So many institutions — from schools and Scouts to clubs and churches and everything in between — have been forced to wrestle with sexual abuse of minors in their midst.
For its part, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has proclaimed that “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.” To that end, it has created trainings for adult volunteers on how to recognize and prevent abuse and has implemented rules about who can be alone with children.
But its primary and most visible tool has been a 24/7 help line for lay clergy — mainly male bishops and stake presidents (regional leaders) — which is staffed by a team of attorneys with the Utah-based church’s Salt Lake City law firm, Kirton McConkie.
It’s a service whose “client” is, technically, the church itself and the whole system is deemed confidential, with details unavailable to the public.
When faced with allegations of abuse in their congregations, some local Latter-day Saint leaders view the help line as a godsend, while to critics it is nothing more than an effort to protect the church from lawsuits.
A recently published and explosive story by The Associated Press details an egregious case in Arizona (brought to light in 2018 by The Salt Lake Tribune) where a father sexually abused his young daughters for years, even videotaping the assaults and putting them on the internet.
The victims’ Latter-day Saint bishop was told by someone on the help line not to take any action against the father or to report it because it emerged in the midst of a “confession,” which exempts religious leaders due to the clergy/penitent relationship.
The AP’s investigation, drawing on sealed court documents, highlighted families of survivors who said the help line was misused by church leaders to divert abuse accusations away from law enforcement, leaving victims vulnerable.
The church objected to descriptions of its help line in the AP’s article, saying it was “mischaracterized” and “oversimplifed.”
But several facts are undeniable: The help line is run out of the church’s Risk Management Division, not Family Services; most calls are directed to attorneys; and all bishops are men.
All that raises conflicting concerns.
Should Latter-day Saint lay leaders be acting to protect the institution or the victims? Does an all-male clergy affect perceptions of abusers and allegations? Should legality be the biggest consideration for a church?
A legalistic approach
A lawyer’s job is not “to advise clients generally,” says Jared Cook, a Latter-day Saint litigation attorney in Rochester, N.Y., with a background in labor and employment law. “It is to give legal advice. …We tell them what their legal obligations are and the likely legal consequences of this or that decision.”
If a bishop is inquiring about what to do, not just his legal obligations, and the answer is “you don’t have an obligation to report,” Cook says, it’s easy to see how the bishop might understand that as “don’t report.”
The Latter-day Saint attorney is aware of “a handful of times that local leaders I know personally have called the help line,” he says, “and, according to them, have been told every time that they have an obligation to report, even in one case where the victim had explicitly asked for it not to be reported.”
The help line “can work in favor of victims of abuse,” Cook says. “Most bishops, in my experience, are inclined to see themselves as advocates for people that come to them for confession and counsel. We believe in forgiveness and redemption, and we’re eager to forgive rather than condemn.”
Generally, that’s “a good thing,” he says, “but in cases of abuse, that eagerness can sometimes lead to reluctance to take action such as reporting, to stop ongoing abuse and to help victims heal from past abuse.”
Having a help line to spell out a bishop’s legal obligation to report (in those states that do impose such an obligation), Cook says, “can overcome that reluctance.”
In a personal essay published in the church’s Deseret News, Kate Taylor Lauck, who describes herself as a sexual abuse survivor and then, later, as an attorney for Kirton McConkie who worked on the help line, rejects the suggestion that the church uses it simply to protect itself from lawsuits.
Lauck, who no longer works on the line, defended her former colleagues, saying they were “diligent, competent, compassionate and deeply committed to the work of protecting kids from abuse.” It was a “small team” so she knew every attorney “personally,” she writes. “We often reflected on how lucky we felt that we got to use our law degrees to rescue children and help victims.”
She rejects the idea that any attorney on the help line is “hiding” abuse from law enforcement, she writes. “From my experience, it just wouldn’t happen. Not only is it illegal, it is immoral.”
Bishops in the middle
The church’s dependence on untrained, lay male clergy — including accountants, lawyers, physicians, developers, painters, poets and others — to provide spiritual sustenance for its more than 31,000 diverse congregations worldwide means there will be a range of responses to abuse allegations.
Just over five years ago, Bob Ahlander was a Utah marketing manager when he was tapped as a bishop and faced the first case of abuse in his congregation. “I had never handled anything like it,” Ahlander says now. “I asked my stake president, and he said to call the abuse help line.”
The person who answered identified himself as a social worker with LDS Family Services and asked the bishop a handful of questions about the situation. Then he got an attorney from Kirton McConkie on the line, and said, “He will take the call from here.”
After explaining the details again, Ahlander was told law enforcement might have to get involved, but if he got a call from officers, not to answer any questions but rather refer them to the attorney. “It was a fairly short call,” he says. “I never talked to the social worker again.”
He says he had anticipated getting some coaching in his role as a bishop on how to handle the victim with sensitivity.
“I was expecting to get some resources for the victim and for the family members,” Ahlander says, “and even for the perpetrators, who also needed help.”
No such advice was forthcoming, so he reached out to some friends who were licensed therapists and within a few days got the victim the help that was needed. Back then, the church’s General Handbook had only a couple of pages of instructions on counseling.
“I got considerably more training on how to handle church finances,” he says, “than on helping abuse victims.”
When it works
Darin was a 9-year-old Latter-day Saint growing up in Idaho when the abuse by a family member began. It was more than five years before he could bring himself to tell an adult.
Growing up in the ’90s, there was “so, so much sex shaming in the church,” says Darin, now an adult who asked that only his first name be used. The Tribune generally does not identify abuse victims.
“I blamed myself and thought it was something I did. It was torture, pretty brutal.”
He had never heard the term sexual abuse. Finally, after he told his mom, she set up a meeting for them with the bishop.
“I remember being terrified, thinking I would be punished,” Darin recalls. “[The bishop] was understanding and kind but said he didn’t know what to do. He said he would call the church’s help line and get back to us.”
Within a few days, the Idaho leader did just that, offering three avenues to pursue — safety, therapy, reporting.
“The first thing he did was make sure I was safe,” Darin says. “He asked about my situation and whether my abuser still had access to me.”
The bishop then asked if the family wanted to report to police, and if so, how to do so. Third, he provided them with therapeutic resources. “It seems clear,” Darin says, “that was the direction he received from the help line.”
The system has benefits as well as weaknesses, he says, but there is no way to know how many victims are aided by the help line or how often it fails.
And there’s no denying, Darin says, that a lot of the church’s approach is shaped by the “threat of lawsuits.”
Institutional and male bias
Nicole Bedera is a sociologist in Minneapolis who is studying the roles culture and organizations play in perpetuating and normalizing sexual violence.
If her research has taught her anything, it’s that internal systems for handling cases of sexual abuse are almost always for the benefit of the institution, not survivors.
“Organizations create symbolic measures like a help line or an H.R. department,” says Bedera, who is not a Latter-day Saint but lived for eight years in Utah.
They can then point to those, she says, to reassure members of the organization that they’re on top of the issue and taking it seriously. “But if the help line is the end of the line,” Bedera says, “that is not taking it seriously.”
That, she says, has to do with the “self-governing” nature of these types of internal tools, which she says are ultimately geared toward protecting and maintaining the status quo.
Indeed, the help line’s home in the church’s Risk Management arm of its operations sends a decidedly legalistic message. That is not to say the bishops dialing the help line and the church employees — be they therapists or lawyers — answering their calls aren’t well-intentioned, Bedera adds, and determined to help the individual suffering the abuse.
Given this, it makes sense that some survivors might have come away feeling heard or protected. But as long as it remains a strictly internal tool, she says, reports of abuse are likely to continue to be “swept under the rug.”
Equally problematic, she adds, is the fact that only male bishops are allowed access to the line.
“We know from scientific literature,” she says, “that men are more likely to hold mixed views on sexual abuse and less likely to believe survivors.”
Beyond the bishop
As a Latter-day Saint with a doctorate in social work, Laura Brignone believes the church needs a far more robust, research-backed approach to training for all local leaders, and not just bishops.
Primary presidents, responsible for overseeing the children’s organization in each congregation, Young Women and Young Men leaders and women’s Relief Society presidents should all be trained, she says, in recognizing patterns of abuse, as well as how to direct survivors to professional help — including national help lines they can access themselves.
“Talking to bishops is fine,” Brignone says. “But if the bishop is the only point of contact in the ward and every opportunity for help is mediated through him, that’s disempowering to survivors.”
For one, not all bishops are good actors. “Most are,” she says. “But some aren’t.” And even good actors aren’t immune from manipulation, especially if they happen to work closely with or are friends with the abuser.
“What if the perpetrator is the first counselor in the bishopric?” she asks, referring to the bishop’s right-hand man in directing the affairs of his assigned congregation. The more people you have trained in a congregation, keeping guard and empowered to act in support of survivors, Brignone says, the more likely those facing abuse are to get the help they need without incurring additional trauma along the way.
Female Relief Society presidents who have called the help line, for example, recount being told it was only for bishops.
In addition to better training, Brignone hopes to see greater awareness and “diffusion” of the church’s resource page for members either experiencing abuse or wondering how to intervene. The first time she saw it, she says, she cried with joy.
She also called for an increased emphasis from the pulpit on the issue. “Abuse,” the social worker says, “thrives in secrecy.”
What do Latter-day Saints want?
So many members were heartbroken after reading about the Arizona case, according to David Ostler, a former bishop, stake president and mission president. “They were confused and didn’t know what to think.”
They trust their leaders but “want to know how we as a church are helping abuse victims,” says Ostler, author of “Bridges: Ministering to Those Who Question.” “They want the church to help victims be safe and to get them the resources they need.”
Most members “stand with the kids,” he asserts, and wonder how the help line does that.
Bishops also need more than just legal advice, says Ostler, who lives in Virginia. “Trained professionals have specialized skills and need to work directly with victims. Bishops can provide emotional and spiritual support.”
It’s all part of Christ’s gospel and the church’s mandate, he says, to minister to those who are hurting and to heal their pain — so that the help line can be a lifeline.