Background checks? Culture shift? Some therapists, members argue Latter-day Saints need to do more to vet their leaders.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters marched to the LDS Church Office Building in Salt Lake City to request that the faith's leaders put an end to bishops meeting one on one with children for interviews. Friday, March 30, 2018.

Knowing what he knows now, Richard Ostler said he would have taken a more involved role in his children’s upbringing within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Ostler, who is now 58, said that 20 years ago, when he had six children at home, he didn’t meddle much in their interactions with church leaders as they grew older and started having one-on-one conversations with bishops as part of so-called worthiness interviews. Ostler said he didn’t ask any questions about those meetings because it never occurred to him that he should. He trusted his church leaders and his children never said anything was amiss.

Now, he said, “instead of sort of just saying, ‘That’s the church’s job, I’m not involved in that process.’ I would, 20 years later, even though I didn’t have any firsthand negative experience ... I would take a different, proactive role.”

Ostler said he would have asked leaders in advance what questions they would be asking his children, and make sure that he agreed with them. Then, he said, he would have gone over the questions with the kids beforehand, using the review as a teaching moment.

A former bishop himself, Ostler said the #MeToo movement and news about sexual victimization by bishops and other church leaders have shown him there is more the faith could do to keep its congregants, especially women and children, safe. Part of that, he and other Latter-day Saints say, is making sure these lay leaders have backgrounds that are appropriate for the positions they fill.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Latter-day Saint bishop Richard Ostler. Friday, Oct. 28, 2016.

Like the Catholic Church did in 2002 in response to The Boston Globe’s reporting on widespread allegations of child sex abuse by clergy, some members say the least the LDS Church can do is require formal criminal backgrounds checks of its leaders and anyone who works with children.

So far, the LDS Church — with its all-male priesthood — doesn’t widely require members to undergo such checks. Even if it did, therapists say, the checks wouldn’t fix or prevent all problems.

The practice of not reporting, of trying to sort out abuse allegations within the church, must also change, said April Carlson, a Salt Lake City-based therapist and social worker.

“It’s just this culture of protecting perpetrators and where women just don’t have a voice,” she said. “... We don’t tell stories about women in our classes and our lessons. Women aren’t on the podium leading. Women don’t have any real power, and it makes it really difficult to catch perpetrators.”

According to the church’s website, members considered for positions working with children or youths are recommended by adult leaders. Candidates are interviewed and leaders check their membership records, which would note if they ever were “involved in abusive behavior.”

“If there is any indication of that person being involved in abusive behavior,” the policy states, “that person is disqualified from serving in any capacity with children or youth.”

As for prospective bishops, they are recommended by local leaders to the faith’s governing First Presidency.

First, though, these local leaders “conduct a thorough interview and review church records to ensure there is no known record or concern of church discipline or annotation for serious moral misconduct,” church spokesman Eric Hawkins explained in an email. “They also rely on their personal experience with the individual and their judgment of his character.”

Depending on how long a person has been in the church and whether leaders were made aware of any abuse allegations, a review of the membership record might not reveal, for example, a former conviction for child sexual abuse.

Background checks, Carlson said, would be a way for the church to weed out those individuals, the most egregious sexual predators.

In addition, background checks are a standard requirement for many jobs, especially in industries that involve children, said Montana-based therapist and Latter-day Saint Sara Hughes-Zabawa.

“My local gym takes more safety precautions than my congregation,” she said. “That’s a problem.”

No ‘end-all, be-all’

In some places, such as Australia and Pennsylvania, where the law mandates background checks for volunteers working with kids, the church reimburses members for these reviews.

Akash Jayaprakash, who has served as executive secretary and a primary teacher in his Philadelphia ward, or congregation, said inconvenience was the only downside to getting his background checks, two of which he could do online and one that required his fingerprints.

While he said he’s never personally dealt with abuse within the church in other wards where background checks aren’t required, “I certainly feel better in Pennsylvania with this done.”

He believes it’s something all Latter-day Saint churches should do.

Hughes-Zabawa said that while background checks aren’t the “end-all, be-all” to protect congregants, they are a “safety mechanism.”

“It’s one of those tools that prevents individuals who are looking to abuse in settings that are easy to do,” she said, “and [it] also creates an accountability structure.”

To adequately address sexual victimization within the church, she said, and to ensure that leaders are vetted and safe, a few other things need to happen, too.

First, children should never be alone with one adult, which is already a church rule in classes and on activities, but members say it isn’t always strictly enforced. Second, Latter-day Saint leaders should be trained to report allegations of abuse to law enforcement because background checks don’t work if accusations never leave the church.

According to church guidelines introduced in March 2018, two adults must be present during all youth activities and in classrooms. The church has also added windows to all classrooms in chapels and meetinghouses — but not bishop’s offices — built after 2006.

Updated guidelines now allow for youths or women to have another adult in the room during interviews. Short of that, a parent or another adult must at least be nearby in an adjoining room during these one-on-one meetings.

Lay leaders also are instructed to “never disregard a report of abuse or counsel a member not to report criminal activity to law enforcement personnel.”

Church leaders and members also are told to fulfill all legal obligations to report abuse to civil authorities. Leaders are advised to call a church help line to discuss the allegations with legal counsel to make sure they are meeting reporting requirements.

“Any church leader who learns of or suspects abuse is instructed to call the help line immediately,” Hawkins said. “They will be provided with direction and assistance to stop the abuse, help the victim and ensure all necessary reporting is complete.”

‘Call the police’

Carlson, who has previously investigated child sexual abuse cases with the Department of Children and Family Services in Los Angeles, said she’s seen cases in the past when church leaders hid abuse and discouraged victims from reporting to law enforcement.

As a Latter-day Saint with pioneer ancestry, Carlson said she sees at least one explanation for this hesitancy to involve police.

“Mormons were ... a polygamist people and threatened by law enforcement for practicing sexuality in the way that we believed we should practice sexuality,” she said. “ … There’s a culture of not trusting law enforcement and hiding things from the government and handling things in-house.”

In an Exponent II blog post she wrote a year ago, while “super angry and frustrated,” she equated abuse reports with other public safety emergencies.

“When your neighbor is experiencing cardiac arrest,” she wrote, “do you call the bishop?” or “When your house is on fire, do you call the bishop?”

No, you call the appropriate emergency responders, in this case paramedics or the fire department, she said, adding the same is true when ones needs to report domestic violence or sexual abuse.

“Call the police!” she wrote.

Looking back at his own calling to be a bishop of a Latter-day Saint singles ward in Magna, Ostler said he didn’t recall a necessarily thorough vetting process, although he trusted leaders did their due diligence in assigning him.

He noted he never had spoken before with the stake president who called him up for an exploratory interview. After that “in-depth” meeting, the stake president, who oversaw a number of Young Single Adult congregations, went to the Ostler home and invited him to serve.

“He didn’t ask me any background. He didn’t ask me if I’d been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor to do any sort of criminal background [check],” Ostler said. “He just asked me if I was worthy of my temple recommend and extended the call.”

It’s difficult, he said, because there are some people background checks wouldn’t have caught, who either hadn’t started abusing yet or who had never been criminally investigated.

On the other hand, Ostler said, he hopes the church is doing what it can to find out that information, “so everybody’s making an informed decision on a potential leader.”