We recognize that leaders, professionals and members within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as advocates from without, agree and prioritize the shared value of protecting children, minors, & vulnerable adults, helping victims of sexual assault, and preventing abuse of any kind. We also believe that interactions between ecclesiastical leaders and members within a church community are important for mentoring and ministering, and therefore, we are encouraged that the Church has begun to look at how these interactions can happen in youth-positive ways. We are particularly encouraged by the recent statements made by the Church stating, “We are continually looking for ways to strengthen our proactive program to combat abuse and care for those whose lives have been harmed by this evil practice. As we see or learn of ways to more effectively decrease the potential for abuse, we implement them.” And, “the Church works tirelessly to prevent abuse and protect children, and constantly strives to improve in these areas.”*
From this perspective, the Mormon Mental Health Association invites the Church to collaborate with its Board of Directors and Clinical Members & Educators. We have developed two position statements to help bring awareness and trauma-informed suggestions to issues we see as pressing for the wellbeing and protection of members of the Church.
Position on Asking Minors Sexual Questions in One-on-One Worthiness Interviews
The first position statement addresses the practice of ecclesiastical leaders (i.e. adult male bishops, counselors or stake presidency members) interviewing minors and asking questions of a sexual nature in one-on-one interviews behind closed doors as part of what are known as “worthiness interviews.”
We offer these concerns from a developmental, psychological, and trauma-informed perspective:
- We believe child & adolescent development and health psychology research support that asking questions of a sexual nature within the context of religious/spiritual “worth” is an inappropriate and harmful practice for developing minors;
- Questions are asked without the written consent of parents or the consent of minors themselves;
- Sexual questioning in common LDS worthiness interviews addresses and disciplines behavior that has been deemed normative by medical and mental health associations and best care practices (i.e. masturbation, sexual fantasy, gender non-conformity and presentation of sexual orientations other than heterosexual). We believe this is in violation of human sexual rights (see the World Association of Sexual Health).
- Interviews are conducted by untrained, lay clergymen that have not had any formative theological, counseling or sexuality training nor have they been through commonly used community protective measures (i.e. USA background checks).
- One-on-one settings where no governing checks exist create spaces where a potential predator has easy access to victims and where inappropriate power differentials are inherent in the relationship.
- New policy clarifications where the church states that minors are able to invite an adult of their choosing into an interview can put undue burden on the minor, where adult protection should be in place instead.
- Minors are developmentally ill-equipped to have the self-advocacy skills needed to remove themselves from this type of questioning within this cultural and religious construct, especially when such interviews are expected and not previously explained with regard to how they will take place.
- Minors who have suffered sexual abuse or assault are at particularly high risk of harm from these types of interviews.
- Disciplinary measures that can result from these interviews act as rejecting behaviors that put minors at risk for higher rates of clinical depression, anxiety disorders, self-harm, suicidal thoughts and suicide.
Our suggestions for the Church to move towards a trauma-informed faith community:
- Stop all sexual questioning of any kind towards minors by ecclesiastical leaders.
- Stop conducting one-on-one ecclesiastical worthiness interviews behind closed doors with minors.
- Incorporate background checks (or the equivalent in different countries) for all who work with minors within the church organization.
- Network and collaborate with trauma-informed and sexually trained professionals able to offer qualified training on issues regarding mental health, sexuality, trauma and practices which increase wellness and health of congregants.
- Offer comprehensive, trauma-informed training and policies to ecclesiastical leaders with easily accessible resources to qualified, ethical & culturally competent mental health professionals.
- Recognize at ecclesiastical, theological, policy and teaching levels that minors have not made the Law of Chastity covenant and are not under such religious obligations. Clarify this specifically at all levels of church administration and curriculum.
- Clarify, improve and edit teachings on what the covenant and promise of the Law of Chasity is. Current rhetoric of “sexual purity” teachings go far beyond the Law of Chastity temple covenant language to include and conflate things such as modesty in dress and language, media, music, viewing sexually explicit materials, and various physical affection behaviors including masturbation, passionate kissing, etc. to be a violation. This is often unclear and confusing to youth, especially in worldwide cultures where expectations, prohibitions and practices of sexuality, dress, gender expression, etc. widely differ.
- Recognize that “sexual purity” teachings in the present historical Western world can be highly problematic to healthy sexual, emotional, relational and identity development. These issues affect people throughout their adulthood and their dating, long-term and marital relationships.
Context to Consider
As mental health professionals who meet with individuals, couples and family systems we have to abide by governing and licensing regulations that are extremely stringent in making sure we “do no harm.” Some examples include:
- Extensive training from recognized scientific & educational sources in trauma, human development, human sexuality, confidentiality, ethics, boundaries and privacy rights, and how to facilitate healing and growth (masters and phd levels of education);
- Expected to explain treatment protocols and acquire written consent of the parent(s) and honor the consent of those not of legal age to consent prior to any treatment;
- Expected to practice standards of care backed by research;
- Expected to adhere to licensure standards;
- Expected to follow ethical guidelines of each profession;
- Expected to abide by state laws governing our professions;
- Expected to practice within the scope of our training and refer to other professionals when appropriate;
- Expected to participate in case consultations as needed; and
- Clients have access to external complaint processes, investigations, and disciplinary processes with publicly accountable outcomes including removing our ability to practice that govern our one-on-one interactions.
All of these policies and standards create a system of transparency and accountability for therapists and mental health professionals which protect the public. Untrained, unlicensed, lay bishops, counselors and stake presidencies in the Church are under no similar systems of accountability and transparency. We see this as highly problematic for all involved.
Position on the Practice of Worthiness Interviews
The second position statement addresses “worthiness interviews” as a whole and a general practice within LDS congregations.
Having to prove “worthiness” status to be able to fully participate in one’s faith tradition and community is concerning for both adults and minors from the following perspectives:
- It can create or influence distorted thinking about self-worth and self-esteem (i.e. internalized shame);
- It can create an atmosphere of unhealthy or inappropriate boundaries by asking questions that members are expected to answer regardless of their comfort levels or needs for privacy;
- It can create an atmosphere of rejection, exclusion and public embarrassment when disciplinary measures are taken that can have implications for mental health, social situations, employment opportunities and family relationships;
- It creates an atmosphere in ward, stake and family settings where there is a high risk of breaches in confidentiality;
- It can create a culture of perfectionism; and,
- It can interfere with spiritual development and a member’s potential relationship with how they perceive the divine.
We encourage the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to find ways to be inclusive to all of their members in the rituals and ceremonies enjoyed within the faith community. Some suggestions would be as follow:
- Move towards ministering meetings and thoughts of “readiness” in age appropriate manners, versus questioning interviews measuring “worthiness.”
- Make clear to members that the ability to withdraw from an ecclesiastical interview at anytime and for any reason, without repercussion, is always an option.
- Stop using disciplinary actions as part of “worthiness” regulation. Find other, more inclusive and trauma-informed ways of welcoming people to progress, serve and participate in the many Church programs, ceremonies and rituals.
It’s been encouraging to see the new “ministering” curriculums being developed. We believe there is great potential in this language shift to make some of the changes we are addressing that members could largely benefit from.
*How the Church Approaches Abuse https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/how-mormons-approach-abuse
August 17, 2018