems to be conflicting scripture on if it is even necessary to confess sins to a bishop at all.

    After reading the scriptures, I feel that sins are strictly between the individual and God. Bishops shouldn’t be the ones to determine if one has repented fully.
    If the individual feels they have been forgiven they shouldn’t have to let the bishop tell them if they are forgiven or not. The bishop should be there to help them if they are struggling, but not to grant forgiveness.

  21. It took me until I was 40something to finally confess sexual stuff done more than 20 years earlier. I just could NOT tell a man, a man I wasn’t that emotionally close to/safe with. I needed maturity, and distance from the behavior to feel I could have told it. It took a long time until I found a bishop I felt I could talk to. As it was, he did not ask for any specifics at all. I was prepared to go into gory detail, and told him so. He clearly did not want to hear it, and that made me feel a bit better about how he probably deals with the youth. I remember many times saying to a close friend that if I could just talk to the RS pres I’d make myself do it. And I had bishops (all except for one) who were not creepy at all. One of them was my dad. That was a bit awkward for him to separate the two roles.
    As a mother of two girls, I have thought about how to cope with this situation. I really like the idea of chatting with the bishop first to find exactly what will be asked. And I will tell my girls if they feel creeped out, they can just end the interview and come on out.
    I have felt guilty for so long that even now, when there’s nothing that needs to be confessed, that the feeling is still there when I meet with bishops/stake presidents.

  22. Welcome, Elisabeth!

    We have only begun to discuss sexuality as it pertains to raising our boys. I guess I had forgotten what a big role a bishop can play in this. Your post has sparked some important discussion in our household. Thanks!

  23. I had a bishop growing up that was notoriously prejudiced against and well, mean to teenagers. In my patriarchal blessing interview, he told me I dressed immodestly, pointing to the sleeveless dress I was wearing. The only response I could muster was “My mom bought me this dress.” I was humiliated. You could not have invented a more chaste, virtuous, lovely girl than I was, and I still didn’t escape his scrutiny. I only recently told my mom about this (15 years later) and she was furious. I suspect if she had it to do over, she would insist on sitting in with me. Interesting idea, because the unfortunate truth is, those bishops do exist.

  24. Hi Elizabeth! great post, kinda dragged a lot of my youth experiences back to me. I was always asked if I masterbated. by several bishops (I didn’t even know the first time what it was.) I thought it was standard question for the interview.

    Mostly, though, this brought up the experience that a close friend of mine had; when she was young, still too young to be in YW, her parents caught her masterbating and dragged her in to ‘confess’ to the bishop. I think she may have been 10 (?) and she was humiliated and terrified being alone in a room with this older man who was asking all sorts of questions about what exactly she had done (apperently he wanted some detail).

    I am stunned by the lack of discretion both on the part of her parents, and also the bishop.

  25. I was under the impression that the temple recommend interview questions had been standardized in order to curtail priesthood leaders’ tendency to freelance and ask about things they shouldn’t. If this is the case, then, it’s unfortunate that the wording of the CHI is so vague with regard to interviewing teens. I understand that the temple recommend interview is much more structured anyway, but it seems to me that it would be helpful if the CHI were more explicit in saying what kinds of things should or shouldn’t be asked.

    Regarding Kiskilili’s point about kids having adults to go to other than their parents, I completely agree. I figure my kids will eventually decide my wife and I are nuts, so it would be good if they knew youth leaders in the ward they could talk to, or (even better) aunts or uncles. Bishops seem like unlikely candidates to fill this role given the power differential that several people have already mentioned. You don’t confide in someone who can turn around and boot you out of the church.

  26. All my bishop interviews as a young woman were unremarkable. I cannot remember ever feeling uncomfortable. And when there was a sin I was struggling with the considerate message I got was that such was common and I should continue in my efforts to overcome it.

    Maybe because I grew up in a household of doctors with a mother who was passionately devoted to honesty and clarity I felt talking about sexual things only mildly awkward. So perhaps the solution is not so much to protect your children from the discomfort of discussions of sexual morality, but rather to raise them so that such discussions are familiar and they feel confident with them.

    Also,when our oldest son was a teenager and feeling unworthy to take the sacrament he found good help from our then bishop in getting back to a point where he was feeling more confident. I am grateful for that thoughtful, devoted bishop.

    In his case, a well-timed bishop’s interview was a help. So be careful that, in your zeal to protect your children, you do not shut a door that might be helpful left open down the road.

  27. While there are compassionate and careful bishops, the problem goes deeper that whether a single bishop in a room alone with a young woman or man will behave inappropriately or say the wrong thing.

    Where there are untrained (i.e. as to theology, psychology, counseling) lay ministers who rotate off every few years and are subsumed back into the body of the church, there are bound to be issues of privacy, propriety, breached confidences, knowing glances years later, kept or unkept secrets, etc.

    I’m still ashamed of things I discussed with bishops decades ago, and I believe this is part of the design: Church members are expected to consider the shame they will feel at having to sit before a “father of the ward” and confess something that may/may not have consequences on his/her membership later on.

    Unlike the Lord, the bishop will not “remember (sins) no more.” I think one should very carefully consider what is told to another member of the ward, even in “confidence.”

  28. I would like to put my two cents as one who had to go into detail with my priesthood leader regarding sexual activity. Personally, I did not find it offensive at all. Since most of us in our families are not so open & speak in detail regarding this topic, it is not surprising that many teenagers are clueless as to what constitutes a violation to the law of chastity.
    When I was in my mid-teens, I thought that I committed a sexual sin. So when I had my interview, I cried and was very remorseful. My priesthood leader inquired as to what I understood about the law of chastity & why I thought I violated it. I began telling him some details. He opened the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet (the old one) and began explaining things to me. I clearly remember that it mentioned masturbation ‘coz I had a copy of it in my wallet for years. I found out that I really did not sin but could lead to sin in what I was doing.
    You cannot imagine how much our youth need detailed and proper information in this information age. I cannot imagine how my situation would have been resolved had not my priesthood leader asked for some details. I also feel that it must not be easy trying to get information during these interviews with our youth when all they want to say is, “I don’t know.” I think you really must try to know that you understand what the youth are saying the way they understand it. With a topic that is so taboo, who knows what kinds of ideas our youth have on these topics?

  29. As to the issue of confession in general, I believe that the process of repentance is incomplete without it. Yes, I confess to the Lord (very important) and there is certainly no prohibition against confiding to a woman in the church, especially the relief society president. I have certainly done it many times. However, it is also very important that we talk to a “judge of Israel.” D&C 64:40 talks about a bishop being a judge of Israel. D&C 58:17-18 also talks about Edward Partridge, the first Bishop, being a judge in Israel.

    Just as there are many ordinances we have to do but feel they are not important, we still have to do them; the same way Jesus Christ had to get baptized, or Naaman had to wash himself in the river Jordan 7 times, or to look at the serpent in Moses’ time to be healed, or to partake the sacrament, and so many more. Jesus Christ knows how we feel, but He had instituted certain rituals and ordinances to help us remember, give us peace, comfort, and who knows what else it can do for us? I am sure I will not be condemned if I do not do any of these things as long as my heart is pure. However, that is the end of my reward. If I have been taught what to do to secure the blessings predicated upon me, I have to follow the law every whit.

    Now, I do not condone repulsive actions committed by certain Bishops, but that is beside the point. Even those who have been witness to divine intervention slip at times, like Moses, Saul, Judas, Peter, etc. Their mistakes however do not in any way minimize the importance of certain ordinances in the eyes of the Lord, or in any way excuse me for not doing them. They too shall be judged.

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