LDS bishops’ interviews can help teens with sex questions, says therapist who was abused by clergy

Mental health therapist Jennifer Roach, a recent convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, believes that one-on-one bishops’ interviews — which have drawn criticism in recent years — often help rather than hurt teenagers.

Roach, sadly, speaks from experience. She was abused as a teen by a youth pastor in her evangelical church in Modesto, Calif., in the 1980s.

The former Anglican deacon, who now counsels abuse victims in the Seattle area, addressed the question of bishops’ interviews in a presentation at this month’s FairMormon Conference in a speech titled: “Private Bishop Interviews as Protective Factor: Why LDS Teens Benefit From a Few Moments Alone With Their Bishop.”

Clergy sexual abuse happens “in every denomination and church, including ours,” Roach said in her presentation. “The problem is real, and the consequences for victims are severe. Sexual abuse, in general, is severely underreported.”

The therapist sympathizes with those who worry about bishops saying inappropriate things, Roach said in an interview, but believes that doing away with such exchanges altogether is an overreaction.

She disagrees with those who argue, for instance, that asking about chastity is tantamount to “grooming” a young person for sex.

“That is not what is happening in a normal bishop interview,” she said. “The interview itself is not grooming.”

Creating a ‘safe place'

(Photo courtesy of Jennifer Roach) Latter-day Saint missionaries Mckenna Murdoch West, left, and Elizabeth Porter with Jennifer Roach.

There are four reasons, Roach explained, why these teen interviews with lay Latter-day Saint leaders should continue:

• For psychosexual development, young members need a “safe place” to talk about sexuality with at least one respected adult besides their parents.

• Non-LDS peers “are getting this kind of support,” Roach said. Some opponents of bishops’ interviews allege that “no other church allows adults to talk to teenagers about sex in private. This is simply untrue,” she said. “Both Catholic and Protestant teens are given access to a private place to have sensitive conversations on a regular basis — often without the knowledge of their parents that this kind of conversation is happening.”

• Mormonism is a high-expectation religion, and “if a teenager is going to remain in this church, he or she will need to come to terms with this reality,” Roach said. “The adults of the church are expected to give account to their bishop about certain behaviors, including chastity, on a regular basis. Teenagers should be allowed to experience this for themselves while still at home and still having their parents there to process with.”

• The vast majority of teenagers do not disclose abuse, she said, but when they do, “it’s usually by accident. They say something that doesn’t quite add up, and an adult asks follow-up questions.”

Even when teens do drop hints, they often do it through “breadcrumbs,” offering small bits of information and waiting to see how the adult responds, Roach said. Bishops should “try to make the interview a safe place where things could be disclosed.”

As a teen who was being sexually abused, “I wish that I would have had the opportunity to talk with another adult in private,” she told the FairMormon audience. “I would have spoken up much sooner. I encourage bishops to be wise but brave in asking follow-up questions if they feel the teen is presenting information that does not add up as they may uncover abuse in this teen’s life.”

Latter-day Saint bishops, who are not professional clergy or trained therapists, “run the risk of being misunderstood and accused for this — there is no shortage of people online who will say even asking about chastity is, in and of itself, abuse,” Roach said. “It is not.”

‘Dangerous by definition’

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Sam Young speaks out against one-on-one bishops' interviews at a 2018 rally in Salt Lake City.

Sam Young, a former Latter-day Saint bishop who was excommunicated after pushing for an end to these interviews, doesn’t buy Roach’s arguments.

These sessions “are dangerous by definition,” Young said Friday from his home in Houston, “and we should not be putting our children in danger.”

Giving carte blanche permission to male bishops and stake (regional) presidents — along with their counselors — to “take a child behind closed doors is super dangerous,” he said. “They have been abusive to thousands and thousands of children, and many adults have reported damages they have incurred.”

Bishops should never inquire about masturbation, he said, and then go on to ask about other sexual experiences, quizzing as to “where he put his hand and so on.”

“The world knows,” Young said, asking sexual questions in these exchanges “is wrong.”

More than two years ago, the LDS Church began allowing teens to invite a parent or other adult to sit in on bishops’ interviews. The Utah-based faith also instructs its leaders not to be “unnecessarily probing or invasive in their questions.”

Roach pointed to some recent surveys about the interviews in which “many teens feel masturbation is a topic that they need help on,” she said. “And talking to Mom and Dad is sometimes too difficult.”

She urged some flexibility on the question of open or closed doors during these sessions.

“If a kid is more comfortable that way, then, by all means, crack the door. Sometimes being visible to others but not talking loud enough that they can hear the conversation could be helpful,” she said. “I don’t have a problem with a closed door, in and of itself, if that would help the kid be comfortable, and sometimes having a closed door is what’s going to make the kid more comfortable.”

It all depends, Roach said, “upon what is going to best serve that particular kid.”

As for inviting a witness into the room, that’s up to the interviewee, but there are reasons why some teens might not want another adult in the room, she said. For one thing, there’s the discomfort of answering questions about sex — with Mom or Dad sitting right there.

And there’s the other worry: What if the parent is the abuser?

“The more people you put in that room, the more I’m going to smile and feel pressure to just say the right things,” Roach reported one such young person as saying, “even if they’re not true.”