The Church Office Building of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is pictured in Salt Lake City on Feb. 19, 2020. The church responded Friday to an Associated Press story about how the church handled child sexual abuse cases in Arizona and West Virginia. (Steve Griffin, Deseret News)
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SALT LAKE CITY — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints responded Friday to an Associated Press story about how the church handled child sexual abuse cases in Arizona and West Virginia.
“The abuse of a child or any other individual is inexcusable,” the statement said. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes this, teaches this and dedicates tremendous resources and efforts to prevent, report and address abuse. Our hearts break for these children and all victims of abuse.”
The AP story focused on the church’s abuse help line. The help line provides professional legal and clinical advice on abuse cases to Latter-day Saint bishops and branch presidents, laymen who are not professionally trained clergy. Bishops and branch presidents, who oversee congregations, and stake presidents, who preside over groups of congregations, are instructed to call the help line when any type of abuse arises.
The church’s published goals for the help line, established in 1995, state it is designed to:
- “Assist victims and help protect them from further abuse.
- “Help protect potential victims.
- “Comply with legal requirements for reporting abuse.”
The AP story focused on an Arizona case in which a Latter-day Saint man confessed to his bishop that he had sexually abused his daughter. The bishop, following advice from the help line about Arizona’s law on reporting abuse and its priest-penitent privilege exception, urged the man and his wife to report the abuse to authorities but did not do so himself.
The bishop who followed him in the lay calling did the same. That bishop held a church disciplinary hearing for the man, who then was excommunicated in 2013. The father later began to sexually abuse a newborn daughter, according to the article.
Latter-day Saint clergy regularly report abuse to law enforcement based on advice from the help line. For example, the church was sued recently in Oregon by a woman whose husband confessed that he was sexually abusing his children and went to prison after a church leader reported the abuse.
That case illustrated the complexity of the different reporting requirements across the United States.
The church’s statement continued:
“The nature and the purpose of the church’s help line was seriously mischaracterized in the recent Associated Press article. The help line is instrumental in ensuring that all legal requirements for reporting are met. It provides a place for local leaders, who serve voluntarily, to receive direction from experts to determine who should make a report and whether they (local leaders) should play a role in that reporting. When a leader calls the help line, the conversation is about how to stop the abuse, care for the victim and ensure compliance with reporting obligations, even in cases when the law provides clergy-penitent privilege or restricts what can be shared from private ecclesiastical conversations.
“And the help line is just one of many safeguards put in place by the church. Any member serving in a role with children or youth is required to complete a training every few years about how to watch for, report and address abuse. Leaders and members are offered resources on how to prevent, address and report abuse of any kind. Church teachings and handbooks are clear and unequivocal on the evils of abuse. And members who violate those teachings are disciplined by the church and may lose their privileges or membership. These are just a few examples.
“The story presented in the AP article is oversimplified and incomplete, and is a serious misrepresentation of the church and its efforts. We will continue to teach and follow Jesus Christ’s admonition to care for one another, especially in our efforts related to abuse,” the statement concluded.
The AP story explained that reporting laws vary across the United States.
“Arizona’s child sex abuse reporting law, and similar laws in more than 20 states that require clergy to report child sex abuse and neglect, says that clergy, physicians, nurses or anyone caring for a child who ‘reasonably believes’ a child has been abused or neglected has a legal obligation to report the information to police or the state Department of Child Safety,” the story says. “But it also says that clergy who receive information about child neglect or sexual abuse during spiritual confessions ‘may withhold’ that information from authorities if the clergy determine it is ‘reasonable and necessary’ under church doctrine.”
Abuse reporting laws also vary country by country, “which means a single policy can’t apply to all bishops, and they will need individualized advice,” wrote C.D. Cunningham, who published a response to the AP story for Public Square Magazine, which is published by a group of Latter-day Saints.
The church’s published policy on its official website, titled “Protecting members and reporting abuse,” instructs bishops, branch presidents and stake presidents that “the first responsibility of the church in abuse cases is to help those who have been abused and to protect those who may be vulnerable to future abuse.”
They also state “the church is committed to complying with the law in reporting abuse. Laws differ by location, and most church leaders are not legal experts. Calling the help line is essential for bishops and stake presidents to fulfill their responsibilities to report abuse.”
A bishop also should notify his stake president of instances of abuse.
The church’s General Handbook says its leaders and members around the world should follow reporting laws.
“Church leaders and members should fulfill all legal obligations to report abuse to civil authorities,” the Handbook states. “In some locations, leaders and teachers who work with children and youth are considered “mandated reporters” and must report abuse to legal authorities. Similarly, in many locations, any person who learns of abuse is required to report it to legal authorities. Bishops and stake presidents should call the help line for details about mandated reporters and other legal requirements for reporting abuse. The Church’s policy is to obey the law.”