Commentary: Two Mormon petitions show the contrasting priorities of members

Teaching youth that it is permissible and appropriate for authority figures to ask personal, invasive sexual questions grooms them to not recognize abusive situations.

The Salt Lake Temple is seen in a long exposure night shot at Temple Square, Sunday March 23, 2008. Jeremy Harmon/The Salt Lake Tribune

This past week, with the passing of the Mormon prophet Thomas Monson, many Mormons were left in sorrow as they reflected on his life, teachings and accomplishments. He was very respected and revered within his community and the obituaries detailing his life portrayed him as such.

Yet the obituary written by The New York Times, a publication whose audience is not dominated by Monson’s followers, quickly became infamous amongst Mormons for highlighting controversies during his tenure as president.

Complaints accusing the Times of heavy, unfair bias quickly filled the comment section and social media. A petition was distributed asking the Times to “present an honest, neutral, and balanced obituary.” It impressively gained over 120,000 signatures in less than 24 hours. The Times’ attention was caught and the obituary editor surprisingly responded. Say what you will, but the fact that an editor at the New York Times responded to complaints from a small portion of its readership is an accomplishment.

Contrast the response to and success of the Monson petition to that of another. Sam Young, a former bishop in the Mormon church launched his own petition on Oct. 31 asking the Mormon Church to “cease the practice of subjecting children to questions about masturbation, orgasm, ejaculation, sexual positions or anything else of a sexual nature” which, when asked, are typically in a private office with the child and the bishop alone.

The petition is currently struggling to find 11,000 supporters. Make no mistake, gaining 11,000 signatures is no small feat, yet from an outsider’s perspective, judging solely by the numbers, it would seem Young’s petition may be for an inferior cause than the other, but that is far from the case.

Stories from people across the Mormon spectrum are not hard to find detailing the probing questions individuals were asked by their Mormon bishops in order to determine the state of their “sexual purity.” These questions range from the frequency of masturbation to sex positions engaged in and even to describing the genitalia of a sexual partner. Such perverted questions are likely asked by a minority of bishops, but two elements remain constant across all interviews: shame and grooming.

The mere inquiry of sexual activity and subsequently limiting a child’s participation in Church activities when not abstinent from even pornography or masturbation promotes intense shame. This opens the door to depression, trauma, self-loathing and suicidal ideation. Teaching youth that it is permissible and appropriate for authority figures to ask personal, invasive sexual questions grooms them to not recognize abusive situations. These questions, even when innocent, are damaging.

Since launching the petition, dozens have come forward publicly with their negative experiences of bishops asking questions that crossed the line. Young has begun soliciting stories to be shared publicly on his website and many are emotionally hard to read. In story #11, Max C. recounts how the pressure to stop masturbating led to self-loathing, a sexually repressed marriage that ended in divorce and an eventual suicide attempt at the age of 45. Story #120 details a bishop abusing the framework of Mormon repentance to molest and penetrate a 7-year-old girl and subsequently using his authority to silence her.

It is obvious that these experiences are not isolated. These stories are staggering and there are hundreds more. Young believes he will eventually accumulate over 1,000. What is more, the sheer number of publicly known instances of child sexual abuse committed by a Mormon in the past 50 years supports the claim that change is necessary.

The change that Young’s petition is promoting positively affects all Mormon children; whereas, the current practice is harmful and damaging. Yet the lack of support for the cause seems completely partisan. It is discouraging that a petition against The New York Times for doing its job as a news publication gained more traction than a well-intentioned cause that protects the children within our community.

This is 21st century Mormonism: Reporting the public events of a public figure’s life is unacceptable while allowing an untrained, middle age man to take 13-year-old girls behind closed doors and ask if they masturbate is completely acceptable. That is plainly absurd.

Ethan Dodge

Ethan Dodge is the Technical Director and co-founder of the Truth and Transparency Foundation which operates MormonLeaks.io and FaithLeaks.org.