Holly Richardson: In case it wasn’t clear, abuse is never OK

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Joy D. Jones, Primary general president for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Carol, a personal friend of mine, shared her story of what happened after she was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the age of 8. Following her baptism, “she refused to stand up in front of the congregation and bear her testimony – to make a declaration about how she knew that God, the Heavenly Father, loved her. Her father punished her by raping her.”

In an era of #MeToo, when more and more people — women and men alike — are going forward with their own tales of abuse, many churches are becoming more proactive in their efforts to prevent abuse within their ranks.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints just released a new online training designed to do that very thing.

“We take Jesus Christ’s teachings about children and youth very seriously,” said Sister Joy D. Jones, Primary general president. “He welcomed them into His presence and gave stern warnings against abusing, bullying or hurting them in any way. Jesus said of children, ‘Of such is the kingdom of God’ [Mark 10:14]. His deep concern for children and youth must continue to be our deep concern.”

While the church has long maintained a policy of zero tolerance, this video makes it abundantly clear that it is the responsibility of all members to protect children and youth not only from physical, verbal, sexual or emotional abuse, but also from grooming by potential abusers, bullying, hazing, harassment, neglect and even spiritual abuse, which the church calls coercion.

“Coercion,” the training instructs, “can occur when a leader compels a child using religious language or authority to imply a spiritual obligation or duty, permission, sanction, punishment, justification, intimidation, or threat. This is contrary to the Savior’s teaching that individuals should lead ‘only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned’ (Doctrine and Covenants 121:41).”

Rolled out to the United States and Canada to begin with, the list of members asked to complete the training is long: members in leadership capacities including stake and district presidencies, bishoprics and branch presidencies, high councilors, all auxiliary leaders, anyone working with or teaching youth, including members playing the piano during meetings. All parents are encouraged to take the 30-minute training as well.

Extended one-on-one interactions between adults and children or youth should not be taking place — not via texting, email, social media or personal conversations. Parents are to be kept in the loop. Other recent policy changes include the ability for parents to be included in any interviewing of children done by leadership.

“Touching a child in a way that makes him or her uncomfortable … is not acceptable” and “is in total opposition to the teachings of the Savior.”

One of the things I noticed was additional (and much-needed) emphasis on was believing the victim.

“Do not blame the child, question whether the abuse really happened, or suggest that the abuse somehow was his or her fault.” That instruction extends to “teasing,” bullying and/or hazing that far too often gets dismissed as “boys will be boys,” or a simple shoulder shrug at the “mean girls.”

Another resource for parents, teachers and anyone concerned with protecting children is the local nonprofit, Prevent Child Abuse Utah. PCAU also has an online training that can be completed in 30 minutes and works to bust some of the myths surrounding abuse, how to receive disclosures from your child or any child (begin by believing) and how and where to report abuse.

PCAU also works in schools, reaching over 80,000 Utah schoolchildren last year. To have them come to your child’s school, call 801-532-3404 and you can begin the steps to make that happen.

We all have a duty to protect the children in our lives. I doubt I could have a stronger admonition than Jesus himself: “Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and that he were drowned in the depths of the sea.” — Matthew 18:6

Holly Richardson

Holly Richardson is a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune.