Pressure to Forgive Challenges Mormon Families, Divides Wards

Salt Lake Tribune, October 17, 1999
By Peggy Fletcher Stack

Sharon White wanted so much to be a good mother, to keep her children safe. So White (not her real name) made her Sandy home a magnet for neighborhood youth, and the strategy seemed to work: Her son's teen-age friends flocked there to play computer games and basketball.

Then, using ruses like getting a drink of water, one of them sexually abused her 3-year-old daughter.

The girl began asking explicit questions about body parts and soon told her parents about repeated fondling and exposure. The boy eventually confessed, pleaded guilty and served three days in a juvenile facility.

Another wave of pain hit the family, White says, inflicted by well-intentioned leaders and fellow members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Her husband, the boy's Mormon bishop, asked his stake president to assign someone else to guide the boy's repentance. Instead, the father was released from his church position without explanation, leaving him confused and disappointed. A stream of sermons and lessons on forgiveness began.

"It was like everyone was tapping their feet, saying: 'Have you forgiven him yet?' " says White. "I don't think a lot of people realized the depth of our pain. They didn't have to listen to my daughter crying in the night or drive to and from therapy every week."

Her family's story reflects criticism leveled at religious denominations across the country, as victims have charged church leaders with failing to understand the seriousness of child sexual abuse and failing to react with compassion for those injured by it.

Out of ignorance or misguided sympathy, churches historically have shielded clergy or other member abusers and attempted to handle allegations internally and spiritually, rather than reporting abuse to civil authorities, victims and their advocates charge.

All churches face challenges in improving their response to child sexual abuse, from a reluctance to discuss sexual issues to an aversion to screening their own members before allowing them to work with children.

But the 10-million member LDS Church has a certain vulnerability to pedophiles with its all-volunteer lay clergy, optimism about human nature and trusting environment. In addition, its churchwide sponsorship of Boy Scout troops adds increased exposure. Critics especially target the church's lay clergy, arguing that they are insufficiently trained to handle reports of abuse within families and by predatory pedophiles.

The church's 26,000 congregations, called wards and branches, are administered by unpaid volunteers known as bishops and branch presidents, who hold jobs and perform their ministerial duties on their own time. The church contends it has become a leader in combatting child sexual abuse, issuing educational pamphlets, offering periodic training to its bishops and opening a hot line for its lay leaders to call for guidance when an abuse allegation arises.

Recently, the LDS Church was named 1999 Child Advocate of the Year, in part for its efforts to educate its members about child sexual abuse, by the interfaith, interagency group Prevent Child Abuse Utah. Harold C. Brown, director of LDS Family Services, asserts: "I can say with confidence, and I think accuracy, that there are few organizations in this country that have done more to try to understand [child sexual abuse], to prevent it, to fight and to deal with it than this church."

Still, those on the Utah front lines of the war against child sexual abuse say the church's efforts are not nearly enough. There is a huge gulf, they say, between laudable policies and the realities faced by an overworked lay bishop.

"LDS bishops are not highly trained in the area of child sexual abuse," says Sandy Police L t. Mark Nosack, who has dealt with hundreds of cases of child sexual abuse involving LDS perpetrators. "They should turn [allegations] over to trained professionals, but plenty of them aren't."

The numbers tell the story of child sexual abuse in Utah: of 8,301 confirmed cases of child maltreatment in 1998, 25 percent involved sexual abuse, according to the state Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS). In 1996, the most recent national figures available, 3.1per 1,000 Utah children were sexually abused. That compares to 5.1 percent in Wisconsin, which had the highest ratio, and 0.4 in New Jersey, the lowest, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Children's Bureau.

DCFS officials say Utah's relatively high ratio is likely the result of more aggressive reporting by pediatricians as well as the work done by the Children's Justice Centers, where teams of caseworkers, police, prosecutors and therapists work with and for abused children.

At Primary Children's Medical Center alone, about 1,000 children are assessed for abuse each year, says Julie Bradshaw, director of the Salt Lake City facility's Child Protection Team. Of those, about 920 have been sexually abused. Only 18 percent of the perpetrators are ever prosecuted, she notes.

Every year, 600 to 700 cases of child sex abuse by juveniles are adjudicated statewide, says Dave Fowers of Utah's Network of Juveniles Offending Sexually, a coalition of police, prosecutors, therapists and victim advocates.

While the problem of child sexual abuse is no more or less prevalent in Utah or the LDS Church than in any other state or religion, Mormons make up as much as 70 percent of the population, at least in name, and therapists say the perpetrators reflect those demographics. As with other religious groups, the first reaction to accusations of child sexual abuse in a Mormon congregation is almost always disbelief. It is difficult for Latter-day Saints to look at "active, card-carrying Mormons as [sexual abuse] perpetrators," says Larry Langlois, a marriage and family counselor in Sandy and an active Mormon.

It is a myth that abusers are all social misfits, adds Fowers. "These are our Eagle scouts, going to church, on the football team, have decent grades. A majority are from two-parent families."

To help its clergy, LDS therapists in 1985 produced a pamphlet on how to identify pedophiles and how to understand and protect victims.

In 1989, the church offered training to Utah bishops and in 1991 and 1992, that training-usually a one-day workshop-was extended to all ward and stake leaders, including women leaders of the Relief Society, Young Women and Primary organizations. The training was repeated in 1996, but many advocates believe the training should be mandatory and yearly.

Most pedophiles are repeat offenders with little, if any, empathy for their victims, and they can mask their cunning with charm, Brown says. "If someone comes into your office and cries and says, 'I'm sorry. I'll never do that again,' you cannot take that at face value." Lessons on abuse were included in Relief Society, Primary and Priesthood manuals. Sermons vehemently condemning abusive behavior were given at the church's semiannual general conferences.

"Those of you who may be abusing children, I rebuke you," church President Gordon B. Hinckley has told the faithful.

In 1995 the church established its 24-hour national "helpline" for LDS leaders. It is staffed by experienced Mormon therapists who know the child abuse reporting laws in all 50 states. The first goal of every call is to help the victim, Brown says. The second is to see the abuse is reported to authorities.

"We have no reason not to do it. If a man has sexually abused a child, why would you want to protect an individual like that?" Brown says. "We believe that they have to be accountable before the law of the land and they have to be accountable before the priesthood [of God]."

Response Improving: Many Utah sex-abuse therapists report these efforts have paid off. In general, they say, LDS bishops are much more likely to report allegations of abuse than they were before.

The most significant step may have been the recognition that a bishop or stake president alone cannot deal effectively with the problem, says Primary Children's Bradshaw. "They are reaching out to people who know how to handle it rather than trying to deal with it themselves."

Utah law requires anyone who learns of abuse to contact authorities. Clergy are exempt only if the sole source of their knowledge is a perpetrator's confession. But failures to report still occur too often, some detectives say, and bishops rarely are prosecuted for this transgression.

One reason may be that such cases would fail in court because jurors probably would be sympathetic to a volunteer bishop who professes ignorance or inexperience, says Deputy Salt Lake County District Attorney James Cope.

Cope says that when he decides a prosecution is impractical, he occasionally alerts Kirton & McConkie, the law firm that represents the LDS Church, to the situation. At least one local LDS Social Services employee has been disciplined recently for failing to follow the law, he says.

Bishops may reason the fallout from reporting sexual abuse would harm the offender. But therapists say compassion, particularly with young offenders, is misplaced.

"The younger we can get a perpetrator, the more likely we can change the deviant attractions or behaviors or sexual compulsions," says Fowers, who has worked with juvenile offenders for more than 20 years. For juveniles who accept responsibility for their actions and go through therapy, recidivism is between 11 and 13 percent.

LDS policy instructs bishops against choosing sides between victims and perpetrators. But bishops continue to write letters on behalf of perpetrators, detectives and therapists say, and many attend sentencings or other court hearings, if only to let offenders know they are not alone.

In 1995, a team of Brigham Young University sociologists, including Karen Gerdes and Martha Beck, reported the results of a study of 71 LDS women who had experienced child sexual abuse. Of the 61 women who talked to a church leader about the abuse, 49 said the experience was negative, describing their bishops as "judgmental," "unbelieving" or "protective of the perpetrators."

C.Y. Roby, an LDS therapist who helped establish the church's manuals and training on child sexual abuse, concedes there is room for improvement. "Do I think the church has made tremendous strides in coping with child sexual abuse? Yes. But do I believe it needs to go further? Yes, I do."

Screening Volunteers? Churches share a common obstacle in confronting sexual abuse: while concern about sexuality is paramount in many religious traditions, therapists say that rarely translates into straightforward conversations about healthy sex.

Such hesitancy is shared by the LDS Church, Langlois says: "It is still taboo to talk about sex openly in congregations."

The LDS Church's emphasis has always been in "preaching sexual purity, requiring no sex before marriage," he says. "But they are very reluctant to talk about confusion of sexual identity and sexual abuse." Many churches also struggle with whether to screen their volunteers and members who work with children, a move safety experts advise. In the LDS Church, adult members of wards, which typically have 300 to 500 members, serve in all positions of leadership over other adults, youth and children.

While church leaders do conduct personal interviews with those they are considering for such positions, no independent background checks are done on those serving with teens or children. However, the church does keep computerized records on each member, and when one "has threatened the well-being of others, particularly for abuse, a confidential annotation is placed on that person's membership record, which alerts bishops and helps protect other church members from such persons," said LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills. Such annotations are removed only with the approval of the faith's governing First Presidency, he said.

The church also is deeply involved in the Boy Scouts of America, sponsoring more scouting units than any other religious group in America. Every Mormon scoutmaster is required to register with the Boy Scout organization in his area and is checked against the BSA's own list of men who have been accused of or involved in child sexual abuse.

Church leaders also must decide whether to send youths accused of child sexual abuse on missions. In 1998, a Utah man was paroled unconditionally from a prison term for child sexual abuse, in part because he anticipated serving a mission. His call was rescinded, however, when top church leaders became aware of his crime.

Brown is adamant the church does not send juvenile offenders on missions because "they're just too vulnerable . . . Why would you put somebody in that situation? If a person is an alcoholic, why suggest he be a bartender for a profession? Giving them access to potential victims is the bigger concern."

But Nosack says he recently had a case where a juvenile offender had his conviction for sexual abuse expunged from his record so he could serve a mission. "I don't think many are able to serve missions, but some fall through the cracks, even some in the last few months."

Path to Forgiveness: In listing Mormonism's chief principles, church founder Joseph Smith placed repentance second only to faith. And in the modern church, repentance and forgiveness are twin cornerstones of the church's belief in eternal progression toward Godlike perfection. Because of that emphasis, some victims claim that LDS Church therapy for offenders is geared more toward spiritual progress than behavioral or psychological change.

Roby, who has dealt with scores of LDS perpetrators, says that is a false impression.

"During two group therapy sessions every Tuesday night for 10 years, we never opened with prayer. We didn't wear white shirts and ties and never had any Mormon leaders dictate our approach. We didn't want them hiding behind the church or their religious beliefs," says Roby. "Their [perpetrators'] desire for church involvement never interfered with therapeutic treatment."

LDS therapists do not argue that prayer alone can eliminate destructive sexual behavior, but they do strive to reconcile victims and perpetrators with God, Roby says.

Yet, in the Gerdes-Beck study, 50 women expressed frustration or guilt about being admonished by the highest church authorities or local leaders to forgive their perpetrators.

Most of the women agreed that forgiveness is a critical part of healing, but were angered by the notion that forgiveness leads to healing. Rather, say Gerdes and Beck, these victims described forgiveness as a "gift from God" near the end of the healing process. That proved true for the Whites, who have emerged from their experience seven years ago with their faith in God and church intact and with new insights into forgiveness.

That tranquility was hard won, however. The family felt compelled to move away, as neighbors appeared to blame them for disrupting the peace and lined up to support the perpetrator in overcoming his problem. The Whites were accused of being vindictive for trying to warn others. They felt pressured to quickly forgive.

But since their move, the pain has fallen away. All the family are active in their new ward.

Their daughter is finished with therapy and seems to be a healthy 11-year-old.

And in its own time, forgiveness has come.

"People are asking you to forgive, timing you, saying you are not doing it right. It is so destructive that it is impossible to forgive," White says. "But if people are supportive, allowing you to work at your own rate of speed, you can actually do it faster."

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