The LDS Church is considering lowering the age of controversial ‘worthiness’ interviews

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Temple in Salt Lake City.

The practice of having lay leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints conduct one-on-one “worthiness” interviews with youths — which sometimes included sexually explicit questioning — proved so controversial that it spawned a large opposition movement, which led eventually to the church changing its guidelines.

So why would the Utah-based faith consider expanding these interviews to children as young as 8 years old?

The purpose of bishop interviews is to “help youth establish a trusting relationship with a priesthood holder,” according to a survey sent to an undisclosed number of members. “How important would that be to your child?”

After the survey was recently posted online, critics began assailing the possibility of younger Latter-day Saint kids being quizzed alone by an adult leader.

Jody England Hansen, a Latter-day Saint suicide prevention trainer in Utah, called the idea “disturbing,” and said the idea of one-on-one meetings contradicts recent changes requiring two adults in Primary classes.

On top of that, she said, “it horrifies me that children would be subjected to this type of questioning, and grooming to idolize leaders at a younger age, rather than lessening the damage of this practice.”

Hansen said many members have been hoping “to see less pressure for all members and leaders around the harmful worthiness rhetoric" and that such young children shouldn’t have to answer questions about their thoughts and actions.

Church spokesman Daniel Woodruff cautioned against overreactions.

“This survey is designed to simply gain information,” Woodruff said in a statement, “and is not an announcement of any change in practice.”

It is simply part of the faith’s ongoing effort to “seek [members’] opinion and experience regarding activities, perceptions, and participation in church programs,” he said.

In this case, the church is looking “for ways to assist parents in the spiritual growth and development of their children,” Woodruff said. “Periodic interviews with a parent or trusted adult present is one of many considerations to help children remember the baptismal covenants they have made and follow Jesus Christ.”

Right now, boys and girls start having worthiness interviews shortly before they turn 12.

The survey began by saying the church is “considering having Primary children ages 8 to 11 receive periodic individual interviews, similar to the current practice of interviewing young men and young women.”

The survey assured participants that their individual answers would be kept confidential, then combined with those received from other participants, the survey said, to see “broad statistical trends.”

Here are some of the questions posed:

  • Who should conduct these interviews? Bishops, a bishop’s counselor, a member of the Primary presidency, or a member of the Young Men or Young Women presidency [who oversee kids between 11 and 17].

  • Who else should be present? A parent, a bishopric member, a Primary leader.

  • What topics should be addressed with the children — Challenges in their life, positive things in their life, their spiritual development, progress toward youth achievements [in the church], their relationship with family members, and worthiness?

  • Overall, are you in favor of or opposed to the proposal to do interviews with children ages 8 to 11?

Julie de Azevedo Hanks, a Salt Lake City therapist, opposes all of these meetings with young Latter-day Saints, whether younger than 11 or older.

“Interviewing children by adults other than parents is not a good idea because it puts children in a vulnerable situation,” Hanks said. “All one-on-one interviews with minors should be discontinued. Another adult should be present just like the new policy of two deep with Primary teachers.”

A child’s relationship to a male leader, she said, should develop with the involvement of parents.

Beyond that, Hanks said, “there is no need to have worthiness interviews for a child.”

The therapist said the church should eliminate the term “worthiness interviews” altogether.

“Qualifying interview’ is a better term, she said. “Worthiness implies self-worth is in question.”

Last year, Sam Young, a former Latter-day Saint bishop in Houston, launched an online petition, asking that the church quit holding one-on-one interviews with young church members.

It garnered some 11,000 signatures and helped prompt the church to allow a second person in the room during these exchanges with leaders.

Young would go on to conduct a hunger strike in downtown Salt Lake City, saying the church did not go far enough in reforming the guidelines. For these actions, Young was excommunicated from the church for “deliberately attacking and publicly opposing the church.”

He later lost an appeal to be reinstated.