Adventures in LDS Safeguarding in the UK – Some great news!
By Peter Bleakley
Safeguarding children from sexual abuse in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is absolutely the last thing I want to even think about, never mind get involved in proactive advocating for. It is disturbing, depressing and it should definitely be someone else’s responsibility. But the tragic reality is that the people who should be taking responsibility for it too often are not, specially at the top of our global organisation, so it has by default become the job of grass roots members to do the Mormon thing and take action where there is a need.
As I grew up in the Church the first I became aware of this being an issue was when a relative of mine in Ireland was supporting a victim of abuse and having their testimony and trust in the priesthood leadership rocked by the dreadful failures in how they responded to the situation. It was my first glimpse of all the key ingredients of the horrors that ripple out from LDS child abuse scandals still today – totally untrained local clergy not knowing how to be professional, blaming the victim, letting their perpetrator buddies in the old boys’ network off lightly, demanding that everyone forgive and forget quickly and not cause a public scandal or prosecution, and if the victim’s families refuse to play that game turning the social and legal resources of the Church and its community against them.
Some local leaders do a far better job than that, but not enough of them. There have been some baby steps of improvement in the Church’s global practices, but not enough of them.
Nothing focuses your mind on the urgent need to revolutionise our safeguarding practices like having a case of child abuse in your own family or ward, or in my case moving into a ward still reeling from the aftermath of a serving bishop being convicted and imprisoned for child abuse-related offenses as we did a few years ago. It strips away all the comforting buffer zones of wishful thinking and complacency and tears open a wound that is very hard to heal for everyone. Every parent questions why they sent their children into one-to-one interviews with that person with a mandate to discuss the most private details of their sexual selves and experiences. They agonise over what might have been, or actually was. The abuser’s line managers and fellow leaders question how it was they felt spiritual witnesses confirming that they should sustain and ordain that person to a position of authority and responsibility when they were absolutely the last person God would have wanted or needed in that position of trust. The families of the perpetrator and victims are embarrassed and traumatized. Nothing will ever be the same again.
And then hopefully the inevitable next question is, how on earth did we as responsible adults who know that child abuse happens and have professional safeguarding training in many of our workplaces let this happen on our watch? In our sphere of influence? In an organisation where children should be the most safe and protected they can possibly be? How is it possible in the Church of the Christ who valued children above all others? Who talked about putting millstones around necks and drowning anyone hurting them? How is it that instead of prioritising the safety of children we created written policies and cultural norms that prioritised the public reputation of the institution, the public reputation of the adult abusers, and the damaging opinions of General Authorities speaking from their out-dated and ignorant social conditioning in isolated Midwestern American religious communities instead of professional expertise and basic common sense?
Soon after that I became aware of Sam Young’s heroic campaign to Protect LDS Children that has evolved into Protect Every Child, and I started researching the Church’s official policies and guidelines regarding safeguarding. I discovered policy statements and official declarations of an ethos of safeguarding on the Church website that were not just inaccurate wishful thinking, they were objectively delusional. They were claiming that the LDS Church is not aware of anyone that has better safeguarding procedures than ours when in fact in the community of churches ours are among the absolute worst, and people have been telling them this for years. They have finally had the shame to seriously edit their press release and remove most of the crazy claims about a ‘gold standard’, but still it seems no one with any professional safeguarding expertise has had anything to do with formulating either their propaganda or procedures.
I also discovered that the Church already practices several ingredients of our wish list in Australia. There it is a legal requirement for anyone working with young people to have a regular background check and a card confirming this or all hell breaks loose, so the LDS Church is very careful to ensure this is followed. People cannot be called or remain in a position working with young people if that legally mandated scrutiny lapses. They still have one to one interviews I expect, but it is a glimpse of how things could be everywhere.
My anger about the negligence became personal as I reflected on the impact throughout my adolescence and young adulthood of constant ‘worthiness’ interviews and the uninformed and unhealthy rhetoric, expectations and mind games played with LDS young regarding all things sexual. We are fed into a mincer that piles on guilt about totally normal sexual feelings and explorations from before some of us even begin puberty. My priesthood interviewers were unfailingly kind and exemplary role models and dear friends to whom I am profoundly grateful for their years of service contributing to my peers and I having a fantastic youth in many ways, but as they were instructed to I was regularly asked about whether I masturbated. Like most young Mormons I soon began to learn to lie and declare I was ‘morally clean’ when I knew by those criteria I was not.
I felt guilt ridden and ‘unworthy’ pretty much all the time but my embarrassment was so deep I couldn’t bear to talk about it to anyone and only risked confessing twice at points when I was pretty sure the repercussions would be minimal. As so many Latter-Day Saints and their therapists have described as they have reflected on this, our consciences kind of split into our public religious life and our secret shame. Now as I reflect from an adult perspective, instead of feeling bad about that I am incredibly relieved that I protected my privacy. I now understand that that whole process of intrusive scrutiny of children was completely unethical and psychologically unhealthy.
Young people put into a situation of an inherently abusive power relationship will have something click in their brains to protect themselves from dangerous intrusion and instinctively lie to protect their psyche from a clear and present threat. Of course the religious indoctrination is so intense that, believing they are speaking to a man representing actual God with a magical ‘power of discernment’ to read their minds who should be answered honestly as if they are Jesus Christ because religiously there is no difference at all, many young people will not have the strength to protect their privacy by lying or simply calling their bluff and refusing to disclose such private information. They will admit to their terrible crimes that according to the ‘For the Strength of Youth’ booklet and the teachings of the LDS prophets are all, ALL of them, even having sexual thoughts, “second only to murder.”
I would love to go back in time to my 12 year old self, pat me on the head and say “Quit feeling guilty – you are absolutely doing the right thing. No one should be asking you about this, you are a normal healthy kid protecting your dignity and privacy. These well-meaning but totally untrained men are not Gods, and you are frankly a proper goody two shoes. Drugs are still bad, but definitely go to some live music concerts while these bands you love are at their peak. Satan didn’t write their music and in the 2010’s no one even talks about that any more in the Church. Or the occult paranoia and Ouija Boards…. but I’ll let you find out about what Joseph Smith was up to with all that when you’re older and not spoil the fun.”
Most of our young people under the regime of regular harassment just go inactive and never come back. Jana Reiss’ recent research has confirmed what we all know from our own wards, that the young teenage years are when the LDS Church loses most of the 80% of its young people globally who leave by their mid-twenties. Why are we surprised when this is what we do to them?! Those that stay and are honest are often fed into a totally unprofessional psychodrama of shaming Church discipline with disfellowshipment, young men having to very obviously say “No” when asked to pass the sacrament, not taking the sacrament in front of your family and entire ward, and even worse these days in the hysterical paranoia about pornography coming out of LDS communities in Deseret, being labelled an “Addict” completely inaccurately, and even being fed into the Addiction Recovery Program. Meanwhile those of us unwilling or unaware that we should be confessing these things to our bishop look squeaky clean and progress unscrutinised through our young Church lives.
The whole thing is a mess of injustice, trauma, secrets and lies in stark contrast to what are meant to be our religious ideals and values. I had pretty close to the mildest experience possible for a youth in the Church, beaten only by those lucky few who won leadership roulette and were never once asked about specific sexual things in interviews because their leaders were in a different branch of the random tree of leadership awareness and formative experience and passing on different norms through their lines of non-training. But it was still far more of a burden of guilt, confusion and worry than I should ever have had to carry.
As a teacher in a boys’ secondary school with experience of delivering sex and contraception education and receiving the professional child safeguarding training that is now the norm in schools, professions and most voluntary and religious settings and organisations, I am not shy about speaking about these matters. When Sam Young asked through social media if any supporters of the Protect Every Child campaign and petition in the UK were willing be interviewed by a journalist who had approached him, I and two others gladly volunteered and to our amazement found ourselves with a 10-15 minute slot on the BBC’s flagship news channel daily chat program ‘The Victoria Derbyshire Show’ and headed to the iconic Broadcasting House in London. Our interviewer was superb and we were able to share our concerns in a respectful but clear way, particularly making the points that these interviews actually introduce young Mormons to the sexual practices they are meant to be deterring in unhealthy ways, and that as a body of millions of lay clergy the adult men and women running our congregations understand and practice modern safeguarding at work, but tragically too often throw it all in the bin as soon as we walk through the chapel doors.
The Church recently released a slightly interactive safeguarding training film that it will now require all members working with young people to review regularly. This tipped me over the edge into full rage. It claims to have been produced in collaboration with professionals, but I cannot see a shred of evidence for that anywhere in its content. Even calling it safeguarding training is a deception. It simply isn’t. It’s one point repeated over and over is basically that no adult should be alone with a young person. But it completely ignores the compulsory worthiness interviews where they often are. They might as well not exist. It doesn’t even take the opportunity to remind everyone of the recent change that a young person (not their parent…) can request a second adult in the room. That’s more than negligence, it’s intentional. And the thought that this is replacing the much more thorough professional training provided by Boy Scouts of America that at least some LDS youth leaders in the USA used to get is even more perplexing.
Real professional standard safeguarding training teaches you that an adult should never be alone with a child even once in any circumstances ever unless you are a professionally trained and supervised counsellor. It teaches you what you must and must not do and say if a child discloses abuse to you so that you do not ask leading questions or screw up a criminal investigation. It teaches you who your safeguarding line managers are, and who to talk to above them if you are not satisfied with their response. It teaches you how to report suspicions you have about potential abuse to the right trained people in your organisation. It teaches you exactly what physical and emotional signs to look for in a victim of abuse. It teaches you how to speak to that child and reassure them as the adult they have chosen to trust, and what to do to ensure their immediate safety. This stuff is safeguarding 101. None of it is in the new official ‘training’ that isn’t training. This is why we must use actual professionals to deliver training in our stakes and wards until the in-house training matches basic professional standards.
In response to the scandals in our area, the UK government’s enquiries into safeguarding and abuse cover-ups in the Catholic and Anglican Churches, and the Protect Every Child campaign all shining a light on the matter, plus basic common sense, my stake leadership have been fantastic. They decided that a much more robust protocol was required to fulfill the Church’s avowed intent, repeated in a statement at the end of our TV appearance by the Europe Area Presidency, to always be seeking ways to improve our safeguarding. They consulted with several stake members who have high level professional responsibility for delivering safeguarding training in their professional careers. They consulted with a Welsh member of the Church who is involved in safeguarding policies and training with the United Nations, who also delivered some excellent training for the young people and adults in our stake about the ethos and principles of a safeguarding community. They even graciously gave me the opportunity to look over the draft policy and make recommendations.
After also consulting with the bishops to get their feedback and approval, our new stake child safeguarding policy has been released, and it is a doozy. It has 99% of the wishlist of anyone professionally competent regarding safeguarding and the Protect Every Child campaign. It outlines in detail what the different forms of physical, emotional and sexual child abuse are. It describes an ethos of collective responsibility and vigilance. It requires that every member of the Stake working with children and teenagers will have regular enhanced police background checks using the national DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) system paid for with stake funds if needed. We will have regular professional safeguarding training that is provided annually for free to voluntary organisations by local councils in our area, (and hopefully available in all areas of the UK), that will match the training we get as school teachers.
The most thorny issue is the 6-monthly one to one interviews starting age 11 now. The policy states that the expected norm will be that there will always be a second adult in the room unless the young person is really insistent, after we try to persuade them otherwise, that they want to be seen alone. If that is the case it will be a short interview with the door ajar and an adult outside. This is spectacular progress but of course that 1%, or maybe it should be regarded as much more than 1%, of lone interviews is still an issue. It endangers the interviewer as much as the child because there is no witness at all of what was actually said in that interview. If an accusation is made about that the interviewer has no evidence for a legal defense at all and it is all down to who believes who in any ensuing criminal investigation. I hope the individual leaders will recognise this and simply refuse to put themselves, their families and their careers at such risk.
But I’m not about to rain on this particular parade! As we all get used to ministering this way the last areas of concern will I expect quickly be abandoned. My stake has not just stepped up but taken a quantum leap towards gold standard, best practice child safeguarding. And the BIG lesson to learn is how EASY it is to do. You just decide to do it. All the resources and systems are there to pick up and use in the background checks and free, or more than affordable, professional safeguarding training systems out there in our communities. Most stakes in the developed world at least are teaming with professionals who receive or even deliver state of the art safeguarding training. We know that a proper safeguarding system looks like. We have a lot of in-house expertise. Our ward Relief Society president trains community carers and on one ‘5th Sunday’ delivered state of the art safeguarding training for all the adults in our ward in the Sunday School slot. Simples. Where there is a will there is a way.
Good ideas spread fast. My Stake President is happy to share the new policy with other Stake Presidents if they request it – no point reinventing the wheel. But it really isn’t that complicated to reinvent the wheel if you have to. We can fulfill the mandate the Church has given us all to constantly improve our safeguarding, and learn from each others’ innovations and experiences. And hopefully one day soon the international ethos and policy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints will be to ensure EVERY child in our Church has the best possible safeguarding protection available anywhere, in every ward and branch, rather than the minimum legally required by their local secular governments. Then we will know that their priority really is the safety and well-being of every child of Heavenly Parents who love them equally, not their institutional legal defense when things inevitably go horribly, and avoidably, wrong.