Whether one accepts the Associated Press version of a horrific case of prolonged sexual abuse known to officials of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or believes the church’s own version of events, this is fact:
Two LDS bishops in Arizona had a chance to call the police or social services to respond to a clear pattern of abuse committed by a father against his two young daughters. And they didn’t.
The counselors and attorneys working for the church’s “help line” had a chance to urge the local leaders to pick up a phone. Or to make the call themselves. And they didn’t.
The fine legal point on which the church has hung its public defense is that the relevant law in Arizona — the one that requires anyone with knowledge of child abuse or neglect to report it to appropriate legal authorities — has a loophole that makes it legal for religious leaders to keep to themselves any knowledge they gain in private confessionals or counseling sessions with members of their faith.
Those laws must change. In Arizona. In Utah. Wherever they exist.
Clearly, in at least some cases, the church and its attorneys have read the provision of the law that says church leaders can choose to report or not as a requirement that they not report.
One of the LDS bishops in the Arizona case told federal agents investigating the crime about his communications with the church’s help line.
“They said, ‘You absolutely can do nothing,’” he recalled.
So nothing is what he did.
We only know about all this because the perpetrator made videos of his crimes and posted them online, where they were seen by law enforcement officers in New Zealand. Officers who saw their duty and alerted their U.S. counterparts, who finally moved in and put a stop to it all.
The reporting loophole for churches makes it far too likely that abuse will continue and become even more damaging to even more people, that perpetrators will have a chance to coach or bully victims and witnesses, to cover their tracks and escape responsibility for their acts.
At least two members of the Utah Legislature — Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding — are on record supporting legislation that would remove any doubt about the legal obligations LDS clergy, or anyone else, have to report when they have reason to believe abuse is taking place.
Romero proposed such a bill in 2020. It went nowhere fast. Now, with support of at least one Republican – and, as of Thursday, Gov. Spencer Cox - there is a chance it could become law. That’s exactly what should happen, as soon as possible.
The church, being sued by the survivors of the abuse, denies it bears any legal responsibility in the matter. It objects to the suggestion that local bishops were fully aware that the behavior had gone on for seven years. It claims that the counseling bishops had, on more than one occasion, told the perpetrator and his wife that they should report the abuse and seek professional help.
For a defense, the church’s version of events makes a pretty good accusation of wrongdoing.
People who love and support the LDS Church should be the first ones to support a clear legal requirement that its officials report cases of child abuse. They should see it as an intervention.
The church’s attitude toward sexual issues — abusive or not — has long displayed a dangerous cluelessness. That is to be expected when an all-male power structure, made up of people with absolutely no professional training in such matters, applies a purity culture and an atmosphere of secrecy to an assumed duty to police, not just the sexual behavior, but also the thoughts, of even very young members.
Most of us, even in a highly sexualized culture created by advertising and popular media, intuitively feel a middle-aged man asking a teenage girl about her sexual thoughts, urges and behavior is creepy in the extreme. Yet, when one of the LDS Church’s former bishops launched a very public campaign to change church policy on such matters, they excommunicated him.
Officially, of course, the LDS Church is horrified at all cases of child abuse and wants all such cases to be dealt with in whatever way most benefits the victims. Those claims ring hollow, though, when the institution’s help line is run out of the church’s risk management division, and involves attorneys whose first allegiance is to the church, not victims.
It is time for the LDS Church to tell its members and clergy about a new “help line” they can call when they are made aware of ongoing instances of sexual abuse of children.
It’s called 911.