Child abuse is a society-wide problem that affects people of all demographics. Tragically, every organization with families and children — religious or otherwise — faces the issue. That is particularly true of large and diverse organizations, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose very purpose is to welcome and minister to all people.
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.
For decades, the Church has repeatedly, publicly and unequivocally denounced child abuse as an “insidious evil” and a “sin of the darkest hue.” Church leaders at the highest level began making such statements and aggressively addressing the issue even before clergy-abuse cases raised public awareness in the mid-1980s. Since 1976, more than 50 articles have appeared in Church publications condemning child abuse or educating members about it. As wrenching as the topic is, Church leaders have given sermons about it more than 30 times at the Church’s worldwide conferences. Preventing and responding to child abuse is the subject of a regular lesson taught during Sunday meetings. The Church has produced and distributed extensive training materials for local leaders and members alike. To this day Church leaders continue to speak publicly about abuse and forcefully address it. The Church’s official instructions for ecclesiastical leaders sum up the approach: “Abuse cannot be tolerated in any form.”
While clergy-abuse cases continue to grab headlines, the Church has had almost no child abuse problems with its clergy. The Church has a part-time lay clergy at the local level. Leaders of congregations are called bishops. Bishops are selected from the local membership to serve as uncompensated volunteers for about five years. Most have lived in the community and attended their congregations for many years and thus are well known to Church members before they are selected. Bishops are called by more senior ecclesiastical leaders, but before a bishop is installed all congregation members first vote to sustain his selection. The Church takes abuse allegations so seriously that even one member with a credible concern can derail the selection. And even after a bishop assumes office, any credible allegation of abuse against him would quickly result in the Church’s terminating the calling and selecting another bishop. Because termination does not result in loss of salary or living arrangements (local clergy are uncompensated), there is no need for a lengthy internal process. This zero-tolerance approach risks problems with false allegations, but the Church has chosen to err on the side of caution. The result is that abuse by LDS clergy is exceedingly rare and swiftly addressed.
LDS clergy also have powerful incentives to protect children from abusers within their congregations. All bishops are married and most have children of their own, often young ones, who attend their respective congregations and participate in their activities. Bishops are therefore personally invested in the safety and well-being of their Church community. When a child abuser threatens the safety of his congregation, a bishop has no incentive, financial or otherwise, to do other than protect his Church family as he does his own.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints takes significant precautions to guard against abuse within its congregations. Official Church policy states: “All members, especially parents and leaders, are encouraged to be alert and diligent and do all they can to protect children and others against abuse and neglect.” Members are taught to be aware of the issue and to alert law enforcement and Church leaders if they believe a child is in danger. The Church fully supports compliance with child abuse reporting laws and regularly encourages members to report. The suggestion that the Church instructs members to keep abuse issues solely within the Church is false. The Church enforces a “two-deep” policy so that adult males who work with children or youth are never alone with a minor. At great expense, the Church is currently installing windows in the classroom doors of thousands of its meetinghouses so that children are never out of sight. As a result of these and many other efforts, abuse on Church properties or during Church activities is rare.
Despite these precautions, child abuse sometimes occurs within a member family or between two members. With over five million members in the United States alone, the Church cannot monitor its members’ private lives. The Church is not a police force; nor should it be. Local clergy hold full-time secular jobs and thus perform much of their ministry during their free time on Sundays or in one or two weekday evenings after work. There is much they don’t know about the lives of their congregation members.
When local clergy learn of alleged abuse, Church policy states that their first priority “is to help those who have been abused and to protect those who may be vulnerable to future abuse.” But as anyone with experience in the area knows, dealing with alleged abuse can be very complex. Because its clergy are laymen without professional training or qualifications in social work, in 1995 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints established a 24-hour help line and instructed its ecclesiastical leaders to call it immediately when they learn of abuse. The help line is staffed by licensed social workers with professional experience in dealing with abuse. They advise clergy about how best to protect the victim from further abuse, protect others from abuse, deal with the perpetrator and aid the healing process for victims. Child abuse is a crime with serious legal consequences. The help line provides legal counsel to aid clergy in complying with the law and working with law enforcement.
Reporting abuse can raise difficult legal and personal issues. State reporting laws vary greatly. A broad majority of states exempt confidential communications with clergy from reporting duties. Why? Because public policy makers have concluded that confidentiality helps victims and perpetrators alike come forward and get help. A confidential confession to a clergyperson often breaks the cycle of abuse and is the first step in a process that leads to voluntary reporting by the perpetrator, victim or others.
Abuse victims themselves often demand confidentiality. Many victims who reveal tragic abuse experiences to clergy — some of which may have occurred decades earlier — do not want to be traumatized again by a criminal investigation and public prosecution. In navigating these complex and wrenching situations, Church clergy are instructed to comply with the law. The Church routinely reports child abuse to law enforcement. And even where reporting is not mandatory, the Church usually finds ways to get abuse reported while still respecting the victim’s desire for privacy.
The Church is one of the only religious organizations that actively disfellowships or excommunicates ordinary members for child abuse. Excommunication terminates a person’s membership in the Church, which is the harshest ecclesiastical punishment possible. Its purpose is to induce the person to stop his crimes and seek forgiveness from God, to protect other Church members and to demonstrate institutional condemnation of such evil conduct. After many years, perpetrators who truly change their lives can be readmitted to Church membership, but their membership record is permanently marked with an annotation that precludes them from ever again associating with the Church’s children or youth.
The Church’s policies and practices have evolved over the years. The help line, for example, has been highly successful since its creation over 15 years ago. The Church continues to look for ways to refine and improve its approach to abuse. To be sure, tragic situations have arisen. The Church’s response is always to help victims of abuse. At times the Church has to defend itself in court against spurious allegations and overreaching demands, most arising from situations that allegedly occurred decades ago. But for many years the Church has had the highest standards among religious organizations.
One final point: The Church has not taken these measures to protect its reputation but to protect children. Mormons are well known for their love of children. Church leaders and members treasure the innocence of childhood and take seriously Jesus Christ’s severe condemnation of anyone who harms a child. See, for example, Matthew 18:6: “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” The LDS Church’s deep concern for children has led to a system that is highly effective at preventing abuse, protecting and helping victims, ensuring that Church clergy comply with the law, and disciplining and expelling abusers.