The Southern Baptist Convention recently released a 288-page report detailing how the denomination covered up sexual abuse for years. The denomination kept a secret list of 703 known abusers, some of whom are still working as ministers today. According to this report, the leaders did nothing to warn members of the danger and they took, “no action to ensure that the accused ministers were no longer in positions of power at SBC churches.” 

This is a blow—not only for this faith organization itself but even more for the many individuals whose faith in Jesus Christ has been strengthened by their participation and participation in the same. Along with the many other observers, we mourn with other believers who are saddened and sickened by these revelations—and even more, or the many victims whose cries are now being heard, all too late.  

To put these numbers in perspective, the Southern Baptist Convention has roughly 14 million members and about 47,000 affiliated churches. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to which I belong has nearly 17 million members and 31,000 wards (congregations) or branches. In terms of size, the two faiths are in basically the same category. That something like this could creep into any large community is not surprising—but the size of the disclosure is. Especially for a body of committed disciples of Jesus Christ, we join the many others grappling with the obvious question:  How could this have happened?  

The next natural question for any Latter-day Saint would be: Are we doing any better?

Abuse among Latter-day Saints. First, let me state the obvious: I am in no position to know the real numbers. And neither are you. This information is not public, and we have no way of guessing. The true number of abuse cases in the Southern Baptist Convention isn’t known either. The reported figures represent the stories of victims who were willing and able to talk. It’s not an accurate number of actual abuse that took place. The reality is there is no way to know what the actual scope of abuse is in any church, including ours. Part of that is because some of it is never reported, and when it is reported victims and their families usually value privacy about it. 

Regarding the Latter-day Saints, some have looked to the website Protect LDS Kids as an indicator of what’s happening. This site details many stories of abuse in our faith community, and I’ve read every single one. But the creators of the site would also have you believe that abuse is wildly rampant in our church and that every child is in serious and immediate danger. But their alarmist rhetoric makes their claims less credible, not more. 

Before I give you my own opinion you should also know this: I am a survivor of sexual abuse by my (non-Latter-day Saint) youth pastor. Subsequently, I took my childhood church to court for my abuse and won. (If you’re curious, you can read a series of articles about it here in the Modesto Bee, a California newspaper, Teen said a Modesto pastor abused her. Church “swept it under the rug.”). I’m now a licensed mental health therapist and have worked extensively with abuse victims. I’m also a fairly recent convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—not quite an outsider.  But since I joined the Church just 3.5 years ago I might be noticing some things that lifelong members don’t. So, while my opinion isn’t based on hard numbers, it’s a very informed opinion. 

Ways we’re getting it right. Here’s the good news: We are getting some things very right. If you’ve been a lifelong Latter-day Saint, you might not realize that some of the mundane and rather boring aspects of church governance actually offer protections that members of other churches don’t have (but potentially could if they adopted them too).  There are a number of examples, here are three especially deserving of attention: 

1. The member number system. Among Southern Baptists, they have no way to track members or leaders who move from state to state or church to church. A person can abuse in one church and freely move to another without anyone being the wiser.  How can this be?  Don’t these churches do some kind of background check? 

It’s actually very simple: A background check is not a list of every bad thing a person has ever done. It’s a list of crimes they have been convicted of. As such, background checks are a net made mostly of holes big enough to drive a bus through. In order for abuse to show up on a background check, the victim (or their family) would have to report the crime to the police, and the abuser would have to be found guilty. But because of the nature of sexual abuse, most victims don’t report it. 

In fact, the national think tank Child USA has research showing that the average age for first disclosure of sexual abuse is 51 years old—long after the statute of limitations has run out.  If the crime can’t be reported because the statute of limitations has run out, there is no way for the crime to be reported or prosecuted as a criminal act. Occasionally, victims have luck suing in civil court despite this limitation, but civil judgments are not criminal judgments and don’t show up on the average background check. I know of one pastor in Arizona whose 5 victims took him to civil court and won—but that pastor could still produce a clean background check if asked because there was no legal record that he had committed any crime.  

One of the recommendations of the recently released report is to create a system through which members and leaders can be tracked as they move from one congregation to another. Sound familiar? 

The member-number system is not perfect but it does allow leaders to make notes about individuals who would not be safe around children or teenagers. Those notes follow the member from ward to ward. Sure, there are holes in this system: leaders could fail to notate something important, and future leaders could fail to read the notes. But it’s better than the alternative, and even other denominations like the Southern Baptists are starting to recognize that. 

2. Callings. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are regularly asked to serve in callings by their local leadership. This seems like a rather nuts-and-bolts part of our organizational structure as a faith and not something that is normally thought of as being a protective measure. But let me explain how it happens in most other churches. 

Even churches that employ paid clergy still rely heavily on volunteers. Some churches will do a direct ask of members that is similar to how a Latter-day Saint Bishop might ask a member to serve in a calling. But the vast majority of churches are consistently desperate for volunteers and will take anyone who is willing.  If an adult had malicious intent in their heart and wanted to be given access to children or youth, all he has to do is volunteer. Abusers are generally likable and charming. And as I pointed out earlier, it is very unlikely that a background check will produce anything. Most churches have processes for how this happens with applications, reference checks (references the individual themselves supplies), trainings, and policies—and it does take some time to work through all the steps. But in an average church, an abuser can go from walking in the front door for the first time to having your child in his lap in as little as six months. Parents trust these volunteers because they believe the church has done due diligence in making sure they’re appropriate. 

Compare this to the calling system. If an abuser walked into a Latter-day Saint congregation he can not easily say, “I’m here to volunteer with the youth,” as he could elsewhere. He generally has to wait until he receives a calling—which he cannot nominate himself for and which may never come. If you were an abuser looking for easy access to kids, which system would you choose?  The one where you can walk in the door and be given a role almost immediately, or the one where you have to wait and see if you get called?

I’m not saying abuse never happens in Latter-day Saint churches. Anyone with an internet connection could easily disprove that notion. But I am saying that it’s less likely simply due to this kind of a structural factor that serves as a barrier and protection. 

3. Withdrawal of Membership. As an abuse victim myself I will tell you that enduring the actual abuse wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was that the church I was part of at the time took my abuser’s side. I tried for decades to hold them accountable on my own and never once did they admit it had even happened. In fact, in their own paperwork filed with the court, they claimed that any harm I experienced from abuse was my own fault. 

Sadly, this is not an unusual circumstance. Churches regularly embrace the abusive leader and shun the victim. Don’t believe me?  Watch this video from just a few days ago where it happens on film: Indiana pastor tells church he had sex with 16 year old.  

I know perfectly well that this has happened in Latter-day Saint congregations in the past. It is horrific and wrong and there is no excuse for it. But I also know that things are changing. Abusers have their membership removed and require First Presidency approval to be re-baptized. Recently I learned of a childhood friend who had been abused 40 years ago. Her abuser was a member of the Church, had to go before a membership council, and lost his membership. He can’t rejoin unless the First Presidency approves it. When I learned this news something in me relaxed that I didn’t even know was tense. 

I know this is not how every situation has been handled—and if you are reading this and your situation was handled poorly please know that you deserved better. Right now it seems to me that the Church is trying to do better in ways that go well beyond the more typical embrace of abusers which has happened in the past in virtually all communities.   

Ways We Can Do Better

Despite these positive things to appreciate there are two major areas I see where we could be doing better. 

Let me tell you the story of a private school near where I live. They brought in an expert on abuse to train staff, help consult on policy, and do a presentation for the student body on what to do if an adult is being abusive. After the training, 3 eleven-year-old girls started talking and they realized each of them had an experience with a certain staff member that was concerning—not outright abuse, but pushing the line. The girls believed the training they had received: If you feel uncomfortable, talk with an adult about it. So they made an appointment to talk to the principal of the school. The girls explained their experiences and concerns. The principal chastised them and told them, “don’t try to be little detectives—you’ll just stir up unnecessary trouble.”  

While I don’t think this identical event has happened in any Latter-day Saint congregation, I do wonder if we inadvertently treat the concerns of young people the same way. As adults, we are used to looking past the oddities of someone’s personality and hoping for the best, but kids are not practiced in this. They know when someone makes them feel uncomfortable even if it’s not outright abuse. Do we also sometimes quiet their concerns because they’re ‘just based on the feelings of some kids’?  Do we tell them they’ll just stir up unnecessary trouble and ‘Brother So-and-So is actually really great’? I hope not, but I fear that we sometimes still might—in part due to our desire to believe the best about people. 

Everyone’s biggest blind spot. The other area where we could do better is not specific to our church, but rather something all adults who care about kids need to learn. We think we would know exactly what to do if a kid disclosed abuse to us, but in reality most of the time, we don’t even notice it. Here’s why:

It is a very rare child or teen who can ask to talk to you, sit down, and clearly state, “I’m being abused” or even, “This thing is happening to me and I feel uncomfortable.” Instead, they try one of two tactics. They might bring up the issue of abuse in a general kind of way, or in a way that has nothing to do with them or anyone they know. They’ll tell you about a news story they heard where a kid got abused. The adult— understandably so—has no idea that what this kid is really doing is trying to gauge their response. Will the adult blame the victim? Not take it seriously? Defend the abuser?  If they do, that will be the last time that kid tries to bring it up. And that adult will have no idea the kid was trying to open a conversation about what is happening to them now or in the past. Kids who use this approach generally require up to 8 separate conversations before they will actually explain what is happening. 

The other way that children or teens disclose is simply by accident. The kid will say something that reveals that they know more than they should, or that an adult has been closer to them than they should. If the adult they’re talking to isn’t paying attention they won’t be able to ask follow-up questions. Many opportunities to discover abuse are lost simply because the adult isn’t paying enough attention to see that something doesn’t add up. That lack of attention is epidemic among adults today in our digital world—and not just for busy parents.  

Every adult I know would say they want to help a kid who is being abused. And if abuse were disclosed by a child, they’d do anything to help. But as you can see, most of the time adults don’t even recognize the disclosure because they’re expecting it to come in a mature and direct statement that most children or teens are simply not able to give. 

Yes, abuse happens in every kind of church, including ours. As Latter-day Saints, we enjoy some protections that aren’t always recognized—and there are still ways we can do better.

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