Excommunicated LDS bishop leads 800 in a march to end child abuse and hold all religions accountable

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hundreds march up State street in Salt Lake City for the "March to End Child Abuse" led by excommunicated Mormon bishop Sam Young on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, on their way to the Utah Capitol.

They marched for blocks across Salt Lake City, some solemnly humming church hymns and peaceful chants that started in the front but were just getting to the beginning verse by the time the notes carried to the back of the massive crowd.

We’ll love one another and never dissemble, but cease to do evil and ever be one,” a few sang.

The nearly 800 people — mostly members or former members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — walked to the Utah Capitol on Saturday, on the first day of General Conference weekend, in protest. They passed by the faith’s iconic Salt Lake Temple on their way but didn’t stop. Their goal, they said, was more important.

They were here to talk about child abuse, particularly in the LDS Church but also across all faiths, and to raise awareness in hopes of putting an end to it.

“Dear prophet, you need to stop the molesters,” pleaded Christina Freeman, who was raised in a Latter-day Saint household and abused, she said, by a family member. Freeman, now 31, said she told her bishop, but he did little to stop the assaults.

“I was raised to stand for truth and righteousness,” she added to cheers from those around her.

The rally — the nation’s first March to End Child Abuse — was organized by Sam Young. The former Latter-day Saint bishop was excommunicated last year after he pushed to end the practice of lay leaders having one-on-one interviews with children, which sometimes included sexually explicit questions.

Now, Young said, he wants to put an end to all child abuse in all religions. And he calls this fight the ”equivalent of a civil rights movement of our time.”

“Abuse is exactly the opposite of what Jesus Christ taught,” he said.

The people standing below him on the Capitol lawn carried red, yellow and blue balloons — representing the primary colors taught in the children’s songbook in Latter-day Saint churches representing courage, service and truth. Some hefted signs that said, “Protect every child” and “Keep children safe.” A few pushed strollers with babies cooing. Many shared their own stories of abuse.

One woman said the person who molested her when she was little still sings in the choir at her Catholic church every week. A man said that his brother was 14 when a janitor pulled him into a Latter-day Saint Sunday school classroom and abused him. Another said that he was raped as a teenager by a leader in his Jehovah’s Witness congregation.

“The elders knew what was going on,” that man, Brian Chase, said. “Pedophiles come, and they know the church won’t do anything. It’s a pedophile paradise.”

Chase and his wife, Stephanie Carson, who said she was also abused as a child when she was a Jehovah’s Witness adherent, alleged their faith covered up any reports of abuse, told them not to tell their parents and threatened them. They’re now working to change reporting laws nationwide to get rid of statutes of limitations that restrict victims from coming forward to file charges after limited time frame.

“We’re just trying to use our voices,” added Chase, now 51, noting that he has openly talked about his experience being abused only for the past year. “If we can help one person, it’s worth it.”

The march started at Salt Lake City Hall as the sun rose and ended three hours later on the granite steps of the Statehouse. Though the message was broader this time, it was similar to a march Young led in March 2018 to protest the LDS Church’s practice of closed-door conversations between young members and bishops (which sometimes include intimate probing about moral cleanliness). Since then, the faith has changed its rule to allow another adult to sit in on those meetings.

Ali Bateman, who describes herself as “a formerly active member of the church,” said that’s not enough. She attended the march Saturday with two of her kids, ages 10 and 12, and said a large part of why they don’t attend Sunday services as much any more is because of those interviews.

She had her own experience with them when she was 14, and it’s stuck with her since. Her bishop, she said, talked to her about his own “marital relations” and suggested “sex was the icing on the cake” in a relationship.

“It was very inappropriate for a child,” Bateman added. “It just went on and on.”

Many at the rally also were focused on those interviews with signs saying, “No sexual questions,” “Ex-Mormons assemble” and “LDS Church, improve your institution.”

Dennis Woodruff, 52, said his frustration, too, is directed at “50 North Temple,” where the Church Office Building sits. He remembers going in for the bishop interviews every six months after he turned 12 and until he left for a mission to proselytize for the faith.

He would be asked: “Do you masturbate?” “Have you looked at porn?” “Have you had sex?”

“It was uncomfortable,” Woodruff said, noting he was also molested twice growing up but was never asked about that. He wishes he was, though; that might have prompted him to be able to report it to police.

The LDS Church has said that its leaders are instructed “to be sensitive to the character, circumstances and understanding” of those being interviewed and “not be unnecessarily probing or invasive in their questions.”

Maddy Burgener and Natalie Watt served together on their missions and now both attend Brigham Young University in Provo, which is owned by the faith. They believe children should be seen as “inherently worthy” and not have to go through “worthiness interviews.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of kids ran around smiling and wearing winter hats with dragons and monsters on them in the chilly morning air. A few wore rally banners around their necks as capes. And they danced on the cement, picking up box elder bugs and holding hands.

Melissa Sudweeks carried her 3-year-old son, Jackson, as she talked about how empowering it was for her to join such a large crowd and know that she isn’t alone. She was abused as a kid by a distant relative, she said, and “it has caused a lot of turmoil in my life.” Her son piped in that they were there “protecting the people.”

Young called the issue “an epidemic” and said he’s teaming up with the Zero Abuse Project and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests to stop it. He also drafted an all-star lineup to speak Saturday, including Tanya Brown, sister of murder victim Nicole Brown Simpson. Her ex-husband, O.J. Simpson, was found not guilty at his criminal trial but later found legally responsible for her death at a civil trial.

Matthew Sandusky, who has said he was abused by his adoptive father — former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky — from age 8 to 17, talked about making sure victims know that abuse is never their fault.

“I don’t care what statistic you use,” he said. “It’s happening to far too many. We have to stand up, and we have to hold people accountable.”

Jan Broberg Felt, who was kidnapped twice by the same family friend when she was 12 and 14, spoke about telling her story of abuse in the documentary “Abducted in Plain Sight.” Being devout, she said, made her think that anyone else in her faith was safe to be around. The man who attacked her, she added, was a local Latter-day Saint leader where she grew up.

He groomed her, was charming, picked her up from piano lessons when her parents couldn’t and made her feel like his own daughter. After he abused her, she said, he moved away, remarried and faced few consequences.

“We can’t just move people around to another parish or congregation. We have to put people in jail,” Broberg Felt said. “We have to report abusers to the police. The institution’s name is not more important than the child.”

As she talked about holding religious groups and leaders responsible for abuse and inaction, she forgot the word she was looking for. The crowd helped her, shouting back in unison: “Accountability.”

This time the chat wasn’t spread across the marchers. Instead, they were one voice.