SALT LAKE CITY — An official Mormon website has published the most comprehensive review yet of how the LDS Church works to prevent child sexual abuse in its congregations.
It characterized child sexual abuse as a societal plague and said the church's first priority when it learns of abuse is to help the victim and stop the abuse.
"Every victim is a boy or girl who is suffering deeply," the statement said. "We must do everything we can to protect and love them. We urge our local leaders and members to reach out to victims, comfort and strengthen them, and help them understand that what happened was wrong, the experience was not their fault, and that it should never happen ever again."
The long statement was published Thursday as an approved resource on the official news website of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson, the church's Young Women general president, also addressed child abuse on Thursday when she presented $125,000 in donations from the church to two child advocacy programs.
During a meeting in the Primary Board Room of the church's Relief Society Building on Temple Square, Sister Oscarson gave a check for $100,000 to Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children’s Alliance in Washington, D.C.
"I hope it's an indication of how seriously we take this issue," Sister Oscarson told Huizar. "We have tried to put resources in place that will address the needs of children who need help."
The church's statement clearly outlined its position.
"Child abuse is despicable and heinous. It is not just a social malady and a criminal act; it is absolutely forbidden by the commandments of God. Protecting and nurturing children was a priority for Jesus Christ in his life, and it is a priority in his church today. No child should have to endure abuse. Even one case is one too many."
"Every child," the statement added, "should know they are safe to come forward and speak with adults if abuse has occurred. A large network of church leaders and clinical and legal professionals are ready and willing to reach out with love to help those struggling with the effects of abuse."
The LDS Church has more than 30,000 congregations around the world with more than 1.1 million children in its Primary organization for those ages 18 months to 11 years and more than 1.2 million teenagers in its Young Women and Young Men programs.
It has faced some court claims that it hasn't protected children from abuse in some congregations. A majority of those cases are claims from the 1970s and 1980s. No U.S. court has found any religious institution responsible for failing to protect its members from abuse by other members. The church has settled a small number of cases.
In recent decades, as child abuse awareness has grown, the church has moved to combat abuse.
In 1985, the church released a pamphlet to provided lay local church leaders with guidance on dealing with abuse cases, and the late President Gordon B. Hinckley, then first counselor in the church's First Presidency, said in a 1985 general conference talk that he was glad to see "a hue and cry going up against this terrible evil, too much of which is found among our own."
In 1995, the church began to track members who had harmed children so they can be kept away from other kids. Also in 1995, the church established a hotline that provides a large network of clinical and legal professionals ready to advise local leaders and help victims.
"I'm not aware of a faith community that has anything similar," Huizar said. "You all are really on the forefront of that issues in terms of being very responsive so someone can call for help in that way."
Since 2006, the church has constructed all new chapels and meetinghouses with hallway windows in every classroom door so parents and others can see inside. The church is retrofitting its older buildings.
Other steps the church has taken to prevent child abuse, as outlined in Thursday's statement, include requiring two adult leaders for every youth activity and for Primary classes taught by men.
"It's so wise," Huizar said, "because so many of these things happen in that one-adult, one-child time, so the fact you're preventing that is really keeping it safe."
The church also screens volunteers who work with children and youths by asking the bishops and branch presidents who lead congregations to solicit recommendations for positions, interview the candidates, review their church membership records, present them for a sustaining vote of the entire congregation and interview the volunteers twice each year.
"I've been very impressed with the many steps the church has taken," Huizar said, "which says the church has been paying attention to this issue for quite some time, because it takes time to put all of these things into place."
Huizar said the $100,000 donation from church leaders sends an important signal to children.
"We've talked about how impactful it is to young women, young men and children," she said, "when someone who has been very influential and important in their lives passes on this message that this is not their fault and that this is an important issue to us."
Sister Oscarson also presented $25,000 to the 25-year-old Children's Justice Center program administered by the Utah Attorney General's Office. The LDS Church gave that program $100,000 a year ago, and a program leader said news stories about that donation motivated a welcomed spike in reports of abuse.
"The power goes above and beyond the financial contribution," said Suzanne Mitchell, executive director of the Children's Justice Centers of Salt Lake County. "Just as impactful is the awareness, the signal to the community and to the children that it's OK to come forward and not suffer in silence."
She said she has prepared her staff to handle additional calls. The program provides child-friendly atmospheres at 22 centers across the state where investigators and caseworkers interview abused children to help them begin to heal and to prosecute abusers. Mitchell said the new donation will mean the difference between remote children's justice centers being able to help a family or not.
Utah has a high rate of reported child sexual abuse, but Mitchell and Tracey Tabet of the Utah Attorney General’s Office said that is because of Utah's tougher child abuse laws, its more vigorous pursuit of abusers and the help of the LDS Church's child-abuse hotline.
"The reason our numbers are higher is because it's easier for a victim to be heard in Utah," Mitchell said.
For example, Tabet said, when the Attorney General's Office opened two new children's justice centers in Utah, the child abuse caseloads in those areas doubled over the next year.
"Do I think incidents of child abuse doubled?" Tabet said. "No. I think there was heightened awareness because these new centers opened."
Mitchell read a note to Sister Oscarson from a 15-year-old girl who was helped at a children's justice center. She wrote that she had expected help that would right a wrong that happened to her. She didn't expect the help would change her perspective.
"They took away a grudge I had been holding against myself," the girl wrote. "They took away some of my self-hate. They made me feel a little less guilty and worthless. I never saw this coming."
Mitchell said it is transformational to show children it's OK to come forward, that people care, that it's not their fault and that it's going to be OK.
"That is success right there," she said.
Sister Oscarson agreed.
"It means they can move past it then, and not let it define them."