I had the opportunity to share my thoughts on a recent episode of the “Mormon Matters” podcast; I joined other LDS therapists and experts to talk about ways that we can ensure ourselves and our families are protected in ecclesiastical situations. With the #MeToo movement and other instances of high-profile men abusing their position of power to take advantage of vulnerable people, it’s time we take a look at the dynamics of how all of this applies to Mormonism. The purpose of our discussion was not to instill paranoia or fear that dominates our thoughts, but instead to empower Mormon families to be smart and safe in how they approach ecclesiastical settings.
How Bad Are Things?
It’s not always easy to put an exact number or statistic on how prevalent abuse is without an LDS context. Child therapist Tim Birt (who was part of our panel) says that between 1 in 4 and 1 in 3 girls will be sexually abused in some way before their eighteenth birthday; for boys, the numbers are around 1 out of 6 to 1 out of 5. Regardless of the exact number, this is still pervasive and deeply troubling. As a clinician who has worked with thousands of LDS women over my 20 year career, I’ve seen this problem quite a lot as well. Sometimes we are tempted to believe our church is in a bubble, but despite our best intentions, we can’t overlook this problem. It’s not an isolated event, and it’s something to take seriously. The good news is that we’re talking about it.
A Systemic Problem
Ronda Callister helped shed some light on why and how the Church as an organization can inadvertently perpetuate a wide spectrum of abusive behaviors. Sexual predators are very good at looking and acting normal, so unfortunately, it’s easy to disbelieve that abuse is happening. For example, Larry Nassar, the Michigan coach convicted of abusing well over 100 young women was so likable and charismatic that he was able to touch his victims inappropriately even as their parents and others were in the same room. When someone finally blew the whistle on him, it was years before he was investigated and ultimately put into prison. Thankfully, more women are being heard and believed as we examine this watershed moment in our culture where we really look and examine what is going on.
Another systemic problem we encounter is that on an organizational level, change can be very, very challenging to affect and be implemented. It can take years for the smallest new policy or change to happen. And the bigger the system (in this case, the LDS Church), the harder it is to be fully put into action. It can be frustrating and disheartening to witness how slow progress is, but once again, there are a lot of good conversations happening that give us reason to hope that we can alleviate this issue.
What We Can Do
Most of the ideas that we as therapists suggested for improvement were not for protecting against predatory bishops or ecclesiastical leaders; they were for navigating situations that may be uncomfortable or slightly inappropriate even for the most well-meaning church leader. For example, when it comes to interviewing minors, it is in line with best practices to have another adult be present. Whether it’s a parent or a youth leader, a third-party presence can be an advocate for the child, help discern true meaning, and also protect all involved. Ronda gave the example of a Young Women’s leader who sat in on an interview with a teenage girl who was able to help pinpoint that the sexual experience she was describing was not as the result of sin, but was instead date rape. Because there’s so much shame surrounding the topic of sex and also because our youth don’t always understand what is assault vs. what is consent, the Bishop may have easily misinterpreted things. Having someone else present seems like it should be common sense.
Another change need is further training for leaders. Not training in the sense that they are going to become counselors, but education as to how to best navigate difficult situations (such as domestic violence and sexual assault) and then properly refer to professional help. My husband is a Bishop, and he and others in the stake recently had a training about how to respond to these kinds of instances. This is fresh on people’s minds, and it’s exciting that we’re seeing this positive change!
Lastly, we need to empower ourselves and our children to set boundaries. We are raised in a religious culture that values obedience, and while there is truth to this spiritual component, we can help our kids listen to their conscience to know when something isn’t right and to say “no.” They need to understand that we are their biggest advocates, and that if anyone says something like, “you can’t tell your parents,” they should come running to us! Empowering our families to recognize what’s inappropriate and to have the courage to speak up is key.
Listen to the full podcast episode here