In a strongly worded news release issued Friday morning, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints accused The Associated Press of publishing an “oversimplified and incomplete” story about the faith’s handling of child sex abuse cases.
But experts on the issue remain adamant and say the church has a long way to go to ensure a safe and transparent reporting environment for victims.
In particular, the faith’s news release focused on the role of the church’s help line given to lay local leaders when handling cases of abuse, saying the system ensures reporting compliance.
The AP’s investigation, drawing on previously sealed court documents, highlighted families of survivors who said the help line was misused by church leaders to divert abuse accusations away from law enforcement, leaving victims vulnerable.
“The nature and the purpose of the church’s help line was seriously mischaracterized in a recent Associated Press article,” the release stated. “The help line is instrumental in ensuring that all legal requirements for reporting are met.”
It added: “When a leader calls the help line, the conversation is about how to stop the abuse, care for the victim and ensure compliance with reporting obligations, even in cases when the law provides clergy-penitent privilege or restricts what can be shared from private ecclesiastical conversations.”
Published on Thursday, the AP investigation described two ongoing lawsuits, one based in Arizona and the other in West Virginia, brought by child sex abuse survivors against the Utah-based church.
According to the report, at least one local leader — a bishop in Arizona — was told by someone who answered the help line not to take any action in the case of a father in his congregation who confessed to repeatedly raping his daughters, one starting when she was just 6 weeks old. As a result, the abuse was reportedly allowed to continue for several years until the man was arrested on charges of child pornography.
The article’s author, Michael Rezendes, previously worked for The Boston Globe, where he was part of a team of reporters who earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for exposing the Roman Catholic Church’s pattern of covering up clergy sex abuse. That project was dramatized in the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight.”
A 2018 story in The Salt Lake Tribune also described the Arizona case and ongoing complaints about the church’s help line and the advice not to report the abuse to police.
The LDS Church, though, has taken some steps to protect abuse victims in its midst.
In 2017, the National Children’s Alliance honored the church’s advocacy for protection of — and supportive care for — victims of child abuse.
The alliance presented its National Philanthropy Leadership Award to Joy D. Jones, then general president of the faith’s Primary organization for children, praising the church for its “compassionate, committed leadership among communities of faith as a national philanthropic partner of the National Children’s Alliance and the Children’s Advocacy Center movement, in addition to its long-standing support for Utah Children’s Justice Centers.”
Two years later, the church produced a 30-minute online training course on preventing abuse for all adults who interact with children and youths in their religious assignments.
Anyone who works in one of the faith’s children or youth organizations was required to take the training.
“The training is designed to increase awareness, highlight policies and identify best practices for supervising and interacting with children and youth,” the church said at the time. “It also helps leaders know how to prevent and respond to abuse.”
The “creation and evaluation of the training,” it said, was done in consultation with “leaders and specialists from child protection organizations, family therapists and other professionals.”
The faith’s online prevention program mixes narration, illustrations, multiple-choice quizzes on what to do in certain situations, statements about how to recognize various types of abuse, and what should be done.
The training emphasizes that “two adult supervisors must be present at all church-sponsored activities attended by children, youth and young single adults” and that “two responsible adults should be present” when adults are teaching young people in church settings.
The role of bishops
If a Latter-day Saint who is not a bishop learns about an abusive situation, the church advised, he or she should “immediately contact legal authorities and a bishop for counsel and direction.”
Bishops and stake presidents (regional lay leaders), on the other hand, are instructed to call the faith’s “hotline.” Bishops are lay volunteers who are appointed to lead their congregations for a period of time, usually about five years.
If the faith is going to “put men in that position,” said Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, a Chicago-based Latter-day Saint therapist, “they need to be trained in how to think about these issues — how to find out what the abuse victim needs and to turn it over to professional therapists and others skilled in dealing with abuse.”
The goal should be about more than liability or doing the legal minimum, Finlayson-Fife said. “What more would God expect from us than to help victims, especially children?”
Ross Trewhella, who served as a bishop in southern England for 12 years, said the help line worked for him.
“I did it a number of times,” Trewhella wrote in an email, stressing that there are key differences between the help line he used and the one given to bishops in the United States. Namely, the one he had access to was not run by the Salt Lake City law firm Kirton McConkie, but instead by a British solicitor.
“I found the advice invaluable,” he said, “and they were at pains to make sure victims were protected and that abuse was reported correctly to the authorities.”
His stake (regional) leaders were “always good in going beyond the minimum mandatory training.”
“They gave us regular abuse prevention training, with the emphasis on immediately protecting the victim and making sure we were well aware of the consequences of not doing things properly,” the former bishop said. “Sadly, I don’t think that happens everywhere.”
While he understands that clergy confidentiality is “helpful when somebody is dealing with certain personal moral issues” Trewhella said, “when it comes to abuse, I don’t think it should exist. The authorities should immediately be involved, victims protected and perpetrators dealt with accordingly. Repentance and church action can come afterwards.”
A closed system
In its news release, the faith stressed that both its teachings and handbooks “are clear and unequivocal about the evils of abuse” and that “members who violate those teachings are disciplined by the church and may lose their privileges or membership.”
But, as Kristin Hodson, a Latter-day Saint sex therapist and psychotherapist argued, it doesn’t matter what an institution says about abuse. As long as that organization — be it a church or otherwise — seeks to minimize outside influence in its training and reporting processes, victims remain vulnerable.
“People in their pews, they’re told to go to the bishop,” she said. “Then the bishop is told to go to a church-owned and -staffed help line. Meanwhile, who is running all the trainings around this issue? The church’s LDS Family Services.”
Particularly alarming, she said, was a description in the AP story of help line staffers trying to determine the level of abuse being reported.
Systems actually designed to support victims, she said, report all suspicions of abuse to a third party.
“The third party,” she said, “determines where the abuse is and next steps.”