Marissa Smith sat in her Mormon bishop’s office in the same chair her boyfriend had the week before. He had looked across the same wooden desk as she was now. He had stared at the same plain walls. Maybe he had nervously played with his hands, too — she wasn’t sure.
She wasn’t sure, though, if he had been asked the same questions.
“What time of night do you kiss?” the local lay leader pressed Smith about her relationship. She answered, but she didn’t want to. He continued on:
“Where do you go with your boyfriend?”
“Are you sitting up or laying down?”
“Was any clothing off?”
“Then he asked me if I was surprised by what happens when boys orgasm,” Smith recalled. “I didn’t even know how to answer that question. I didn’t want to talk to my bishop again.”
And she didn’t. Smith, who was 18 years old at the time, became an inactive member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shortly after the meeting.
On Friday, she joined an estimated 800 to 900 demonstrators — some who have been asked similar questions, some with children who have — in downtown Salt Lake City to protest the faith’s practice of closed-door, one-on-one conversations between young members and local lay leaders (which sometimes include intimate probing about moral cleanliness). The group delivered 55,000 signatures to the LDS Church Office Building demanding an end to such graphic questioning in “worthiness” interviews.
“There is no limit whatsoever to the gross, sexually explicit questions,” said Houston businessman Sam Young, a former Mormon bishop and the leader of the march.
The protesters gathered at Salt Lake City Hall and spoke of years of frustration with the religious practice. They shared their own experiences. They carried signs that read “Pray for, don’t prey on, our children.” They held bright green balloons with names written in black of kids who were hurt by the interviews.
Then they marched five blocks to church headquarters, stretching along State Street and within view of the iconic Salt Lake Temple while chanting “no more closed doors.” They had a petition and books for each Mormon apostle that included personal stories of vulnerable situations and bishops who took advantage.
Church spokeswoman Irene Caso stood outside to receive them as church workers looked down from the windows of the towering building.
“We share a common concern for the safety and well-being of youth,” she said in a news release. “We condemn any inappropriate behavior or abuse regardless of where or when it occurs. Local church leaders are provided with instructions regarding youth interviews and are expected to review and follow them. .. As with any practice in the church, we continually look for ways to improve and adjust by following the Savior in meeting the needs of our members.“
To the demonstrators, she said “thanks” and smiled. “Irene, I’m counting on you that this lands on their desk,” one man said as he handed her a booklet with Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s name on it.
“This has gone unnoticed for years,” shouted another.
“Don’t let what happened to me happen to children for years to come,” said Robin Day, 40, whose story is No. 224 in the book of anecdotes presented to Caso.
Day grew up a devout Mormon in Idaho. In one of his first interviews with a bishop as a kid, he was asked whether he adhered to the law of chastity. Day, unsure, said he masturbated, which isn’t expressly mentioned in the church’s “For the Strength of Youth” booklet that counsels on sexual boundaries before marriage.
His bishop, Day said, “shamed and punished” him. Through the years, the lay leader took away his recommend to visit the temple and told him not to partake of the sacrament, or communion. It has left him with an unhealthy attitude about intimacy to this day.
“I thought I had to answer,” he said. “If you’re lying to your bishop, then you’re lying to God. How could I lie to God?”
The church has stated that bishops are “counseled to not be unnecessarily probing or invasive in their questions, but should allow a young person to share their experiences, struggles and feelings.”
In addition, the faith’s governing First Presidency unveiled new guidelines this week for bishops’ interviews. Local LDS leaders were previously encouraged to invite a parent or other adult to sit in an adjoining room during those conversations. Now, interviewees can ask another adult to sit in on the interview itself.
Young, who organized the Protect LDS Children event, said the revised instructions don’t go far enough. He believes the church should be required to have another adult in the room.
“The changes they made fall woefully short of true safety for our kids,” he said to cheers and claps from the crowd. The interviews are fraught by a power differential of leader to congregant and adult to youth that Young believes is inherently inappropriate.
The march came on the eve of LDS General Conference. Crystal Hauser, an active member, hopes it sparks discussion about policy changes during the twice-yearly gathering.
She sat in on the bishop’s interview for her 12-year-old daughter, refusing to stand outside the closed door. The leader asked the young girl if she was chaste. The girl said she didn’t know what that meant.
“Are you having sex with a married man?” Hauser remembers him responding. Her daughter cried in the parking lot afterward.
“Even if I trust my bishop, even if I believe he’s a nice man, he could still ask inappropriate questions,” Hauser said Friday as her 8-year-old daughter, Lyla, twirled around her. She doesn’t want any of her kids to go through that again. She proposes that the church “stop with the sex questions.”
Marissa Smith pushed her 18-month-old son, Claine, in a stroller during the march. Babies cooed during the speeches and toddlers blew bubbles on the sidewalk. The next generation, the protesters said, shouldn’t be having these conversations.
“We can’t teach kids that it’s OK to sit behind a closed door with an adult man and be asked sexual questions,” Smith said. She was 18 when she did.
Katie Langston, now a Lutheran, was 13 when her LDS bishop asked her about “very, very detailed personal” behavior, and it “traumatized me.” Jeremy Jenson was 18 when his bishop asked if he’d ever touched a woman and explained masturbation. Rena Lesué was 12 when she told her bishop how she was molested by a friend’s older brother, and he treated it as “a sexual sin” — even though Mormon authorities have stated that “victims of sexual abuse are not guilty of sin and do not need to repent.”
The interviews, they said, caused guilt and shame. They hoped sharing their stories might bring some peace and healing.
As the group left the Church Office Building, they stuck their handmade signs into the bars of the metal fence and planted them in the dirt alongside petunias. Many read: “Listen to and trust the victims.”