Reese Dixon, Child Abuse in the Church, Feminist Mormon Housewives
Moments ago the church issued a press release titled Effectiveness of Church Approach to Preventing Child Abuse. I am literally shaking so hard I can barely type. I am so angry. How dare they.
Let’s begin at the title, which is a silly bit of spin because they offer no information about the effectiveness of their efforts, and no information about the rates of prevention. What they mean to say is: This is what we’ve tried. And if that was the title, I might not be so mad. If they hadn’t referred to these efforts as “the gold standard” then maybe I could type a word without needing to stab the backspace key so many times. Because as the press release goes on they don’t lie, exactly, everything they are saying is true, on paper, as far as it goes. But this press release paints the picture that there is no problem. And that is reckless in its endangerment.
I have written publicly over and over again about my own abusive childhood, and because I’ve been public about it, people come to me. Nearly daily. I carry my own experiences and the experiences of hundreds and hundreds of others. And anyone who says we do not have an abuse problem would rather live in their comfortable fiction, even if it means ignoring the suffering of women and children to do it.
I told my bishop. In 1995. When there was a hotline. And he didn’t believe me. My sister told him. He didn’t believe her. My mother told him. He didn’t believe her. I told another bishop in 1997. He was sympathetic but figured there was nothing else to do since I had run away from home by that point. I told my bishops at BYU. I told a therapist at BYU. I had to turn my own parents in to Child Protective Services because no one else would help me.
In each case, I know because they told me, they called that hotline. And in each case they were told how to protect the church from liability, not how to help me. You can see the truth of that in the press release. “The help line provides legal counsel to aid clergy in complying with the law and working with law enforcement.” Except that legal counsel seems to be, repeatedly, don’t call law enforcement.
My story is not unique. Hundreds and hundreds of women and men have told me their stories. A bishop molested them and the Stake President sided with the bishop. A registered sex offender was in their ward and the bishop was only worried about “repentance” that practically sent victims into their arms. Women raped by their husbands and then chastised for failing to submit. Girls raped by someone they were on a date with and then forced to repent for it while the boy was sent on a mission. Bishops asking inappropriate questions in worthiness interviews that made teenage girls feel violated without the language to explain why. A hierarchical system in which every man has more authority than any woman and grooms women to be susceptible to predators as they deny their own voices and experiences to line up with what they are told every Sunday.
Preventing and responding to child abuse is the subject of a regular lesson taught during Sunday meetings.
I had to look this up because I honestly had no idea what it was referring to. I never did find what they were talking about. Going by the titles, I didn’t see anything in the Gospel Principles Manual, and every other “regular lesson” for adults is historically based. Teachings from the prophets or Sunday School organized by scriptures. In the youth manuals I found no mention at all. In the Joseph F. Smith manual I found a lesson called “The Wrongful Road of Abuse”, which means that it was taught once or twice in 2011. Is that what rises to “regular”?
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.
Referring to the sustaining process as a “vote” is a bit cute. Anyone who has ever witnessed someone oppose a sustaining vote knows how scandalous that is in practice. That in order to oppose the entire ward will witness and want to know what motivated it and all that “dirty laundry” will have to be aired. I’ve been in many many conversations where people passed on to strangers the “opposing” stories they witnessed as a funny artifact of Mormonism. The process alone isn’t necessarily abusive, but it does not rise to the level of informed and freely chosen consent necessary to count as a vote, so Public Affairs should not get to use it as evidence of how effective their abuse prevention strategies are.
“The result is that abuse by LDS clergy is exceedingly rare and swiftly addressed.”
Where is the evidence for this claim? Where is the data? I have NEVER. Not once. In all the times I have spoken with abuse survivors. NOT ONCE. Has anyone told me anything about their experiences that lines up with this being true. The best we can hope for is some fumbling good intentions. This is spin. They would need to be using a definition of “LDS clergy” that is so narrow to be laughable. They would need to have evidence that is filtered through layers of bureaucracy invested in the approval of leadership. They would need to be using “swiftly addressed” to mean “they were released from their calling and we sent the victim our love but no tools or support.”
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.
This is not true. A bishop has so very many incentives. They want to “keep the peace” within the ward, they fear frightening the congregation, they don’t understand how repentance needs to weigh the needs of the victim and not just the sinner, they have no training and don’t know what to do, they are covering for themselves, they don’t care. People are horrible to their families every day. Assuming that a bishop will treat the ward like his own family is not an acceptable standard. Not when we are talking about the effectiveness of preventing abuse. Abuse occurs within families. It occurs within ours.
The suggestion that the Church instructs members to keep abuse issues solely within the Church is false.
It’s hard not to feel like the Church is calling us liars. Those of us who tell our stories. Those of us who have lived through carrying the weight of a rape so the rapist’s future can not be “squandered”. Those of us who walk the halls with sexual predators because the bishop is helping them “repent”. Those of us who have been told to “forgive” our parents for their violence. Every time they are violent.
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.
This statement right here is the one that gives the entire statement away as harmful spin. Here they confess to having their cake and eating it too. Throughout this document clergy are said to always help the abused, to involve law enforcement as appropriate, to properly address abuse. And then here they admit that these clergy members they are counting on to get all this right, HAVE NO TRAINING. So how would they possibly know if any of their claims are true? They aren’t offering training in these policies, which means they aren’t worth the paper they are written on. They claim that bishops have no incentive, that the claim that the church keeps it in house is false. But HOW WOULD THEY KNOW. They offer no data, no studies, not even an anecdote. They are just making claims based on policies they have written and not implemented. The truth is that LDS clergy does whatever they come up with. And sometimes that’s the right thing, but often it’s the wrong thing, and it is frequently the wrong thing because of how the system is set up.
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.
This is such a bizarre interpretation of the issue. 27 states and Guam include clergy as legally mandated reporters of abuse. So this is mathematically inaccurate as well as spin. There are 50 states. How is 23 a broad majority?
In all of my experience, policy makers DO NOT believe confidentiality helps anyone. Certainly not minor children who do not have the safety to make an informed choice about which legal options they’d like to pursue. Mandated reporter laws exist explicitly so that victims don’t have to face the burden of the legal system but there can still be an interruption to the abuse and supervision of the minor. To try and claim that NOT REPORTING is actually a best practice? I don’t know what else to call it but a lie.
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.
Other churches train their clergy. Other churches do background checks. And do more for children in their care than telling the parents to watch out. This statement claims that we have the highest standards, but that could only ever be true in theory. Because our clergy is making it all up as they go along. Sure, excommunication exists as an option, but only to be used at the discretion of the Bishop and Stake President, who are under no obligation to use it. Abuse only rises to requiring a mandatory disciplinary council if it was done by the Bishop or higher ranking “prominent church position.” Which means that no woman and no high priest leader, boy scout leader, seminary teacher, etc. needs to have a disciplinary council unless an untrained Bishop and Stake President decide to have one.
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.
This statement is cruel. And betrays the misunderstanding of the long-term effects of abuse. “Allegedly occur[ing] decades ago” does not make any difference to the facts. This is a petty dig over a failed defense instead of honest introspection over how to protect potential victims.
One final point: The Church has not taken these measures to protect its reputation but to protect children.
It’s hard to pick a statement that is the most responsible for the tears of rage chapping my cheeks, but this one is high up on that list. I have been an abuse advocate for nearly two decades. For two decades I’ve begged for windows and peepholes to be installed in classrooms. And now they are happening. Now. When the church is facing such public censure for how it treats the children of people married to another member of the same sex. For the exclusion policy. For declaring loving parents apostates. I have personally made the argument that calling loving parents apostates – which puts them in the “mandatory disciplinary council” category while abuse is not – is disgusting in every way and trying to say that it’s being done for the children is a lie when there is so little being done to address abuse in the church. And now this statement comes out. Now we get windows in classrooms. After a big conference makes news showing how bad our abuse problem actually is (see news coverage here). It is gross. And so very unChristian. It is solely to protect its reputation.
If the church was interested in protecting children, here’s what it should be instituting, and only after it was properly instituted, issue public statements about.
1. TRAIN YOUR CLERGY. Train them to use mental health professionals, domestic violence experts, even people like me who have the unfortunate life experience. I know hundreds of women from these categories who have met with clergy to volunteer their services and been told “the Spirit will guide me because I have the mantle.” Our contributions were seen as undermining priesthood authority. When in reality, maybe our offers to volunteer WAS the Spirit guiding, but the bishop didn’t see it. Revelation doesn’t work the way we expect it to. Revelation does not reward laziness.
2. INSTITUTE BEST PRACTICES. The secular world has made a lot of progress here. Public school teachers get background checks. School campuses have safety protocols. They have sign ins. Stop only doing the bare minimum to count as not being liable. Actually protect the children.
3. STOP INTERVIEWING MINORS ABOUT SEX. If a principal was calling students alone into his office to ask them about their masturbation habits, he would be run out of town on a rail and maybe even face criminal charges. If a football coach called his players one by one into his office to ask them what they had done on their date last night, no one would defend it. But because it’s confession, it is sacred and defended as the thing right up next to an ordinance. Minors don’t have the experience and the tools to correct an authority figure who ventures too far. They don’t have the support to say “That is not an approved question and you’re making me uncomfortable.” Clergy members are human beings (WITHOUT TRAINING) who are going to have normal human responses to titillating discussion. Asking minors to engage one on one in a closed room with an authority figure is setting them up for abuse. Delegate this responsibility to a RS president or YW/YM leader. Encourage a two deep policy there. Invite parents or trusted adults into the process. Create a system of safety.
4. CHANGE EVERYTHING ABOUT HOW WE TEACH CHASTITY AND MODESTY. Stop blaming girls for the desires of boys and men. Teach consent. To both men and women, boys and girls. Stop talking about forgiveness as if it’s a rag that can sop up a mess. Actually talk about abuse and how to not be guilty of it. Teach from a place of empowerment, not fear. Create a healthy, holistic model that is about chastity and modesty as holy because of how it benefits us, not because of how it prevents catastrophe. Because catastrophe will still happen with alarming frequency.
5. ACKNOWLEDGE THAT WE HAVE AN ABUSE PROBLEM. Utah is eighth highest among all states in rates of childhood abuse. Where does that number come from? Is it that Utah non-members are somehow so off the charts evil that they make up all that abuse by themselves? Are people travelling in to commit their abuse? Is it the California drivers?
6. OFFER A REAL HOTLINE. One that exists for the victims. One that doesn’t rely on the belief of the bishop or his friend the Stake President. One that takes decisions away from people called to judge and puts them into the hands of someone called to help.
7. STOP FIGHTING MANDATED REPORTING. In states with clergy mandated reporter laws, just like doctors and therapists and teachers, if clergy has reason to suspect child abuse is happening, they have to report it. Regardless of what the victims choose, regardless of whether or not this suspicion arose through the perpetrator confessing their crimes. The church has argued against this over and over again in those court cases with “spurious allegations and overreaching demands.” Stop it. True repentance occurs with accountability and restitution. Reporting to the proper authorities is part of that process. Without accountability and restitution this can only ever be a legal argument. Never a pastoral one.
There is no way to find grace on this issue, for this statement. This statement is disgusting. It rewrites history and policy and culture and doctrine to claim that the church is better than it is on this issue, and they are doing it on the backs of the most wounded and vulnerable. And it is not acceptable.