On Mormon teens, sex, and closed-door ‘worthiness’ interviews with middle-aged men

Mormonism's new guidelines about youth being interviewed by bishops are a step in the right direction but don't go far enough to protect children and teenagers from the potential for sexual abuse.

Front page of the Protect LDS Children website.

The LDS Church has been sharply criticized in recent weeks for its longstanding policy of requiring teenagers to be interviewed by male church leaders. These one-on-one conversations have ranged widely to cover not only spiritual topics but also intensely personal issues and sexual behavior, recounted in the stories many individuals have uploaded to the website “Protect LDS Children.”

The site is the project of Sam Young, a former LDS bishop who has recently engaged in a hunger strike to draw attention to the problem of LDS leaders being alone behind closed doors with teens and even children. One such girl was only eight years old when she was molested by her bishop at a baptismal interview, as recounted in this heartbreaking video.

Young says the LDS Church does not have adequate measures in place to guarantee that bishops and other male leaders cannot take advantage of youth. Such abuse may be rare, but it happened to one of Young’s own daughters; she was just twelve when she started getting sexually explicit questions in her “worthiness” interviews with the bishop.

In response to the growing concerns about its policy on youth interviews, the LDS Church earlier this year updated the guidelines for local church leaders to use when interviewing youth (which happens once or twice a year). I’ve had a chance to compare the new guidelines from section 7.1.7 of Handbook 1 with that same section in the 2010 Handbook to see what is different . . . and the answer is that a few things have changed, but not enough.

What’s new:

  1. The new guidelines are actually available to the public. This in itself is huge. Handbook 1 is restricted to bishops and stake presidents, so the fact that this particular section has been made publicly available (see here) means that the Church is taking transparency more seriously. Parents and youth have a right to know what the expected content of a worthiness interview ought to be. In fact, parents might consider devoting a Family Home Evening or two to going over the guidelines and discussing what is, and what is not, fair game.
  2. A parent or other adult “should” be nearby. In the 2010 Handbook, an allowance was made for the possibility of having “a parent or another adult to be in an adjoining room, foyer, or hall.” Now, that language has been updated to become more gender inclusive and to introduce more of a mandate. The new material is in italics: “When a member of a bishopric or stake presidency or another assigned leader meets with a child, youth, or woman, he or she should ask a parent or another adult to be in an adjoining room, foyer, or hall. If the person being interviewed desires, another adult may be invited to be present during the interview. Leaders should avoid all circumstances that could be misunderstood.” While this is obviously a step forward, the burden is on the youth to know he or she has a right to have another adult present in the room, and that this does not have to be a parent. Is that a fair self-advocacy burden to place on, say, a twelve-year-old? I don’t think so.
  3. The list of five matters for discussion has been replaced with the questions for a limited-use temple recommend. Under the 2010 policy, bishops had wide latitude to discuss five topics of conversation, one of which was “being modest in dress and action, refraining from any kind of sexual activity, and refraining from viewing, reading, or listening to pornographic material.” That language is absent from the new policy, which instead refers bishops to stick with the 13 standard interview questions, one of which is simply “Do you live the law of chastity?” But before we go celebrating the notion that this might finally bring an end to bishops asking teens deeply shaming questions about masturbation and dating, we should note that bishops are still directed to make “appropriate use” of the “standards and explanations” in the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet. And that leaves the door wide open for far-reaching, open-ended conversations about modesty, dating, media usage, and what the pamphlet calls “sexual purity.”
  4. The new guidelines soften the sexism around Mormon women serving missions. This is not related to the topic of bishop interviews, but it’s still worth noting: whereas the 2010 Handbook directed its advice about mission preparation primarily to teen boys and stated that “the bishop and his counselors encourage young women to support young men in accepting mission calls” (yes, really!), the 2018 update is more balanced. Leaders should “give special attention to preparing youth to serve a full-time mission (see 4.2). Young men are encouraged to serve (see 4.3.1), and young women may be recommended to serve (see 4.3.2).” Also new: a mention that circumstances sometimes exist in which young men “are honorably excused” from the expectation to serve a mission.

All in all, the changes are minor and do little to address the systemic problem of middle-aged male church leaders being alone in a closed room with a teenager, potentially to ask sensitive and probing questions about the teen’s sexuality.

As a final note, last week when I was reading about Sam Young’s hunger strike I happened to receive an email requiring me to check in with Virtus, the Catholic Church’s online safety education program for anyone who volunteers in a parish or other Catholic setting. Since I teach English two mornings a month to refugees, I have to go to the Virtus site every few weeks whenever there is new content about protecting kids, and take a little quiz to show I’ve mastered the new content. (The overkill aspect of this is that I only teach adults, never children, but it’s better to require too much oversight of volunteers than too little.)

This month’s article was especially interesting to me because it began with the kinds of objections I hear all the time in Mormon circles: local church leaders are good people, abuse could never happen here, adults need to be one-on-one with youth or they’ll never find out what’s really going on in kids’ lives, etc. (I’ve even used that last excuse myself.)

But what the article pointed out is that even if we have, by some miracle, created a 100% safe situation for youth, and every single leader among thousands of local clergy would never abuse their power, our refusal to enact protections puts youth at risk in other contexts outside of church:

“When you do the things you are talking about, you become part of the problem. Those actions that you are justifying condition young people to accept more intimate touch from adults. You may not have bad intentions, but the next person who interacts with the young person may have a different purpose, and now that person will have an easier time of it. You just helped that predator break down the barriers that keep children safe. In addition, your actions condition the community to accept these behaviors as part of ministry and that also opens the door to predators.”

It’s time for Mormonism to heed this advice. If we care about youth as much as we say we do—and I believe we do care, deeply—then we will raise the bar to adopt a “no conditioning” standard.



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