The following is shared with permission. Tim Birt, MS, LPC, LMFT is an LDS member, a Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Alabama and Georgia. He has run centers for sexually abused children for 14 years and has fundamental concerns about bishop interviews from a moral, legal, and ethical perspective. These are some suggestions he has drafted to help us look at a variety of options that are open to leaders and parents as we grapple with how we can start addressing these issues immediately. It’s not enough to be critical of the process. What can we do about it?
To those of us who have signed the petition or submitted a story, I ask you to join Sam Young by considering what you can do to help protect LDS children in your own ward or stake.
A) Consider asking for a meeting with your Bishopric and Stake Presidency. Inform them of the issues and concerns about current church practices of interviewing children about sexual issues. Let them know you have signed the petition. Give them links to the stories of harm to our children.
B) Consider sharing your own story with your church leaders, face to face, of how you felt having those interviews. Or share difficult feelings you may have had about the church focus on masturbation / chastity. Or the teaching that it would be better to die than to “lose your virtue” if you were raped or sexually abused. Or what it was like sending your own children into private interviews. Or how teachings about purity have affected your intimate relationship in adulthood. Or your own story of sexual abuse or assault or sexual harassment and how church teachings did not prepare you to heal or have boundaries. Consider sharing with them inappropriate questions asked by your church leaders. Or whatever YOUR experiences were and concerns are now. Then ask them if they can or will acknowledge how the practices of the church did YOU harm or impacted you personally or your children personally.
C) Consider telling your local church leaders that you don’t support the practice of one-on-one youth interviews that discuss sexuality or worthiness. Consider telling your local church leaders that you are uncomfortable allowing your under-aged children to be interviewed alone or asked inappropriate questions. Consider informing them that you will not consent to allow church leaders to request one on one interviews with your children.
D) Consider suggesting to your local church leaders viable alternatives used in other wards, stakes and churches to support spiritual development of our youth that don’t require one-on-one adult youth interviews. Namely the following options:
1) Don’t do interviews at all. Allow youth who want to go to the temple or have a calling or advance in the priesthood to do so if they desire to do so.
2) If Church leaders feel they are required by the Church to ask children questions, consider asking to have those questions submitted to the parent in writing in advance. Allow the parent to pass on questions they feel are appropriate for their children and let children respond in writing. The child’s response could even be in a signed envelope. Any followup questions can be handled in the same way.
3) Inform bishops and Stake leaders that they can communicate with youth in groups with parents and adults of the youth’s choosing in the room and state the expectations of the church for participation in temple work or callings and invite all those who feel they can follow those guidelines to participate and if they participate they do so with that understanding.
4) Discuss other ways church leaders could teach and support youth that follow standard safe sanctuary / child protection guidelines that require background checks, two deep leadership, no one-on-one contact between adults and youth, and are careful and respectful in discussing sexuality with youth.
E) If the Bishop / Church leader insists on interviews, ask that a parent or adult of the child’s choosing be present for the entire interview and advise the child they don’t have to participate in any interview they don’t want to have. Allow the adult to object to any inappropriate questions. In the rare instance where a child requests a private interview with a church leader, have two church leaders of the child’s choosing in the room so there is no one-on-one interaction which violates basic child protection principles. Note that church leaders can be essential outlets for a child to make an outcry of child abuse and must be trained to know how to report and handle these cases correctly. Consider informing the Bishop that he personally and the church collectively are subject to criminal and civil consequences if they mishandle reporting child abuse allegations and civil lawsuits if they violate confidentiality of certain things they hear as a church leader. Consider asking your Church leaders if they have been adequately trained about mandated reporting and confidentiality and if they are willing to follow the law? Consider letting them know you will hold them and the Church criminally and civilly accountable for their duties to follow the law in reporting child abuse.
F) Consider asking your church leader if they will commit to following basic child protection policies in their ward/Stake by NEVER being one-on-one with a child who is not their own in any capacity at church or in church service and having two deep adult leadership present when adults and youth are together.
G) Consider asking bishops and church leaders to not provide sex education or to delve into sexual activities in interviews with youth but to refer such issues to the parents. Ask your church leaders if they will commit to this agreement.
H) If a bishop or church leader insists on asking questions about masturbation or considers masturbation to be sinful and teaches that it needs to be confessed , consider asking the bishop / church leader to find in the General Handbook of instructions any policy that directly addresses masturbation and to read to you the exact words from the handbook. (Note: There is nothing in the handbook about masturbation specifically.) Then consider asking your bishop / church leader to commit to not asking about masturbation. Further, you can consider requesting that they and every teacher in the ward not mention or teach anything about masturbation and to refrain implying that it’s sinful. Ask if a youth attempts to confess masturbation as a moral problem or impacting worthiness in any way, that you request that the church leader inform the youth that masturbation is not addressed in the handbook of instructions and is a personal matter.
Ask your church leaders to work with you to eliminate these antiquated and harmful perspectives and have trauma and consent informed teachings about sexuality as part of our church teachings and culture. Ask church leaders to evaluate church teachings and to discuss consent, respect, and responsibility and acknowledge sexual abuse and harassment.
Consider asking bishop / church leaders to have mental health professionals available to take referrals for those affected and to not attempt counseling or spiritual advising for victims of abuse or assault. Consider advising them that they are out of their depth and will cause harm if they attempt to counsel abuse victims.
Consider requesting changes to youth standards nights and lessons to be informed that there are victims of child abuse and rape and assault in the room when they are discussing “chastity” and to consider inviting mental health professionals to discuss in large groups how to address victimization.
J) Consider asking bishop / church leaders to hear accounts of how the church and its leaders in their ward’s have hurt members by worthiness interviews and harmful teachings on morality and chastity (licked cupcake) and ask them if they feel it would be appropriate to make a formal apology to those hurt by such actions and to work to address the issues raised by those who are hurt by such actions and teachings.
K) Consider suggesting that women leaders be involved when women need to discuss sexuality or abuse and not men.
L) Consider requesting that bishop’s doors have a window not just a peep hole and all rooms in the church where children may be behind a closed door with adults, have a window installed.
M) Consider requesting that all members called or allowed to work with youth have a criminal background check and youth protection training before they start their calling or responsibility. Consider informing your church leader that you may choose to not sustain any adult called to a position with youth who has not had a background check and youth protections training. Consider not sustaining anyone who has not had a background check when the calling is voted on in church.
N) Consider speaking up in your ward so that every ward and stake in the church has multiple people asking our leaders to protect children in these ways. Understand that when every church unit has multiple members and non members requesting these protections for our children, change will be more likely. This change can be bottom up and not wait on Salt Lake to make church wide changes.
If your local leaders don’t listen to your concerns or don’t implement requested changes to protect our children and redress harms, consider not voting to sustain such leaders in your local unit conferences. Publicly tell why you’re not sustaining them. The law of common consent is gospel doctrine and we need to use it. The Church would have difficulty bringing church discipline on all members who have concerns. When we act in unity our voices can be collectively heard. There are hundreds of thousands of us who will be willing to voice our concerns. We can begin doing so at the local level where we can make a difference.
If any of these recommendations are a fit for you, consider taking action. If they don’t, consider what you can do in your local church unit or community to make a difference. Please don’t wait for the church to change from the top, start the discussion to protect LDS children in your own local unit now.
Natasha Helfer Parker, LCMFT, CST runs an online practice, Symmetry Solutions, which focuses on helping families and individuals with faith concerns, sexuality and mental health. She hosts the Mormon Mental Health and Mormon Sex Info Podcasts, writes a regular column for Sunstone Magazine, is the current president of the Mormon Mental Health Association and runs a sex education program, Sex Talk with Natasha. She has over 20 years of experience working with primarily an LDS/Mormon clientele.