Perspective: The vandals who desecrated Latter-day Saint chapels are wrong — abuse is not welcome here
The faith’s doctrine, policies and culture work together to provide layers of protection for children in ways that often go unseen
Last week, Latter-day Saint church buildings in the greater Salt Lake City area were vandalized. A meeting house in Orem was ransacked. In Sandy, multiple buildings were defaced, and graffiti was scrawled across the façade of one house of worship, reading: “Predators welcome.”
We respond: no, they aren’t.
One of us served as a bishop and stake president, and the other is a survivor of abuse who now works as a clinical therapist helping abuse victims. From our years of experience, we’ve seen firsthand the structural safeguards that make The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints effective at protecting children.
This work includes systems that help detect and deter predators and encourage reporting of child sexual abuse and ministering to abuse victims and their families.
The Church of Jesus Christ requires a two-deep leadership model, mandating that at least two adults be present in all activities that involve youth or children. This provides a layer of protection for children and is a strong deterrent to would-be abusers. The system also increases the probability of timely and truthful reporting of abuse disclosures.
The church has also demonstrated its receptiveness to other emerging best practices, adopting changes to its interview policies and even the architecture of its buildings to enable visibility in locations where youth interact with each other and with adults. And in 2019, the church launched a mandatory online training course for all adults who interact with children and youth in their church assignments. The training orients leaders to church policy, reviews best practices for supervising children and youth, and helps leaders prevent, recognize and respond to abuse.
It’s also relevant that, with rare exceptions, church bishops — who are all volunteers — are required to be married. They almost always have children themselves and are almost always members of their congregations prior to being asked to serve in their ecclesiastical capacity. And since clergy are all volunteers, there is no financial incentive to protect their ecclesiastical job or to guard the bottom line of their congregations. They also know that their role is temporary, and their actions are subject to review by their successor.
These details are important since commentators and journalists sometimes conflate Latter-day Saints with news about clergy abuse in other denominations, without knowing about the church’s protective systems that may differ from other faith traditions.
There are other systems that largely go unnoticed by church members, but are still helpful in deterring abuse. One such protection is the member-number system.
In many denominations, members and clergy move between one congregation to another with little notice. Formal systems are often not in place for records to follow them to new locations or congregations. But the Latter-day Saint member-number system allows leadership to make a confidential annotation on a person’s file that will follow the person from congregation to congregation if they are not safe to be around children and should not be given a position in which they are placed near children or other vulnerable people.
While it’s impossible to say how many potential abusers this policy has thwarted, the system is strongly protective of children. Advocates for safer practices in churches have asked other denominations to implement a member-number system. Some have decided against it since they can be costly and difficult to manage. But we’re grateful for the church’s commitment to such a system.
Another built-in protection for children is the system by which volunteer assignments are made in the church. Church members are assigned or “called” by church leaders. In some denominations, individuals are allowed to volunteer for positions of their choosing. Volunteerism is wonderful, but you can immediately see the problem.
If someone is looking to abuse children, they may choose to be in a position that affords them access to children. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, if someone moves into a congregation’s boundaries and they want to abuse children, they could not simply choose a volunteer position to be near them.
It’s also well-known that the church funds a 24/7 help line staffed by legal and clinical professionals with decades of experience and expertise in handling child abuse cases. From our experience, the women and men who work on the help line are people of integrity whose chief concern is the safety and welfare of victims of abuse.
When a help line call is answered, the conversation focuses on safety first. If there is any indication that a child is, or may be, in imminent danger, authorities are notified immediately — regardless of whether a report is mandatory under applicable law. Those who work on the help line also advise lay leaders on other steps that may be taken to help ensure continued safety and provide appropriate support to the victim, their family and others impacted by the abuse.
Once the safety of the victim is addressed, the focus of the call turns to compliance with all applicable laws, including reporting statutes. Reporting laws vary by jurisdiction and navigating them can be complex — especially in jurisdictions where consent is required before disclosing confessional statements to authorities.
Regardless of whether or not reporting by clergy is required (or permissible), leaders are instructed to strongly encourage those who disclose or confess abuse to make their own report to authorities. When the law prohibits reporting, those on the help line work with leaders to identify and pursue the avenues that are most likely to result in a report. Help line calls end where they started — with a reminder of and referral to resources available to assist, support, and help the victim.
It’s impossible to know how many instances of abuse are deterred through prudent preventative measures, help lines, trainings and membership number systems. But anecdotally, we know of many cases where the help line — and reporting abuse directly —helped victims.
A university professor at a prominent institution recently recounted calling the hotline and then turning that “case to law enforcement;” another former bishop shared a story on Twitter of hearing a disclosure of child abuse and calling authorities; the person was arrested within the hour, he said. Similar stories have been shared online and with us, including one by a parent of a victim who called the experience of reporting abuse “swift and thorough.”
It’s one thing to say predators are not welcome here. And they aren’t. But it’s another thing to actually put in place safeguards and systems that help protect the dignity of every human being, especially children. And, as others have pointed out, leaked documents over the years have suggested that the rate of sexual abuse among church leaders and volunteers is significantly lower than in the broader population.
There is, of course, much the church and its members must continue to do in the effort to protect children, including always remaining diligent and seeking out emerging best practices to prevent abuse, protect victims and help support survivors.
Children are the most vulnerable and precious among us. “For of such,” Jesus said, “is the kingdom of heaven.” And as such, they deserve our very best.
Jennifer Roach is a licensed mental health counselor and a survivor of abuse. Lynn Chapman is a former telecommunications CEO and holds a doctorate in public policy from George Mason University.