(RNS) — For years, British members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been pushing church leaders for more effective standards to prevent sexual abuse.
On Saturday (July 1), many of their requests will become church policy throughout the United Kingdom.
“This is a win for activism,” said Douglas Stilgoe, a U.K. Latter-day Saint who runs the “Nemo the Mormon” podcast. “This is a win for engaged members saying, ‘No, something’s not right. We need to change it.’”
Chief among the changes is that all church members who work with children will need to undergo a background check, or DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service). A June 20 letter from the Europe North Area Presidency to male leaders in the area stated that the updated policies will introduce “mandatory DBS” for anyone “who will serve with children, youth or vulnerable adults, ensuring that individuals with a history of violent or abusive behavior are not allowed to work with vulnerable people.”
Mandatory DBS is something Sara Delaney, an English church member who is a retired social worker with over 30 years of experience in addressing sexual abuse, has advocated for years. “I tried on numerous occasions to bring to the attention of the church leaders in the U.K. that we really did not have any adequate safeguarding procedures, and we were leaving the door wide open for harm.”
But when she tried to raise the issue, “it was shut down. It was difficult to get anyone to listen or pay attention. It was like, ‘The priesthood have got this, and the prophet will tell us if it needs to change. Everything’s OK.’”
But everything was not OK. Delaney was aware of multiple situations in which the church had either failed to prevent abuse before it began or failed to report it to the authorities once a bishop or other leader was initially informed. In conversations with other church members, she learned of many other instances.
So she was surprised when, in October 2019, a solicitor (attorney) for the church in the U.K. reported to the government’s Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse committee that over the previous 10 years, there had only been “sixteen recorded allegations of sexual abuse made within the Church in England and Wales.” Delaney and the members she had been talking to knew of more cases than that in just their small circle of acquaintances.
So they embarked on a multipronged approach to highlight the problem. They wrote letters to their stake presidents in which they asked for background checks for anyone working with children, rigorous training for members to recognize and report sexual abuse and stricter rules about the supervision of minors.
They also called attention to some of the stories of abuse they knew about, including a bishop who had received two separate complaints of sexual abuse against the same man and dismissed those complaints. When two teenagers reported the abuse to the police, however, it was discovered this man had “a history of previous allegations” — all of which could have been discovered in a DBS check. Other stories addressed the haphazard way convicted offenders had attended church “without any risk management plan,” such as a teenager with multiple convictions for indecent exposure coming into unsupervised contact with other minors at church.
“We said, ‘Here are some examples where people have been harmed when it could have been prevented,’” Delaney said. “And this is what government and professional experts in the U.K. are suggesting for what standards should be in place for a faith community.”
Controversially in a church that prizes obedience and a united front, they also went public with their concerns.
She and Scottish member Jane Christie began a podcast, “21st Century Saints,” to shine a light on the LDS church’s lack of safeguarding protections compared with other churches in the U.K.
They surveyed members about their experiences with sexual abuse and received responses from over 100 women and a few men who had either experienced it themselves or were writing about a family member.
They contacted their members of Parliament, noting their constituents were being placed at risk by the LDS church’s policies.
They gave a presentation on the church to a U.K. organization that deals with safeguarding policies for children’s charities and received feedback that the organization’s members were concerned about the “significant unaddressed risks” that were occurring in the church.
And in an unusual move, they also sent a letter to every local Latter-day Saint bishop in the United Kingdom.
In the letter, Delaney said, “we gave them absolute clarity of the risks.” Not only the risks to vulnerable populations if the church did not step up its standards to combat sexual abuse, but also, possibly, to the bishops themselves.
“Under U.K. law, if you give someone a calling (volunteer position) in the church and those people go on to abuse children — and you could have prevented that if you ran a DBS check — that is a problem,” Delaney said. Many local leaders did not realize they might be considered legally liable if they had recommended an individual to work with children in the church and that person turned out to have a DBS record.
The letter to bishops “stirred up an absolute hornet’s nest, and a lot of tension,” she added. Bishops, stake presidents and Relief Society presidents began talking about the issue with one another, and also taking their concerns to the area presidency.
So starting Saturday, DBS checks will be required for anyone working with children in the U.K. church (as well as anyone called to be in a bishopric or stake presidency, which was one of the activists’ other urgent requests).
Another change is emphasizing the “importance of ongoing training and education on safeguarding and abuse prevention, and recognizing the signs of abuse and responding appropriately.”
That language is a bit vague for Delaney, but she will now have a significant official role in making sure the training and education are implemented in the most effective way possible. That’s because she has been called as a “stake safeguarding specialist,” a new calling that will take advantage of her decades of professional experience. She once worried her campaign for stricter safeguards might get her excommunicated. Instead, she’s been put in charge; she will be responsible for training church leaders and members in her area and making sure everyone is complying with the now-mandatory background checks.
Stilgoe finds it remarkable and encouraging that the church listened to members’ concerns and is implementing their suggestions. He was part of the group of priesthood holders that set Delaney apart earlier this month in her new calling, placing hands on her head and pronouncing a blessing on the endeavor.
“Only a few years ago, you’ve got Sam Young being excommunicated for saying similar things, and then you have Sara getting a stake calling for it,” Stilgoe said. “I think some praise and credit needs to be heaped upon Sara and also the stake presidents who I won’t name, because they might not like that. But they and many local bishops have been receptive and understanding, even if they haven’t always agreed with our methods.”
Delaney likewise sees the receptiveness as a positive sign in the church. “Somehow they’ve listened to two women that decided to say, ‘Hey, this is not good enough,’” she said. “This grassroots campaign has worked, it’s been successful, and we’re still here to tell the tale.”