Sexual abuse survivors group of ‘Spotlight’ fame calls on Mormon church to change interview system

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Visitors look at Christmas lights on Temple Square Friday, Nov. 24, 2017.

The prominent support group that helped expose widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests is calling on the LDS Church to discontinue its practice of male bishops interviewing young Mormons behind closed doors.

Such conversations — sometimes about intimate sexual matters — are “a recipe for abuse,” said Joelle Casteix, the Western regional leader for SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “They should be stopped.”

Considered the oldest and largest support group for victims of sexual abuse in institutional settings, SNAP’s efforts were featured in the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight.”

Predators thrive “in a system like the LDS Church has,” Casteix, an abuse-prevention expert and a survivor herself, said Thursday in an interview. “This is not a safe environment for children.”

No other “reputable institutional church, private or public school, sports group, youth-serving organization, or community center allows one-on-one meetings between adults and children,” she said in a news release. “Why is the LDS Church endorsing this horrible practice?”

SNAP was responding to the question of whether it is appropriate, especially amid today’s torrent of revelations about sexual harassment and misconduct, for Mormon bishops, who are always male, to interview children privately.

Some wonder whether the approach itself — even at its most benign — might be a form of harassment.

“When I heard about [the Mormon practice],” Casteix said, “I was shocked.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declined to comment Thursday on SNAP’s plea. But earlier this week it said these “personal interviews are an important part of ministering to those in a congregation.”

“Leaders are instructed to be sensitive to the character, circumstances and understanding of the young man or young woman,” church spokesman Eric Hawkins wrote in a statement. “They are counseled to not be unnecessarily probing or invasive in their questions.”

Hawkins also pointed out that when church leaders meet with a “child, youth or woman, they are encouraged to ask a parent or another adult to be in an adjoining room, foyer or hall.”

SNAP’s Casteix rejected those explanations, arguing that “the ramifications of these meetings are horrific.”

Even though parents are permitted to wait outside the door, she wrote, “putting a child alone in a room with an adult in a position of power — who can ask the child probing questions about sex — is an open invitation for predators. What child will report that something bad happened during a meeting that the LDS Church calls a ‘sacred opportunity?’”

Predators will abuse kids, “while their parents were in the next room or down the hall,” she argued. “All they need is a closed door.”

A petition with more than 8,500 signatures is circulating online urging the Utah-based faith “to immediately cease the practice of subjecting children to questions about masturbation, orgasm, ejaculation, sexual positions or anything else of a sexual nature.”

Launched by a former LDS bishop, Sam Young, in Texas, the effort further calls on Mormon leaders to “publicly disavow this practice.”

SNAP saluted Young for his efforts.

“We hope that LDS Church leaders embrace him and his idea, instead of shunning him,” Casteix said. “He is a hero for the children of LDS.”

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