The vast majority of the nearly 70,000 Mormon missionaries serving across the globe feel safe, a sweeping LDS Church survey shows, but the Utah-based faith is enhancing its security policies nonetheless and taking a second look at places where its proselytizers identified “multiple” concerns.
A year ago, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent a safety questionnaire to all of its young full-time missionaries. It included inquiries about whether the “elders” and “sisters” have experienced or observed physical harm, such as being punched, kicked, mugged, choked, restrained, bitten by a dog or in any other way injured.
It also asked about harassment, including obscene gestures, catcalls or stalking. It wanted to know if any respondents had been grabbed, groped, kissed or otherwise sexually assaulted — and, if so, when and where.
“We were pleased to learn that an overwhelming majority of missionaries reported feeling safe within their missions, and the number of incidents was very low compared to the total missionaries serving,” LDS Church spokesman Daniel Woodruff said in a news release. “Gratefully, serious threats and violence involving missionaries are uncommon, although we recognize that exceptions occur.”
Though the LDS Church publicly provided no data, it has decided to target a second survey at unspecified missions where its young troops reported “multiple safety concerns.”
“Information from this follow-up survey will be shared with mission presidents,” Woodruff added, “to help them understand the potential risks in their missions and to help them consider where missionaries are placed.”
He noted the church has established a Sister Safety Committee that “meets regularly … to determine how to enhance the overall safety of the [female] missionaries.”
The church also developed a follow-up process to “provide better care and support for missionaries” after any incident.
“A significant health, safety and security training program is being produced that is heavily influenced by the survey results,” Woodruff said. “… Feedback from this survey [also] will inform future changes.”
The public update on the church’s safety query comes in the aftermath of recent revelations about abusive behavior by two former LDS mission presidents.
Last month, McKenna Denson filed a lawsuit against the LDS Church and former Missionary Training Center President Joseph L. Bishop, alleging he raped her when she was a missionary at the church’s flagship MTC in Provo in the 1980s.
In 2014, Philander Knox Smartt III, a Mormon mission president in Puerto Rico, was excommunicated for unspecified misconduct with sister missionaries in his care.
Traffic accidents are among the most common causes of death and injuries among LDS missionaries. Last month, four missionaries were injured in a southern Idaho crash that killed two other people.
Traditionally, though, Mormon missionaries suffer fewer accidents and deaths than others in their age cohort — starting at 18 for elders and 19 for sisters.
That’s partly because they are “instructed to minimize the objects they have with them and only carry cash sufficient for that day’s needs,” the church’s policy states. “If accosted by thieves, missionaries are trained not to resist, to avoid confrontation and to give up whatever money they have.”
In 2013, about a dozen Mormon missionaries died, well above the typical average, which hovers between three and six a year.
However, even the higher number remained well below death rates for those same age groups across U.S. and world populations — as tracked by the World Health Organization and several prominent academic journals. Like-aged rates of death for nonmissionaries are six to 20 times higher, depending on the measures used.
Still, there have been occasions in which Mormon emissaries were evacuated from a country.
In the 1970s, missionaries in Argentina were given codes to call to find out whether to stay put or head to Buenos Aires if that country went to war with Chile (it didn’t). In the 1980s, Haiti was rocked by coups, and elders and sisters were locked down each time.
In recent years, civil unrest in Ukraine and the Ebola outbreak in Liberia and Sierra Leone caused church authorities to withdraw or move some missionaries to more stable regions. In 2013, an 18-year-old missionary from Bountiful was among survivors of a horrific train derailment in Spain that killed at least 80 people. And last year, several missionaries were severely wounded in the terrorist bombing at an airport in Belgium.
Just last week, the LDS Church transferred dozens of missionaries out of Turkey due to “a prolonged period of heightened political tensions.”
“We are committed,” Woodruff said, “to doing all we can to understand and to improve, where needed, the circumstances of all missionaries.”