Mormon leaders unveil new rules allowing another adult in room for interviews

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dallin H. Oaks, Russell M. Nelson and Henry B. Eyring at a news conference in the lobby of the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. Nelson was named the 17th president of the nearly 16 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Oaks was named first counselor in the First Presidency and Eyring second counselor.

Amid a grass-roots outcry about sexually explicit interviews with children and sexual assault allegations leveled at a former Mormon mission leader, the LDS Church’s governing First Presidency unveiled revised guidelines Monday for one-on-one meetings between members and local lay leaders while emphasizing that most abuse allegations are “true and should be taken seriously.”

In a document titled “Preventing and Responding to Abuse,” congregational leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are encouraged to invite a parent or other adult to sit in an adjoining room when meeting with women and children.

A change to those instructions includes the option for the interviewee to ask a witness to sit in on the interview itself.

“If the person being interviewed desires,” it states, “another adult may be invited to participate in the interview.”

Houston businessman Sam Young, a former LDS bishop who launched a petition drive calling for an end to sexually graphic questioning and one-on-one interviews of young Mormons by church leaders, welcomed Monday’s announcement — as far as it went.

“It’s a huge step in the right direction but does not go far enough,” Young said. “What we are calling for is that it is ‘required’ to have two adults.”

This latest First Presidency statement “leaves all the wiggle room in the world for the bishop never to offer it,” he said. A bishop would have “total leeway for a one on one.”

Those with strong parents will be fine with this new option, he said. “What we don’t want is our most marginalized kids going behind closed doors.”

Young plans a downtown Salt Lake City march Friday — the eve of LDS General Conference — to present church officials with more than 50,000 signatures supporting his position. More than 1,000 people have signed up for the rally.

“We are calling for a change in policy,” Young wrote in a full-page ad in Sunday’s Salt Lake Tribune. “Not a change in doctrine. Not a change in theology.”

Angela Clayton, a Mormon blogger on the website By Common Consent and a business executive in Scottsdale, Ariz., applauded the new LDS statement for “[aligning] with the church’s on-record stance against abuse.”

The bigger question, she said, is: “How did we get so far afield to the point that we weren’t protecting innocent victims of abuse but rather their abusers?”

Mormons have been talking about problems with closed-door bishops’ interviews for years, Clayton said, “with individuals sharing stories of abuse as well as parents fretting about potential harm to their kids.”

There is “no real reason to bar parents or witnesses to these interviews anyway,” she said, “since all worthiness is self-assessed in our church.”

Recently installed church President Russell M. Nelson and his two counselors, Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring, said Monday that the “global issue [of abuse] continues to be of great concern.”

“Our hearts and prayers go out to all who are affected by this serious problem,” they wrote in a letter. “To help ensure the safety and protection of children, youth and adults, we ask that all priesthood and auxiliary leaders become familiar with existing church policies and guidelines on preventing and responding to abuse.”

Their letter and the updated guidelines were sent to church general authorities, stake presidents, mission presidents, district presidents, ward bishops and branch presidents.

That list of recipients is precisely the problem, said Tresa Brown Edmunds, a Mormon writer and activist in Sacramento, Calif. There are no women on it.

The changes to Handbook 1, which spells out policies and procedures for governing the church, are “cosmetic at best,” Edmunds said. “The way they released it shows that they are not opening this process outside of the current male hierarchy.”

The only way women, teens or children would know their right to have another person in the interview, she said, is if they have a bishop “who makes it clear… and who cares and is sensitive.”

Monday’s announcement comes after the leak of an audio recording and transcript of Joseph L. Bishop, president of the LDS Missionary Training Center in Provo in the 1980s, in which the now-85-year-old admitted to molesting a young female missionary, asking another missionary to bare her breasts and describing himself as a predator.

The taped confession has caused outrage on the internet and propelled online commenters to ask Mormon officials to do more to curb abuse, protect the abused and punish the abusers.

In that vein, the church’s updated guidelines include these bullet points:

• “Church leaders should never disregard a report of abuse or counsel a member not to report criminal activity to law enforcement personnel.”

• “Church leaders and members should fulfill all legal obligations to report abuse to civil authorities.”

• “A person must not be given a church calling or assignment that involves working with children or youth if his or her membership record is not in the ward or if it has an annotation for abuse.”

• “When abuse occurs, the first and immediate responsibility of church leaders is to help those who have been abused and to protect vulnerable persons from future abuse. Members should never be encouraged to remain in a home or situation that is abusive or unsafe.”

The revised Handbook page stresses that “most, but not all, allegations of abuse are true, and should be taken seriously and handled with great care.”

David Cook, an attorney in upstate New York who was a Mormon bishop in his 30s before rising to stake president, mission president and area Seventy, echoed that mandate in a recent Tribune “Mormon Land” podcast, urging LDS leaders to believe women when they divulge stories of abuse.

“Believe the sisters,” he said, “just believe them inherently.”