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What Four Latter-day Saint Mental Health Professionals Think Of Their Church's New Abuse Training

An illustration from a new training module the LDS Church.
An illustration from a new training module the LDS Church is requiring youth leaders to complete in order to prevent and respond to abuse.

The way the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints responds to abuse has been put under a magnifying glass in the past year, in part due to a number of high profile abuse cases that showed how local church leaders can get things wrong and sometimes cause more harm than good. In an attempt to improve that process, the Church released new online training for youth leaders last Friday.
Mental health professionals in the Latter-day Saint community widely applauded the move, but when it comes to the quality of the training itself, there are various takeaways. 

KUER’s Lee Hale asked four mental health professionals to evaluate what they saw in the training module. 

Headshots of the subjects.
Credit Headshots provided to KUER

Lee Hale: What does this training do well?

Amber Choruby Whiteley: The training is really engaging. It includes a brief explanation of how abuse can be verbal, physical, sexual, or emotional. I was glad and surprised to see this training go into the complexities of what abuse can look like. The training brought this back to Jesus Christ, his teachings and what the Lord wants for His children, which is very powerful.

LaShawn Williams: The diversity in the graphics and animations, the conveying of emotions/dispositions of characters and the member names is reflective of the international church. It normalizes diversity in ways I haven’t seen before in print. The direct instruction to obey laws of the land and seek support even if the abuse isn’t against a codified law is a good safeguard and “catch-all” approach as well. The secular resources that are linked to the website, the research that went into creating the contact numbers for child abuse in every state in the U.S., and the integrated resources in the Gospel Topics app is truly impressive!

Braxton Dutson: It encourages leaders to connect with and include parents when an issue arises. It's not encouraging leaders to try and figure things out on their own. I love that it states "The victim often knows their abuser." This is so important to know because it's so true! It also states "It is your solemn responsibility to report (abuse)." The training seems to be building a team work support system to help leaders keep each other accountable.

Kate Harline: It's a step in the right direction. It covers the basics of what abuse is, some policies to help prevent abuse, and right responses to suspicions or reports of abuse. I didn't find anything in the training to be incorrect or objectionable, however I do find it to be incomplete.

Hale: Are there any potential blind spots? If so, what are they?

Williams: Yes, there are significant blind spots around cross-cultural differences in parenting. With consistent majority white upper leadership over black and brown congregations, both in the U.S. and abroad, we may have increased policing of black and brown parenting. This will perpetuate the over-representation statistics of black and brown kids in the child welfare system due to members wanting to be more vigilant, proactive (and obedient) after having completed the training. Additional blind spots are seeing abuse as only individually experienced and not systemically, culturally or historically experienced.

Dutson: I think the biggest blindspot is addressing the generation gap. I worry there are many out there seeing the possibilities of abuse (hazing, teasing, etc) and are stating "this is just a weak generation, they need to stop being so sensitive!" How do we help leaders who feel this is overkill?

Harline: To me, the biggest blind spot is that a culture of patriarchy creates layers of scenarios that are ripe for abuse, both in ecclesiastical and private life. We see this in many patriarchal religions and cultures, so the LDS Church is not alone in this problem. But there are some factors unique to LDS life that can create a perfect storm: Because every male church member can be a priesthood holder, and because all church positions with significant power and authority are held by males, male spiritual authority can be easily misconstrued and twisted by both males and females into male ultimate authority.

Hale: What are the biggest issues you've seen with how abuse can be mishandled in Latter-day Saint communities? Did this training adequately address those issues?

Whiteley: The biggest issue I have seen with my research has to do with how church leaders unintentionally perpetuate secondary trauma by teaching lessons that lead youth to blame themselves for their abuse. I am pleased to see that this training touched on the importance of believing abuse survivors, but I don't think it adequately addressed the complexity of how we can perpetuate secondary trauma without realizing it.

Harline: 90% of abuse happens by someone in a child's circle of trust — not a stranger. I have seen a tendency for adults to ignore potential red flags or unsafe scenarios simply because they would like to believe that the people their children are interacting with “could never” perpetrate. There is a culture of familiality in the LDS Church — even to the point of addressing others as "brother" and "sister," or referring to the congregation as a "ward family" — and the implied trust that comes along with that can allow perpetrators to more easily hide. I think the training could do more to address this because most of us are prone to believing "it couldn't happen to MY child or in MY ward or in MY family" etc.

Dutson: Dismissing the assault or abuse. "We'll take care of this" being used as a way to jump best practices to protect the name of the church or the individuals. It frequently does not support the victim and allows for more abuse to occur.

Hale: The training guides adult leaders to avoid one-on-one situations with youth. Is that an effective technique for preventing abuse? Why or why not?

Harline: Perpetrators seek to get their victims alone, so rules about more than one responsible adult being with youth in any scenario is a good step. But it is not a catch-all and must be combined with other smart practices, as well as empowering both adults and youth with knowledge about preventing and responding to grooming and attempted or successful mistreatment/abuse. Effective abuse prevention should include education about correct understanding of what abuse entails, what symptoms to watch out for, how to respond effectively and teaching children about personal safety and boundaries.

Whiteley: A lot of the hypothetical examples given show a young man or young woman approaching their leader about how they have been experiencing abuse in some form, however, I do wonder about how some young men or young women will be able to do this if they're unable to meet one-on-one with a church leader to be able to tell them these things in confidence. The Church should consider how to create safer spaces in which youth can confide in their leaders without worrying about someone overhearing. 

Williams: The two-by-two approach depends on what the assumptions are about where and when abuse is happening and by whom. The training addresses how to handle disclosure of abuse more than it addresses observing and identifying potential for abuse perpetrated by your companion.

Hale: Youth leaders are instructed to "immediately contact legal authorities" when they learn of abuse. Bishops and stake presidents are told to contact LDS Church HQ first. What do you make of this distinction?

Harline: I don't see any reason why a bishop or stake president shouldn't immediately (i.e. FIRST) contact Child Protective Services or Adult Protective Services to consult with a professional. In the state of Utah, there is a Duty to Report Law that requires anyone over the age of 18 to report suspected or confirmed child abuse. In my professional opinion, these types of cases should be treated as urgent and reported as soon as they are learned about.

Dutson: In the majority of abuse/assault legal authorities need to be contacted. It doesn't state in the training but in their resources it sounds as though HQ is in charge of knowing the laws. Per the situation and the law HQ will be giving guidance on how to respond and if they need to contact authorities. I think it's important to make sure law enforcement is contacted either way to help keep everyone accountable. 

Williams: It feels like a catch 22 for the youth leaders. They may second guess themselves for reaching out to the authorities first if upper leadership is told to reach out to Church headquarters. They may worry they’ll be in trouble and choose to follow an implied suggestion to reach out to leadership first instead. Improved wording could be for bishops and stake presidents to reach out to Headquarters after being informed by their auxiliary leaders that abuse was disclosed and reported to legal authorities. Upper leadership can do both simultaneously if an individual interview is where abuse is first disclosed.

Hale: What was your biggest takeaway from the training module?

Whiteley: Overall, there were things I was really impressed with the training module. It used trauma-informed language and went into some more complex, nuanced topics of abuse, such as grooming behaviors and various ways in which youth can be abused. My biggest critique of this training is how brief it was. I believe it is a good start, but is easily completed in 30 minutes or shorter, and is only required every three years. I believe in order to really support leaders in the complexities of child abuse, there needs to be more.”

Williams: My biggest takeaway from the training module is seeing the Church learn what commitment to change from the inside out can look like. Is it perfect? Of course not. As many of my friends involved in justice work for Jesus will say, "change happens in God’s time and we are the hands on God’s clock." I appreciate the attempts to prevent abuse and protect members from further abuse. The resource links on recognizing abuse in victims and behavior in perpetrators really give us the potential to dismantle systemic harm and monitor corrective actions towards healing and reconciliation in Christ.

Harline: I hope it's just the beginning of broader conversations in the LDS community about the prevalence and effects of all types of abuse — including more subtle types like spiritual, emotional, verbal and financial abuse. I hope it's the beginning of better equipping both LDS youth and adults with ways to more effectively prevent and respond to abuse. Most of all, I hope this training signals the beginning of better empowering current and former members of the LDS community who have been victims of abuse to seek appropriate help and to heal.

Lee Hale began listening to KUER while he was teaching English at a Middle School in West Jordan (his one hour commute made for plenty of listening time). Inspired by what he heard he applied for the Kroc Fellowship at NPR headquarters in DC and to his surprise, he got it. Since then he has reported on topics ranging from TSA PreCheck to micro apartments in overcrowded cities to the various ways zoo animals stay cool in the summer heat. But, his primary focus has always been education and he returns to Utah to cover the same schools he was teaching in not long ago. Lee is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is also fascinated with the way religion intersects with the culture and communities of the Beehive State. He hopes to tell stories that accurately reflect the beliefs that Utahns hold dear.
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