CASE REPORTS OF THE MORMON ALLIANCE
Relatively little information is available to members of the Church from official sources about child sexual abuse. (See Chapter 1, "Official Statements by General Authorities in General Conference" and Chapter 3, "Statements from Other Church Officials and from Other Official Sources.") That little tends to decry the heinousness of the sin of sexual abuse but to provide little specific help for victims or their parents. As usual with all sorts of problems, members are encouraged to seek counsel and help from their ecclesiastical leaders. Unless the ecclesiastical leader consults the help line, available only in the United States and Canada, he has only three official sources of information available: The General Handbook of Instructions, published in March 1989 and, at this writing, seven years old, and Responding to Abuse: Helps for Ecclesiastical Leaders, published in March 1995, the revision of a 1985 work, Child Abuse: Helps for Ecclesiastical Leaders. This chapter describes all four sources.
Given the enormous change in the last decade in public awareness of child sexual abuse, understanding of its evil dynamics and potentially permanent consequences for child victims, and advances in therapies, the scantiness and lack of timeliness seem to communicate a lack of official willingness to address the problem of abuse seriously. Perhaps a recognition of the need for something more current is the announcement in May 1995 of the establishment of a hotline for ecclesiastical leaders reporting abuse.
MORMON HELP LINE FOR ABUSE REPORTS
One of the more encouraging signs of heightened concern on the issue of child abuse by Mormons is a letter dated 10 May 1995 that went from the Presiding Bishopric (Merrill J. Bateman, H. David Burton, and Richard C. Edgley) to priesthood leaders in the United States and Canada (General Authorities; Regional Representatives, stake, mission, and district presidents; bishops and branch presidents) establishing a "telephone Help Line" for abuse cases. The letter reads:
What prompted this letter? The letter itself contains no clue. Perhaps it is the gradual consciousness-raising as more and more priesthood leaders on the local level have passed concerns "up the line." Perhaps it is the growing awareness that even very orthodox LDS families are not immune. As the case of George P. Lee shows, even a General Authority may be a perpetrator. And perhaps it is the blunt financial cost of settling lawsuits against the Church for negligence that has captured the attention of General Authorities. (See Chapter 4.) Whatever the reason or reasons, it is a welcome step.
It is unfortunate that this assistance is limited to priesthood leaders and is not available to the people who need it most: survivors and their families. In fact, members of the Church at large are not even supposed to know about it. It is also unfortunate that its geographical scope is limited to North America. It is somewhat puzzling that this message came from the Presiding Bishopric, not from the First Presidency, which suggests that the problem is not top priority." It is also interesting, in light of the rising number of civil suits in which the Church has been sued for negligence, that "legal" advice is among the services being offered.
However, it is encouraging that all forms of abuse are included, and it is significant that this letter establishes an internal reporting system for abuse that no longer leaves taking notice of the reported abuse completely up to the ecclesiastical officer who hears the report. Bishops and counselors in stake presidencies "should" consult with the stake president, although they apparently have the option as "ecclesiastical officers" to ask their own questions directly from the experts on the help line.
Almost certainly General Authorities who receive reports from this help line will become aware of the scope of the problem and the numbers of children and perpetrators involved in ways that they probably have not been up to this point. What has yet to be seen is whether this new reporting system will result in improved care for victims and more serious interventions with perpetrators. It could work either way—and probably will. If hesitant bishops have access to experts who can validate the seriousness of the problem and the need for skilled assistance, the new policy will be a major step in promoting healing for survivors and protecting other potential victims. If, on the other hand, the experts provide cookie-cutter answers designed to minimize "embarrassment" to the Church or promote quick fixes, then the fact that bishops can say such advice comes "from Salt Lake" may add to the confusion, betrayal, and fear of survivors. Investigative reporter Marion Smith interviewed one Mormon woman in the Midwest who expressed mixed feelings: "The impression [given Mormon members here] is to refer problems to the bishop and let him call the 800 number. … We have learned first hand that it is foolish to leave this matter to be dealt with internally—more often than not the accused is afforded more concern and protection than the person abused. ... With many of the men in ward and stake leadership, we must battle the assumption that the story ends when the abuse is reported. We contend that the reporting (and the 800 number) is only one chapter in the middle of a very long book."1
The General Handbook of Instructions,2 which is available to priesthood leaders but not to members of the Church, contains the following information about child abuse:
The section on "Restitution" referred to states:
Under the heading, "When a Disciplinary Council Is Mandatory" appears the following information:
Another paragraph under the same heading specifies:
The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the handbook is that the focus of attention is dealing with the perpetrator. Out of nine paragraphs, eight refer directly to the perpetrator. Such directives do not seem adequate.
CHILD ABUSE: HELPS FOR ECCLESIASTICAL LEADERS (1985)
This booklet,3 which, for ten years, was the only specific LDS aid on child abuse, was available only to leaders. It consists of six pages, 8.5 by 11 inches, formatted with three vertical columns per page. Three columns are completely blank. Eleven columns are partially blank. These partial blanks add up to thirty additional inches, or the equivalent of about four additional columns. In other words, out of eighteen columns of 7.5 inches apiece, only eleven, or just under two-thirds of the available space, are used. Given the crying need for more and better information, this booklet seems like an inadequate gesture.
The booklet is organized under nine headings:
The introduction acknowledges the growing problem of the physical and emotional abuse of children, but blames it on "today’s permissive society." It quickly surveys Church doctrines on the sanctity of "marriage and family relations," reminds parents that they are "co-creators with their Heavenly Father and are responsible to protect their children in every way," including being "willing to give their lives, if necessary." it articulates the "God-given right" of children to have "complete security in their homes." The introduction continues: "it is difficult to understand why any priesthood holders would abuse little children verbally, emotionally, or physically. When an adult member of the Church brings ugly, immoral involvements to innocent children, his priesthood leader needs to respond." It then explains that the booklet was compiled to help ecclesiastical leaders "better understand the devastating effects of child abuse and how they can assist victims, offenders, and other family members" (p. 1).
The introduction thus does not mention sexual abuse as a separate category of abuse; it also assumes that perpetrators of abuse are male.
The second section, "What is Child Abuse?" describes physical and emotional abuse under one heading ("beating, neglect, threats of abandonment, and depriving a child of food or necessary medical aid") and sexual abuse ("any sexually stimulating activity between a child and an adult or another child who is in a position of power, trust, or control") (p. 2). These concise definitions are helpful if terse.
The third section, "Effects of Child Abuse," describes such "long-term emotional damage" as "guilt, depression, fear, alienation, self-hatred, and lack of self-esteem" with teenagers acting out in "rebelliousness, promiscuity, drug abuse, vulgar language and behavior, running away, and suicide." Adults may be "bitter," "unable to have a happy marriage, and may abuse their own children."
The booklet warns priesthood leaders: "Do not minimize the impact of any child abuse. A child exposed to mild abuse may be as injured spiritually and emotionally as one exposed to severe abuse. Remember that victims can be helped, and your greatest contribution may be to see that appropriate help is given." It also reminds ecclesiastical leaders that abusers come from "every race, religion, occupation, income level, and educational background."
The description of "signs and symptoms" (p. 2) includes not only physical signals ("unexplained bruises, welts, burns..."), but also emotional ("children may be wary or anxious ... withdrawn or aggressive") and social ("seductive or other inappropriate behavior, depression, ... lack of trust for adults"). It mentions inappropriate adult behavior ("strict or harsh discipline and possessiveness") and suggests that "home teachers, ... visiting teachers," or "auxiliary or priesthood teachers" may first notice symptoms, but gives no suggestions about training these individuals in either awareness or response.
There is no mention of "professional help" until the discussion of "Other Forms of Abuse" (p. 3) by which is primarily meant "spouse abuse or rape." Except for two introductory paragraphs, this section consists of a First Presidency letter dated 7 February 1985 to ecclesiastical leaders. The First Presidency consisted of Spencer W. Kimball, then nonfunctional in his final illness, Marion G. Romney, and Gordon B. Hinckley. Three of the four paragraphs deal with rape. It announces that "a mature person who willingly consents to sexual relations" or "persons who consciously invite sexual advances … must share responsibility ... even though the other participant was the aggressor." It is written in gender-inclusive language and instructs ecclesiastical officers to "handle such cases with sensitivity and concern" so that victims can overcome feelings of guilt and … regain their self-esteem and their confidence in personal relationships."
The First Presidency letter counsels ecclesiastical officers to "refrain from assigning moral guilt to a victim who has been subject to significant force or credible threats, leaving final judgment to the omniscience of the Lord." A separate paragraph of the letter is apparently addressed to the victim: "Persons threatened ... should resist to the maximum extent possible or necessary under the circumstances. The extent of resistance required to establish that the victim has not willingly consented is left to the judgment of the victim."
One paragraph deals with "young victims." It specifies that they are "guilty of no sin where they are too young to be accountable for evaluating the significance of the sexual behavior." It further specifies that "apparent consent … may be ignored or qualified for purposes of moral responsibility where the aggressor occupied a position of authority or power.
The longest and most specific section of the booklet is "Suggestions for Helping" (pp. 4-5). Its introduction warns that "telling an ecclesiastical or legal authority that abuse has taken place often causes a family crisis" and that "warm, compassionate leaders" should "help them through this difficult period of restoring family unity" by "giv[ing] spiritual counsel and help[ing] resolve family communication problems." This emphasis on family unity, while perhaps not misplaced, clearly privileges intact families above the needs of the abuse survivor. The booklet also sends a mixed message by treating abuse as a "communication" problem, even though this same section also gives bishops the option of "encourag[ing] every victim to get professional help" and acknowledges that "even with spiritual and professional help, [abuse] is often a difficult habit to correct."
However, the next section, consisting of nine suggestions "to help in the correcting and healing process," even though the order of adjective still focuses first on the perpetrator, somewhat redresses that imbalance in emphasis. Six of the nine are focused on the victim. The first suggestion is to "respond quickly but carefully. A child’s life may be at stake." Given the realities implied in the second sentence, perhaps a better phrase would be "respond carefully but quickly." It instructs the bishop to urge "offenders, victims, family members, and others to comply with legal reporting requirements" and instructs him to provide "immediate support for family members" in case the disclosure triggers a family crisis. The second suggestion is to cooperate in moving the child out of the home "if requested and necessary" (italics in original), since a better solution is to remove the offender.
The following suggestions state: "Believe the victim. ... Help the child understand that he is not to blame ... An adult has a position of power over a child and is responsible when abuse occurs, regardless of the child’s behavior. Be sensitive to the child’s feelings" and "use extra care if the offender is a [relative]" because "most victims still love their offending parent or family member."
The remaining three suggestions read: "Help the offender through the repentance process" (including reporting, counseling with the bishop, and receiving help from a trained professional), "continue to help the victim, offender, and family members, as necessary, and "take Church court action if appropriate."
The next longest section, "Reporting Child Abuse" (p. 5), states: "Church officers have a duty to keep any information received in a member’s confession strictly confidential. However, if the member indicates [that] he has violated a civil or criminal law, try to persuade him to clear the matter with civil authorities as a condition of repentance and forgiveness." The next paragraph urges the bishop to "learn the reporting requirements for your area" and the following paragraph specifies, "Local law may require it be reported to civil authorities." it then continues, somewhat confusingly:
It is not difficult to imagine that a bishop could read this passage and end up uncertain which scenario he should follow if a perpetrator has confessed to sexually or physically abusing his children: (1) Tell the offender not to tell the bishop of the offense because that bishop is required to report it, (2) Fail to report it because it is a confidential confession but encourage the perpetrator to report it, (3) Interview other family members without directly broaching the topic of abuse to see if a spontaneous description frees the bishop to report and thereby protect family members, or (4) Warn the perpetrator that the bishop will have to report the abuse if he hears about it from anybody else, thereby encouraging the perpetrator to compel silence from other family members.
The confusion may be underscored by the information on the last page establishing that "the constitutional right to free exercise of religion … should protect the confidentiality of facts disclosed by a transgressor to a bishop … in a confidential confession or in the course of Church court proceedings." The stake president is to consult with the Area Presidency if "the Church officer knows of a child abuse incident only from the confidential confession of a member who after careful counseling still refuses to report the incident or to allow it to be reported by others; and local law seems to require the Church officer to report the information to public authority." As this section makes it clear, the right of the child to be free from abuse—and no exception is made for life-threatening abuse—is overridden by the right of the perpetrator to have his confession remain confidential.4
The section on reporting continues by acknowledging that the purpose of reporting is to provide "protection to the child and perhaps to other potential victims" and further acknowledges that "a person guilty of serious child abuse rarely changes his pattern of behavior" without deep intervention. This section concludes by reminding ecclesiastical leaders of their responsibilities (refreshingly, in this order) to "protect children, reform offenders, and preserve family relationships." However, the behavioral hierarchy is clear: the offender’s rights outweigh those of the child’s.
The final section on addition helps simply recommends seeking additional information from "LDS Social Services and community agencies" (p. 6).
RESPONDING TO ABUSE: HELPS FOR ECCLESIASTICAL LEADERS
This booklet,5differs in four ways from the booklet it replaces. (1) It covers five types of abuse (child abuse, adult survivors of child abuse, spouse abuse, elder abuse, and abuse of the handicapped), meaning that much less space is devoted to child abuse per se; (2) It quotes and references scriptures heavily; (3) It mandates consultation with Church headquarters through the help line five times; and (4) It omits the First Presidency statement on rape.
The booklet’s format is slightly different. Instead of having three evenly spaced columns, it has one about 1.5 inches wide containing a single quotation by a General Authority, and two columns of about 2.5 inches in width. The headings are larger and easier to read.
A copy of this booklet flashed on the screen for a few seconds of the 7 April 1996 "60 Minutes" program while Mike Wallace’s voice commented, "President Hinckley says the church has been teaching its clergy how to handle abuse more effectively." How effective, in fact, is this training guide?
In large bold type on the first page, the number of the help line is given and the reader instructed to call "if you become aware of any child abuse involving Church members in the United States or Canada, or if you believe that a child may have been abused or is at risk of being abused." The introduction on p. 1, defines abuse as "the physical, emotional, sexual, or spiritual mistreatment of others. It may not only harm the body, but it can deeply affect the mind and spirit, destroying faith and causing confusion, doubt, mistrust, guilt, and fear." The introduction defines the "surest path to healing" as Christ’s teachings and cites a number of scriptures on faith, Christ’s love, and the power of the atonement. "Kind, caring attention from inspired Church leaders, family members, and others" is encouraged for the victim. Priesthood leaders can also help abusers "to repent and to cease their abusive behavior." In keeping with the heavy emphasis on scriptures, the purpose of the booklet is defined as helping ecclesiastical leaders "better assist all those affected by abuse to ‘come unto Christ, and be perfected in him."’
"Child Abuse" (p. 2), quotes a paragraph from President Hinckley’s October 1994 conference talk (see Chapter 1), defines emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, and provides six guidelines for "helping the child." These guidelines do not split the focus between victim and perpetrator as the 1985 booklet did but instead focus on the child. At the same time, the language is blander, more neutral, and less urgent. It omits descriptions of risk to the child, gives no symptoms of sexual abuse, and defines emotional and physical abuse in largely psychological terms: "threats of abandonment, cursing, demeaning comments, beating, withholding food or essential medical care, and other such deprivations." It defines sexual abuse as "any lewd or sexual act between an adult (or significantly older youth) and a child, or the sexual exploitation of a child." This definition may be less helpful for a lay reader than the 1985 version.
The six guidelines are: (1) "Provide spiritual counsel. ... Assure the child that Heavenly Father loves him or her, and that he has prepared a way for each of his children to overcome the adversities of life." (2) Respond quickly but carefully." Rather than mentioning the child’s safety, this guideline warns that "the family crisis" will intensify" and that reported abuse "can be divisive in families, wards, and communities." (2) "Help the child understand that he or she is not to blame." The fourth guideline repeats information from the earlier booklet about "help[ing] authorities" to remove the offender not the child. Two of the guidelines are new and obviously supply legal cautions: (3) "Assure the child of your help and support. Interviews with priesthood leaders should generally be supportive, not investigative beyond that which is required for ecclesiastical purposes. Leave detailed investigations to those who have custodial professional, or legal responsibility. … (6) Never minimize the seriousness of the abuse. Do not try to persuade legal officers to let the Church handle these situations."
On p. 3, a separate section urges ecclesiastical leaders to keep "confessions and interviews ... in strict confidence. ... Where applicable, members should be encouraged to comply with child abuse reporting laws." This paragraph is a severe condensation of the page of information provided on confidentiality and reporting in the 1985 handbook. It ends with another mandate for bishops and stake counselors to tell the stake president about "any child abuse involving Church members in the United States or Canada, or if you believe that a child may have been abused or is at risk of being abused."
Slightly over one column of information (3-4) is given regarding "adults abused as children." None of this information appears in the 1985 guide. The ecclesiastical leader dealing with adult survivors should "listen to their concerns; be an example of kindness, love, patience, and long-suffering; focus on solutions to current problems; when appropriate enlist the aid of a professional therapist whose approach is consistent with gospel teachings and standards; avoid excessive probing into details of the offense." Some of this advice may have a faintly patronizing "put up with it" flavor, reinforced by the next sentence: "A person who has been abused is often confused about what actually occurred, why it happened, and who was responsible." Since this advice, as it stands, leaves the door open for blaming the child victim, it is reassuring that the leader is immediately warned: "To be counseled to forgive and forget before resolving this confusion is not helpful." A later paragraph amplifies: "As [adult survivors] try to reconstruct childhood memories, they often have difficulty determining what actually happened. Avoid making judgments about the accuracy of reported events. Memory is complex and may be unreliable. Be respectful, kind and patient. What actually occurred may never be determined."
The section on Spouse Abuse (4), which is new in the 1995 booklet, quotes scriptures about love between marriage partners, identifies "the woman [as] usually the injured party," and gives brief definitions of spouse abuse as spiritual ("exercising unrighteous control, dominion, or compulsion), emotional (name calling, demeaning statements, threats, isolation, intimidation, or manipulation"), physical ("coercion, withholding resources, and physical violence"), and sexual ("sexual harassment, inflicting pain during sexual intimacy, and the use of force or intimidation to make a spouse perform a sexual act"). It succinctly describes the standard three-phase cycle of abuse (tension, abuse, and remorse), and gives five guidelines for helping the abused spouse: "Conduct private interviews with the injured spouse. Help the spouse understand that the offender is responsible for his or her own’ behavior. Do not encourage the spouse to tolerate or endure the abusive acts. Encourage the spouse to seek assistance from family members and friends. Encourage to spouse to consider use of women’s shelters, protective orders, and legal and police assistance if necessary." It counsels contacting the help line for the third time.
The sections on abuse of the elderly and those with disabilities, new in the 1995 booklet (5), contain no information directly relevant to the discussion here on child sexual abuse.
The section on "Working with Offenders" (5-6) provides new information from the 1985 version. It acknowledges that while some abusers "feel remorse, a desire to confess their sins, and a willingness to begin the repentance process" others will "deny wrongdoing" and blame others." The booklet counsels ecclesiastical leaders against gullibility by instructing: "Offenders usually persist in abusive behavior until they confess their sins and accept spiritual and professional help. Most repeat offenders have difficulty changing. This is so even though they may express deep remorse and resolve never to repeat the behavior. They rarely change until they experience the full consequences of their immoral and legal actions. ... Repentance is possible only when offenders have fully confessed their sins to the bishop and acknowledged their wrongdoing to those whom they have offended. ... The offender needs to submit to appropriate Church disciplinary measures and requirement of the law, and live in compliance with gospel teachings and standards." Included in this definition of repentance are: "obeying protective orders, ... [and] assisting with payment for costs incurred as a result of the abuse." Priesthood leaders, the booklet continues "may require reporting of the abusive behavior as a step in the repentance process." It does not say what options are open to the leader if the abuser refuses to report.
The booklet warns priesthood leaders not to issue callings to work with children or youth "if the priesthood leader believes that the member has sexually abused a child," reminds him that all members serving in Scouts must register with the national organizations, and encourages the leader to call the help line (fourth time).
The last item on the page is a one-sentence introduction to LDS Social Services ("a professional therapist whose approach is in harmony with gospel principles") and a fifth invitation to call the help line.
Given the booklet’s shortness and lack of specificity, it is certainly not clear why it is not printed in its entirety in the Ensign or otherwise made available to the members of the Church. As matters stand, an audience circumscribed to leaders automatically limits its potential.
Without more information on how widely this booklet is used and without knowing how bishops and stake presidents dealing with real situations actually use it, it is not possible to realistically appraise its usefulness. It is so short that it cannot in any way be considered a complete resource; but the material included is appropriate in its emphasis on the victim, and, unlike the 1985 booklet, not confusing in its instructions on reporting. It is probably useful to curtail the scope of the bishop’s involvement by warning him not to conduct investigative interviews or come to conclusions about what actually happened. The heavy emphasis on consulting social workers at the help line almost certainly means that more people are involved in a case, any given bishop is more likely to be supervised in what he does, and appropriate legal and social agencies are likely to be involved earlier. Whether this reemphasis will work beneficially for the survivor, however, is less clear.
1 Marion Smith, "Blame the Victim: Hushing Mormon Sexual Abuse," Event (Salt Lake City), March 28, 1996, 9.
2 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The General Handbook of Instructions (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, March 1989), cited by section and page number parenthetically. Although this manual is seven years old, it is still the current edition. Occasionally statements in the Bulletin update and replace sections of the handbook, but I am unaware of any additions or changes to the sections cited.
3 Child Abuse: Helps for Ecclesiastical Leaders (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985).
4 Martha Pierce, an attorney with Utah’s guardian ad litem program which provides legal representation for children, explains that, according to Utah law, a Mormon bishop or other clergyperson is exempt from reporting abuse only if he meets five narrow conditions: he must be acting in his professional capacity when he receives the information; he must receive the information during a confession; the information must be obtained "in the proper course of discipline set forth" by the abuser’s church; the information must come only from the abuser; and the bishop’s church must define confidentiality of "confessional information" as one of his responsibilities. Otherwise, the bishop is required to report. As quoted in Marion Smith, "Blame the Victim: Hushing Mormon Sexual Abuse," Event (Salt Lake City), March 28, 1996, 9.
5 Responding to Abuse: Helps for Ecclesiastical Leaders (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1995; "English approval: 3/95"). Except for the titles, this booklet has the same cover as the booklet it replaces.