A coalition of advocates against child sex abuse in churches gathered Sunday to announce the nation’s “first march” — planned for this fall in Salt Lake City — dedicated to ending such abuse.
Sam Young — a former bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who was excommunicated after his push to end one-on-one interviews with lay leaders in which children sometimes are asked sexually explicit questions — joined forces with the Zero Abuse Project, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and Boise’s James, Vernon & Weeks law firm to announce the march and a series of mountain climbs to protest child sex abuse.
“Child abuse is the most prevalent health problem children face. Yet we’re not talking about it, not addressing it,” said Young, who founded Protect Every Child and planned the march. “I encourage everybody that is concerned about child sex abuse, anybody that wants to eliminate what’s happening to children, to come to the march.”
The march is set for Oct. 5, starting at Salt Lake City Hall and ending at the Utah Capitol.
Until Aug. 3, a news release stated, coalition members also will ascend Wasatch Front mountains to “emphasize the point that society should be shouting from the mountaintops the importance of protecting children from sexual predators in their religious communities."
Young said the climbs are symbolic of the Latter-day Saint hymn “High on the Mountain Top,” which encourages members to stand proud in their faith.
“It’s very symbolic,” Young said in an interview. “This is the message: Protect our children from abuse. That is a message so important we want to shout it from the mountaintops.”
Seven of the 11 planned hikes remain. Young invited Utahns to join in — the schedule is on the group’s Facebook page — and urged those around the country to complete similar climbs and post pictures on social media with “Protect Every Child” flags.
“This is something that people can engage in and do building up to the march,” he said.
During Sunday’s announcement, two women leading SNAP and the Zero Abuse Project shared personal examples of their childhood sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
“I was taught, as many children in other religions are, that church leaders are men of God,” said Judy Larson, SNAP vice president and a member of the group’s Utah board, “stand-ins for whichever deity your faith worships, men to be trusted, listened to and obeyed.”
Forcing children to discuss their sexual behaviors with adult men, Larson added, is a gateway for physical abuse and “a noncontact category of sexual abuse.”
She also called for more accountability within churches, including revocation of their tax-exempt statuses and legislation requiring them to fulfill annual “child safety audits.”
“As compassionate people and taxpayers,” Larson said, “we need to demand that our institutions [address] this health crisis.”
Similarly, Joelle Casteix, a founding member of the Zero Abuse Project board, called for changing the statutes of limitation on survivors being able to file civil lawsuits against churches harboring abuse.
“The number one thing that we can do to stop the cycle of child sexual abuse,” she said, “is to ensure that survivors are given the right and the safety to speak, and a safe place to come forward to expose the abuse and to expose the institutions that have covered up the abuse.”
All three leaders said the first step toward solving the problem is removing the shame from the child and providing a safe haven for them to report abuse.
“The more we take the burden off of survivors, and the more we reduce the shame and the secrecy, and the more that we hold institutions accountable,” Casteix said, “the more that we look at predators and say ‘no more,’ we will stop the cycle of abuse and we will make our children safer.”