Child Abuse

Child Abuse

 The abuse of a child awakens in us an intensity and breadth of emotion that is beyond adequate expression. Perhaps this crime moves us so personally because we remember what it was like to hold our own children for the first time — the overwhelming feeling of love and the deepest parental instinct to nourish, teach and protect. It is shocking, almost inconceivable, that someone would hurt a child. It is the ultimate form of betrayal.

Society is uniting, rising up and rooting out child abuse. Over and over again, we see entire communities mobilize to search for children feared kidnapped and abused. It is national news when a single child is in danger.

But child abuse was not always the subject of national media reports. This evil lurked in the shadows, mostly unseen, almost always unmentionable. Yet even before the issue first came to the forefront in the United States, Gordon B. Hinckley, former president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, publicly denounced child abuse as a terrible evil. In the early 1980s, he captured our thoughts and feelings when he said in a worldwide conference broadcast: "I am glad that there is a growing public awareness of this insidious evil. The exploitation of children . . . for the satisfaction of sadistic desires is sin of the darkest hue."

What other position could the Church possibly take? The issue goes to the heart of Church doctrine. Little children are innocent and precious in the eyes of God. Jesus Christ experienced some of His most tender moments with children and reserved His strongest language for those who abuse them. "Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea" (Matthew 18:6). Moreover, the family is at the core of the Church. Children attend Church services with their parents. Church practice includes a weekly family night, in which other interests are set aside so that strong family relationships can be built. In the family, parents draw strength from each other to cherish and protect their children by providing an environment where children can grow and develop in an atmosphere of love and support. The Church provides a gathering place for families intent on raising their children with spiritual values. Both the Church and family have the highest interest in the welfare of children.

In this document, the issue of child abuse is set forth from the perspective of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What is being done to discourage it? What is the Church doing for victims? Have there been court cases and settlements, and if so, why? How does the Church treat those who abuse children? How do the experiences of this church differ from those of other religious and secular organizations, and what are the similarities? In these few pages such questions are explored.

Protecting the Children

The Church's role in the community war against the evil of abuse is to learn what we can, deal with the problem as it exists, and share our experiences with others who are equally motivated.

Who Are the Clergy?

The Church has a lay clergy. Leaders of congregations in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are called bishops. Bishops are selected from the local membership to serve as volunteers for about five years. Most have lived in the community for a long time and consider the members of their congregation to be personal friends and neighbors. And most bishops have children of their own, often young ones, who attend church and participate in its activities. Bishops are therefore already heavily invested in the safety and well-being of their Church community. When a child abuser threatens the safety of their congregation, bishops have no incentive, financial or otherwise, to do other than protect their Church family as they would their own.

Bishops receive no salary or financial reward of any kind. Neither are they isolated members of the clergy. There is no special clerical order within the Church for them to belong to. Latter-day Saint bishops live in the community and work at their regular jobs just like everyone else. Because they administer the demands of their bishop's office mostly on weekends and during evenings, they can do so only by calling on other congregational members in large numbers to help them.

The bishop might be a schoolteacher, a doctor, or a businessman. To help him, a librarian may be asked to teach a Sunday school class of six-year-olds. A female pharmacist might be in charge of the children's organization for those ages three to 11. These callings are temporary and change frequently, but everyone who serves at the invitation of the bishop is expected to live up to the tenets of their religion, at the core of which is respect for the family and, naturally, children.

What's in a Name?

There is another important dimension to the Church's lay ministry that is vital for lawyers, journalists and others interested in child abuse to understand.

Virtually all active members of a Latter-day Saint congregation hold some position of responsibility in order to help the bishop do his job. In the case of worthy men and boys from the age of 12, all are a part of the Church's priesthood. Typically, a 12-year-old young man who comes to church regularly is ordained a deacon. By age 14, he will be a teacher, and by 16, a priest. Most adult men are ordained elders or high priests. However, merely being ordained to the priesthood and holding the title of priest, elder or high priest does not grant a person any authority in the congregation or make him a leader. His fellow Church members do not regard him with any special awe or reverence. In fact, even if a man ceases to have any contact with the Church, he remains an elder or high priest as long as he is a Church member.

Occasionally, newspaper stories appear with headlines such as "Mormon Leader Accused of Child Abuse." Some prosecuting lawyers are aware that using such designations as "high priest" makes it appear as if someone with great authority has run afoul of the law, thereby increasing the shock value with juries and the news media. The assertion is false.

Enlisting the Members to Stop Child Abuse

A Latter-day Saint congregation is like a big family, a group of people working together with an attitude of mutual support. The Church has long encouraged families to talk about child abuse, to educate themselves on how to recognize and prevent such tragedies. Since 1976, more than 50 news and magazine articles have appeared in Church publications condemning child abuse or educating members about it. Church leaders have spoken out on the subject more than 30 times at Church worldwide conferences. Child abuse is the subject of a regular lesson taught during Sunday meetings.

The Church has also developed extensive training materials and videotapes. These materials are used to train Church leaders on how to identify and respond to such abuse. A 24-hour Help Line staffed with professional counselors provides customized advice so local leaders can take appropriate action in each case.

Finally, the Church is doing everything it can to strengthen families. Every person and institution must do their part but, in the end, strong, loving and watchful families are the best defense against child abuse. Former Church president Gordon B. Hinckley said: "All of this will happen and get worse unless there is an underlying acknowledgment, yes, a strong and fervent conviction, concerning the fact that the family is an instrument of the Almighty. It is His creation. It is also the basic unit of society."

Reaching Out to the Victim

Some critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have alleged that the Church puts the needs of the victim last. More extreme reports even suggest that the Church might shun victims because they have embarrassed Church leaders.

These critics have portrayed the Church's faith upside down. Helping the victim is of first concern. It is the very nature of Christians to reach out with compassion and love to those who are struggling with the agonies of abuse. It is integral to our ministry. Within the Church, victims can find spiritual guidance that eventually leads to healing through faith in Jesus Christ. Abuse victims are also offered professional counseling so they can benefit from the best of secular expertise, regardless of their ability to pay.

The Church's official handbook of instructions for leaders states that the first responsibility of the Church is to help those who have been abused and to protect those who may be vulnerable to future abuse.

How does the Church do this? Since its founding, the core family concepts and doctrine of the Church have provided this support. Additionally, a Help Line was established in 1995 to provide bishops with immediate access to professional counselors to guide them in protecting abuse victims. Bishops are good people, but it is impossible for them to understand all the complexities of child abuse, including the different legal requirements of different states. What they can do is call the Help Line phone number immediately when a child is in danger. With just one phone call, they can receive guidance from seasoned professionals.

For instance, if a teenager makes her bishop aware of abuse, his first call is to the Help Line for resources to assist the victim and prevent further abuse. If the incident is criminal in nature, the bishop also receives instructions on how to report it to legal authorities. We know of no other church that provides professional assistance for ministers to aid abuse victims 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Is it working? Yes. While no system is infallible, victims are receiving the protection and care they need.

President Gordon B. Hinckley, in an interview with Mike Wallace of CBS's 60 Minutes, said this: "I am deeply concerned about the victims. My heart reaches out to them. I want to do everything we can to ease the pain, to preclude the happening of this evil and wicked thing. . . . I know of no other organization in this world that has taken more exhaustive measures, tried harder, done more to tackle this problem, to work with it, to do something to make a change. We recognize the terrible nature of it, and we want to help our people, reach out to them, assist them."

Dealing with the Perpetrator

Simply put, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to child abusers. When abuse is suspected, the Church directs its members to first contact the legal authorities and then their local bishop for counseling and support. The Church cooperates fully with law enforcement in investigating incidents of child abuse and bringing perpetrators to justice.

Members of the Church found guilty of child abuse are also subject to the laws of God. President Hinckley has said: "Our hearts reach out to the offender, but we cannot tolerate the sin of which he may be guilty. Where there has been offense, there is a penalty." Convicted child abusers are excommunicated, the highest possible discipline our faith can impose. Excommunicated members cannot take part in Church meetings or hold responsibilities of any kind within the congregation.

Can child abusers who have paid the legal price for their crimes and gone through a rigorous repentance process with local Church leaders become members of the Church again? Yes. As Christians, we believe in forgiveness. But can they ever again, in their lifetime, serve in any capacity that would put them in direct contact with children? Absolutely not. Forgiveness does not remove the consequences of sin. Protection of the family is a first principle of the Church.

Since 1995 the Church has placed a confidential annotation on the membership record of members who previously abused children. These records follow them to any congregation where they move, thereby alerting bishops not to place them in situations with children. As far as we know, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the first religious institution to create such a tracking mechanism. We hold the family sacred and protect its children. This explains why the Church is one of the few denominations that imposes formal ecclesiastical discipline on mere members (as opposed to official clergy) for sexually abusive conduct.

Our Church applies this tracking system because of our core beliefs. No court in the United States has held a religious institution responsible for failing to protect its members from abuse by other members. To do so would turn religious institutions into police instruments, its leadership into law enforcement officers. The Church voluntarily tracks its membership, not because of the law or fear of lawsuits, but out of its own concern for families and children.

The Obligation to Report

At the heart of many legal contests is when and whether notice of a potential abuse or abuser is reported. Church officials follow state law regarding when and how to report an act of child abuse to public authorities.

The more difficult moral issue is whether a bishop should report abuse information to public authorities when he has obtained that information in an official capacity in the privileged context of a private confession. Apart from the difficult religious issue involved, some churches and professionals believe that to force clergy to report a private confession makes it less likely that child abusers will come forward to get help. They will likely continue to abuse. Others argue that law enforcement needs to be involved quickly because of the high risk of repeat offenders. There is no consensus on this difficult issue.

The complexity of the problem is reflected in a wide variety of reporting laws from state to state. Twenty-three states have laws requiring clergy to report only when the information is not privileged. In these states, for instance, a clergyman who learns of abuse in a confidential communication, such as a confession, has no legal duty to report it to authorities, whereas a clergyman who personally observes abuse or has an independent reason to suspect abuse is required to report. In nine other states, clergy have a duty to report child abuse no matter what. And in the remaining 18 states and in the District of Columbia, reporting statues do not require clergy to report child abuse at all.

Bishops in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are taught that they have two primary responsibilities when they learn about a case of child abuse. First, they must protect the victim. Second, they must hold the perpetrator accountable for his actions. Even in states where the confidentiality of the confessional prevents clergy from reporting, bishops do all they can to prevent further abuse. Every effort is made to persuade the abuser to take responsibility for his actions, including going to the legal authorities. The very fact that a man has gone to his bishop with a confession makes it more likely that a respected Church leader can influence him to do the right thing.

When Cases Go to Court

Does the Church ever find itself in court over child abuse cases? Yes. The Church has settled a small number of cases over the past decade when suggested by the merits of the claims. In virtually all cases, the Church offers counseling for the victim.

Child abuse is not only a problem for churches, however. It is a societal problem, and like the rest of society, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' understanding of the complexities involved has deepened since the early 1980s when child abuse began to emerge as a serious issue. Since then, the Church has been confronted with a dilemma. How does it protect its children, deal effectively with perpetrators, and yet defend itself in court when charges are misleading and when cases have no merit?

In an attempt to better position themselves with potential juries, a few lawyers have gone so far as to accuse the Church of intentionally providing a safe haven for child abusers. Such accusations are unbelievable to Church leaders and members and are utterly without merit. The assertion that Church leaders would harbor an abuser in their midst, putting their own children at risk, is absurd.

Let's put this into perspective. Many hundreds of child abuse cases are filed every year against churches in the United States. While even one case is too many, relatively few are filed against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — far below what one would expect based on its more than six million U.S. members. One of the reasons for this is the Church's aggressive effort to address the problem over the past 20 years. Most cases brought today involve abuse that allegedly occurred well before the Church implemented its present policies and training programs.

Another critical point deserves emphasis. Clergy abuse cases that exploded across the nation in 2002 involved accusations of churches covering up for abusive priests and ministers. In contrast, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is almost never sued for abuse perpetrated by its bishops. Instead, cases brought against the Church typically involve one member who has abused another. Often, the alleged abuse did not even occur on Church property or in connection with any Church activity.

And so, in these cases, the Church will defend itself not because it has something to hide, but because the Church has something precious to protect — the children.

God's Word to the Church

The following is extracted from an address to the world membership of the Church by President Gordon B. Hinckley, from Salt Lake City, April 2002:

"Such abuse is not new. There is evidence to indicate that it goes back through the ages. It is a most despicable and tragic and terrible thing. I regret to say that there has been some very limited expression of this monstrous evil among us. It is something that cannot be countenanced or tolerated. The Lord Himself said, 'But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea' (Matt. 18:6).

"That is very strong language from the Prince of Peace, the Son of God.

"I quote from our Church Handbook of Instructions: 'The Church's position is that abuse cannot be tolerated in any form. Those who abuse . . . are subject to Church discipline. They should not be given Church callings and may not have a temple recommend. Even if a person who abused a child sexually or physically receives Church discipline and is later restored to full fellowship or readmitted by baptism, leaders should not call the person to any position working with children or youth unless the First Presidency authorizes removal of the annotation of the person's membership record."

'In instances of abuse, the first responsibility of the Church is to help those who have been abused and to protect those who may be vulnerable to future abuse.'

"For a long period now we have worked on this problem. We have urged bishops, stake presidents, and others to reach out to victims, to comfort them, to strengthen them, to let them know that what happened was wrong, that the experience was not their fault, and that it need never happen again.

"We have issued publications, established a telephone line where Church officers may receive counsel in handling cases, and offered professional help through LDS Family Services.

"These acts are often criminal in their nature. They are punishable under the law. Professional counselors, including lawyers and social workers, are available on this help line to advise bishops and stake presidents concerning their obligations in these circumstances. Those in other nations should call their respective Area Presidents.

"Now the work of the Church is a work of salvation. I want to emphasize that. It is a work of saving souls. We desire to help both the victim and the offender. Our hearts reach out to the victim, and we must act to assist him or her. Our hearts reach out to the offender, but we cannot tolerate the sin of which he may be guilty. Where there has been offense, there is a penalty. The process of the civil law will work its way. And the ecclesiastical process will work its way, often resulting in excommunication. This is both a delicate and a serious matter.

"Nevertheless, we recognize, and must always recognize, that when the penalty has been paid and the demands of justice have been met, there will be a helpful and kindly hand reaching out to assist. There may be continuing restrictions, but there will also be kindness."

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