I’m a survivor of sex abuse at the hands of a youth pastor. I was a teenager in a broken home. It feels trite to say abuse is traumatic. The fact is it alters a young person’s life for years. 

My own personal journey of healing led to later work as a therapist supporting victims and advocating for additional ways to protect children in religious settings. I’ve also conducted research with an eye toward identifying systems and best practices to deter abuse.

As an adult, I converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While no organization operates perfectly, and there’s always room for improvements, I’ve been impressed by a range of effective systems and practices implemented to protect children in the global church.

This is why I was confused to read a recent Associated Press news report characterizing the church as having “a system” to “protect itself from costly lawsuits” by keeping abuse “secret.” In addition to casting suspicion on church motivations, the reporting failed to mention numerous best practices I’ve observed in the church and which I believe should be adopted by organizations more broadly.

Earlier this month, an Arizona judge dismissed a lawsuit alleging local leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day responded improperly after a congregant confessed a past instance of abuse against his own daughter. The Cochise County Superior Court dismissed the case and found “Church Defendants were not required under the Mandatory Reporting Statute to report the abuse of Jane Doe I by her father because their knowledge of the abuse came from confidential communications which fall within the clergy-penitent exception in the Mandatory Reporting Statute.”

Judge dismisses lawsuit against church in Arizona sex abuse case, citing clergy-penitent exception

As the Deseret News reported, in 2011 the abuser Paul Adams told his Latter-day Saint bishop at the time of a “‘single past incident of abuse of one child’ and the bishop encouraged Adams and his wife Leizza to report the abuse. Both refused to do so. Adams was excommunicated in 2013, according to church officials, and Leizza Adams ‘later served time in prison for her role.’” Paul Adams took his own life while awaiting trial. 

The details of the Adams case are unquestionably heart-wrenching, and it’s understandable to look for who is to blame for not stopping this abuse sooner.  

The Associated Press’ Michael Rezendes used the Arizona case as the centerpiece of an investigation into the church’s practices around reporting abuse. Rezendes is known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative work at the Boston Globe, helping expose sex abuse by Catholic clergy in the city. 

I certainly respect Rezendes’ journalism credentials and applaud his admirable history of work in this arena. Yet the articles on the Arizona case, even after it was dismissed, have insinuated local leadership had been aware of the details of ongoing abuse — despite available evidence suggesting otherwise. And the church itself is seemingly portrayed as somehow eager to cover up this abuse, without identifying what would motivate such behavior especially given that the perpetrator seems to have been a lapsed congregant with infrequent ties to the community. 

At times, it has felt like the reporter sought to apply a certain template of what happened in Boston to a very different set of facts of what occurred in Arizona and how the Latter-day Saints operated. 

Nuance matters in seeking truth and stopping abuse. And there are certain fundamentals we know that help protect children. For instance, it’s been well known for years that abuse is less likely when children reside in safe environments. Strong home and faith communities can be a part of this.

There are also a unique set of systems and specific safeguards operating within Latter-day Saint congregations that help deter abuse. Though I’ve written about some of these before, they merit revisiting at greater length: 

1. Geographical organization and member-number system. Compared with allowing people to worship wherever they want, established geographical boundaries provide unique protections by helping leaders and congregants alike be more aware of who attends, who leads and who interacts with children. And, the church’s 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. Advocates for safer practices in churches have long encouraged denominations to implement a similar member-number system.

2. Parental participation and “two deep” leadership. Since 2018, the church has ensured a two-deep leadership model throughout any youth organizations, mandating that at least two adults be present in all activities that involve youth or children. This means if there’s a Sunday school class for children or young adults, two adults must always be present. This same policy has been increasingly adopted by other organizations working with youth. 

Additional changes to interviewing policies in the church encourage parents to attend a youth interview with a bishop if they prefer. If a young person wants to speak alone with clergy (which may facilitate young persons speaking candidly about abuse at home), parents or guardians are still asked to remain close by.    

3. A system of public callings and sustainings. The calling system in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (in which unpaid congregants are assigned volunteer roles in the congregation) serves as another structural safeguard that throttles would-be abusers by making access to young people significantly harder. Simply put, no one can serve alongside children merely by volunteering. They are only asked to serve in such a position after consideration by both male and female church leaders, usually who also have families and children in the congregation. The fact that every new calling is presented for a public sustaining vote in front of the full congregation is also significant — since everyone has a chance to know about it (and congregants have a chance to object if they know of any reason to be concerned either publicly or in private).

4. Windows in doors of Sunday school and primary classrooms. The church has now ensured that windows are standard on doors where children are taught. This allows for parents to easily monitor their children and classroom activities. Older chapels are receiving retrofitting. 

5. Unpaid bishops leading congregations. Bishops almost always have a history as longtime members of their congregations prior to being asked to serve. The same is true of other church leaders. Since they are all unpaid, there is also no financial incentive to protect their ecclesiastical position or guard the ward’s bottom line or their own. They also know their role is temporary, and their actions are subject to review by successors and fellow leaders, both male and female, serving with them in the ward. 

6. A formalized helpline prioritizing victim safety. However helpful vigilant local leaders can be, things could be missed in helping victims. That’s why I’ve been grateful the church has prioritized for three decades now a dedicated helpline which ensures a consistently high-quality standard of care by connecting lay leaders with experts who can guide them on handling cases skillfully. Yes, these experts seek to help bishops comply with the law, but their first priority is always to protect any victim.

As I’ve written with a co-author previously, “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.” One of the women who has worked on the helpline, Kate Taylor Lauck, likewise an abuse survivor, describes the other experts staffing the helpline as “diligent, competent, compassionate and deeply committed to the work of protecting kids from abuse.” 

7. Direct female supervision. In my observation, it’s also significant to have multiple women in formal leadership positions working with Latter-day Saint girls and young women throughout their adolescence. From monitoring the children in Primary, to the ministering and care of leaders in the Young Women and Relief Society organizations, this ensures additional female mentorship at every stage of the life of young women — who are statistically most vulnerable to abuse. 

8. The safeguard of confession. Too often, commentators quickly assume that mandatory reporting is the one fail-safe solution to deter abuse. While it’s clear why this has become a push for many activists, scholars focused on mandatory reporting have cautioned against simplistic conclusions. One study, for example, found measurably fewer confirmed reports of child maltreatment in the 11 states requiring clergy to report all or some of the time — compared with states without the requirement.

What people may not understand is that by forcing clergy to become mandated reporters, we could inadvertently keep even more abuse hidden as abusers go underground. Likewise, it’s possible that a space for open confession may provide additional protection to victims by ensuring space exists for clergy to encourage bad actors to turn themselves in or helping to catch and deter concerning behaviors that could spiral. 

9. Four decades of repeated leadership training. After my baptism in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I was struck to learn how long the church has been educating members directly about deterring abuse — dating back to a 1985 training booklet addressing child abuse. That text emphasized the importance of trusting victims and taking their words seriously, and compassionately connecting them with professional help. It also instructed leaders to know and follow the reporting requirements in their state. The church handbook for leaders and members, going back at least two decades, has read, “in instances of abuse, the first responsibility of the church is to help those who have been abused and to protect those who may be vulnerable to future abuse” 

10. Membership-wide training, especially for those working with youth. A mandatory online training course was launched in 2019 for all adults who interact with children and youth in their church assignments. And the challenging topic of abuse has been repeatedly and emphatically brought up in the faith’s general conference. In my experience, this frequency and consistency with which abuse has been addressed is remarkable.

In addition to these safeguards against abuse, I’ve been struck at how receptive The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been to emerging practices. While it’s impossible to say how much potential abuse has been thwarted, it’s almost certain that in combination these practices have acted for decades now as a strong deterrent. This is why I wasn’t surprised in my own analyses to find abuse rates measurably lower in Boy Scout of America troops associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

I have to wonder how many other young people would be protected if these practices were shared widely. These are the kinds of things that I would hope journalists and others would pay attention to in seeking to deter abuse and help victims. In addition to raising our voices against abuse, and telling the stories of victims which deserve to be heard, let’s also spread greater awareness of practices and systemic safeguards that protect the precious dignity and safety of all God’s children.

Jennifer Roach is a licensed mental health counselor who lives in American Fork, Utah.