The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has established a telephone help line for lay leaders attempting to deal with cases of abuse, especially child abuse.
Child advocates and counselors praise the concept, but several question the church's motives.A May 10 internal memorandum from the church's Presiding Bishopric mandates that local ecclesiastical leaders in the United States and Canada who become aware of abuse involving church members are to call the toll-free help line.
"This will enable the caller to consult with social services, legal and other specialists who can assist in answering questions and in formulating steps that should be taken.
"Information about local reporting requirements will also be provided," and the calls will be confidential, the memo concludes.
Church spokesman Don LeFevre said the church published a pamphlet 10 years ago that gives ecclesiastical leaders guidance on dealing with child abuse cases. The hotline was implemented recently as an additional resource, he said.
Counselors and attorneys who deal with child sexual abuse cases unanimously praised the idea of a hotline, although some characterize it as belated and merely an attempt to ward off legal liability.
Others believe the church should insist its leaders immediately call the proper police or social agency as required in the child abuse laws of most states.
"Far be it from me to question their motives," said Marion Smith, a retired sex abuse counselor and founder of the Intermountain Sexual Abuse Treatment Center. "But it concerns me that they feel it necessary to run it through their team instead of saying that any abuse has to be reported to police, which is the protocol anyway.
"It's great that they're responding to the need, and if people feel more comfortable going through that line," she said.
The memorandum, signed by Presiding Bishop Merrill J. Bateman and counselors H. David Burton and Richard C. Edgley, terms abuse of any kind "tragic" and "in opposition to the teachings of the Savior."
It instructs bishops and counselors in stake presidencies to consult with their stake president (who oversees several congregations) about "incidents of abuse that come to their attention."
Published reports indicate the 9 million-member church has been forced to settle several lawsuits involving cases of abuse.
For example, Jefferson County, Texas, court records show the church in January settled for an undisclosed amount a lawsuit filed by the parents of an 8-year-old girl who was repeatedly molested at an LDS chapel by a member of the congregation. The suspect, Ralph Neeley, was sentenced to life in prison.
The lawsuit named as co-defendants the church and Neeley's bishop, who apparently knew about the allegation but failed to report it. Church leaders said they encouraged Neeley to turn himself in.
The church has long struggled with the topic of abuse. The conflict is often magnified because those church leaders who most often deal with it firsthand are those least prepared to do so. The church's bishops and stake presidents are laymen appointed to their positions.
"This is a challenge of lay leadership with no training in pastoral care," said Brigham Young University sociology professor Larry Young. "Clearly this would be something you would expect to see."
One problem for the lay leaders is that church doctrine, with its strong emphasis on forgiveness, often runs headlong into the complexities of sexual abuse pathology.
"Time and time again, you'll come across a well-meaning but misguided bishop who will try to help these people by sending them on a mission or helping them keep their job," said Martha Pierce, who heads the Utah State Bar's Needs of Children Committee. "You can't fault them, but it is a terribly difficult area.
"The legal, social and psychological complexities of, say, dealing with pedophilia, a lay person can't even begin to comprehend."
Utah law mandates that anyone who learns of child abuse - including doctors, social workers and teachers - must immediately report it to the Division of Family Services or police.
There is one exception: Confessions given by a perpetrator to a priest. The Utah Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that the priest-penitent exception extends to LDS lay leaders.
Even so, LDS bishops and stake presidents need to act responsibly with that confidential information, said Kristen Brewer, who directs the Utah Office of Guardian Ad Litem, a group of attorneys appointed to represent a child's best interests in court.
"If the perpetrator is seeking forgiveness, then the minister needs to tell them that the only way to be forgiven is to go to the authorities and instruct them to do that," Brewer said. "I've known bishops who have done that."
And if the bishop or stake president learns about the abuse from another source - say, the victim - then they are obligated to report, she said.
"Personally, I think this is a good thing," said Brewer, who believes a single memorandum from church leadership "will have a far greater impact than the Legislature passing another law."