The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced last week that it had updated its guidelines on preventing and responding to abuse. The announcement came shortly after a woman’s allegations that a former President of the Provo Missionary Training Center attempted to sexually assault her in the 1980s became public.
The guidelines, or the Preventing and Responding to Abuse Resource Document, were first issued in 2008. The updated version discusses a definition of abuse, Church doctrine, an abuse helpline for bishops and stake presidents, the prevention of and response to abuse, and policy and legal issues—all in a mere three pages.
Drawing on our experience in representing survivors of child abuse that occurred within church communities, we at Crew Janci find much room for improvement in these guidelines. Though the LDS Church’s renewed attention on abuse is welcome, the updated guidelines offer little specifics and do not capture the complexities surrounding abuse. Abuse is sadly commonplace but not easily understood, and so any guidelines or resources concerning abuse must be comprehensive. It may easy to assume that abuse does not often occur within a church community, but unfortunately this is not true. Child sexual abuse, for example, is prevalent in our society—1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men were sexually abused before the age of 18. Based on this staggering statistic, it is clear that abuse does often occur and is likely occurring in church communities across the country.
The LDS Church’s guidelines need work even on the basics. The Resource Document defines abuse only as “the mistreatment or neglect of others (such as a child or spouse, the elderly, or the disabled) in a way that causes physical, emotional, or sexual harm.” The guidelines do not provide definitions of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, and they do not acknowledge the prevalence of abuse. Remarkably, they also do not include any information on how to identify possible abuse or any indicators of abuse. Without knowing the basic information of what abuse is, how commonplace it is, and what warning signs to look for, church leaders can hardly begin to effectively prevent, identify, or respond to abuse.
The guidelines also do not address the significant impact abuse has on victims. The Resource Document only states:
Abuse causes confusion, doubt, mistrust, and fear in the victims and sometimes inflicts physical injury. Most, but not all, allegations of abuse are true, and should be taken seriously and handled with great care. Abuse tends to become more serious over time.
This description greatly minimizes the trauma and long-lasting effects that victims of abuse often experience. Abuse affects victims’ emotional, physical, and spiritual health, both through immediate and long-term injuries. The important Adverse Childhood Experiences study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that children who experience abuse or neglect are at increased risk of a wide range of negative health and well-being issues, including: substance abuse, anxiety, depression, poor academic or work performance, suicide attempts, and domestic or sexual violence; as well as serious medical problems such as heart disease, liver disease, lung disease, hypertension, diabetes, and obesity. Victims also often experience spiritual injuries and significant shifts in their beliefs—particularly if the abuser was another member or a leader of the church. The severity of these effects from experiencing abuse should prompt any church organization to take notice and concerted action to combat and address abuse within their communities.
Many other topics should have been addressed in depth in the guidelines, such as detailed protective measures, robust application processes for volunteers and employees, appropriate responses to concerning behavior, and specific ways to support survivors. Perhaps most concerning are the guidelines’ continued emphasis on the idea that Church leaders should call an abuse helpline operated by the LDS Church when faced with a situation relating to abuse. In contrast, they do not emphasize the importance of reporting abuse to law enforcement and do not describe the circumstances when a report should be made. Abuse is a serious crime, and churches should leave investigation of crimes to those who are equipped and trained. Overall, the updated guidelines say very little about survivors.
We appreciate the desire to maintain a thriving church community; however, the truth is that understanding how child abuse occurs allows communities to promote healthier behaviors and relationships. In contrast, misunderstandings about abuse are dangerous and leave children and other church members unprotected. The LDS Church needs to do more to understand abuse and the complex attendant dynamics, in order to educate their leaders, protect their congregants, and encourage a loving and supportive community.