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quarta-feira, 23 de maio de 2012

Kelly Clark: Child Sex Abuse Attorney, Portland, Oregon

The Mormon Church and Child Sexual Abuse: An Introduction

In a year when Mitt Romney, a prominent and accomplished Mormon, is running for president, I have lately had numerous inquiries from people who know that I am an attorney for child abuse victims, asking me about child sexual abuse in the Mormon Church. Here is a summary of what I often say:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has historically had a significant problem with child sexual abuse in its midst. While there are to my knowledge no reliable statistics on the numbers of incidents or abusers, it is my sense that the scale and scope of the problem was at least as serious as that in the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, the Seventh Day Adventists, or other similar organizations that have had documented and severe child abuse problems.  Over the last decade, I have handled probably two dozen cases of child sexual abuse in the Mormon Church, and have consulted with another 40-50 people who were abused in the LDS context. These victims of abuse have come from all over the country, but especially, of course, from the West: Utah, Arizona, and California, obviously, but also, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Alaska and Hawaii. The stories I have heard and the evidence I have seen convince me that there was, and maybe still is, a deep and pervasive problem with child sexual abuse in the Mormon Church.

The structure of the LDS Church has contributed to the problem. By this statement, I mean that, unlike, say, the Catholic Church, with its rigid hierarchy of ministry and its well-defined concept of who is a “minister,” the Mormon Church’s local leadership structure—Stake Presidents and Bishops being lay, not professional, ministers, and serving on a rotating, and not permanent, basis— made it harder for the Church to educate, train and supervise the local leadership to screen, monitor and supervise those who are in a position to abuse children.  Additionally, given the large number of church tasks delegated by the Church to its members via “callings”—home teachers, Sunday School teachers, quorum leaders, bishoprics, Scout leaders, etc—the number of “relationships of trust” between “official” church leaders and children are many times the number in other churches and youth organizations.

The LDS Church’s response to child abuse in its midst, until relatively recently, did not materially differ from that of other churches—the Catholics, the Adventists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and others.  There was historically a consistent tendency to try to bury the problem, to encourage or coerce victims to stay silent, to “let the Bishop handle it” and other similar responses, when an allegation of child abuse arose.  Of course, as in any religious context, in the Mormon culture there immediately arose for a victim or for his or her family a kind of conflict of interest, or religious duress, where to take action to report or prosecute an abuser could be seen as attacking or harming the Church. This kind of dilemma for victims and their families, in any religious setting, is always deeply tormenting, even traumatic, especially when in the context of a church such as the LDS, where loyalty to the Church was expected to be complete.

There also seems to have been an extraordinary reluctance by Stake Presidents, Bishops and other Church leaders to report such allegations to law enforcement.  Perhaps this reluctance resulted from some of the historic tensions in the United States between Mormons and the civil governments under which they lived, perhaps it flowed from the history of polygamy in the Mormon Church, perhaps it came from the well-documented hostility and even persecution that Mormons often experienced in the 19th and even 20thcenturies.  But whatever the cause, it seems that the habitual reaction of many LDS Church leaders historically was to do whatever they could to keep allegations of child sexual abuse quiet and under the social and legal radar. Since we know that child abuse thrives in secret, and secret systems are its favorite breeding place, this tendency toward secrecy contributed to the prevalence and depth of the overall LDS child abuse problem. Indeed, compared to the numbers of victims of abuse by Catholic priests, Boy Scout leaders and other similar trusted adults, the relatively small numbers of Mormon child abuse survivors who have come forward to break their silence or bring legal claims seems to underscore the heaviness of outing the secrets.

Perhaps surprisingly to some, to its credit the LDS Church has, in the last decade or so, been much more responsible, at least in my experience, in responding to the problem of abuse than have many of the other institutions I regularly deal with.  For one thing, the Church has a more sophisticated understanding of abuse, and, though there is still much room for improvement, the Church has created better training programs to prevent and recognize abuse.  And though I have had several hard-fought lawsuits with the Church there have been a dozen or so cases fully litigated around the country, for the most part, and increasingly, the Church has attempted to resolve such claims early: it has often offered ongoing support for those who need it: mental health counseling (within or without the Church social services structure), pastoral and spiritual assistance for those who want it, and even material and financial support. Of course, my job as an advocate for survivors is to make sure that there is also fair financial restitution to victims, measured by the nature and extent of the abuse, the extent to which Church authorities failed to protect a child, and other relevant legal considerations.  But, even apart from that, it is worth noting that overall, the LDS Church has been doing a better job than many other churches and youth organizations at resolving claims fairly and expeditiously.  Whether these efforts are simply attempts to keep cases out of the public eye, or whether they are genuine attempts to accept responsibility for abuse in its midst, the LDS Church seems to have decided that doing the smart thing and doing the right thing is often the same thing, and the result has been that Church authorities have often worked in good faith to resolve legal claims. Indeed, other churches and institutions of trust that deal with abused children could learn some things from the LDS approach.

It will be interesting to see, as this year rolls on and a highly charged election approaches, if the question of child sexual abuse in the Mormon Church is a topic that draws much attention.  In the meantime, perhaps this brief introduction to child sexual abuse in the Mormon Church can help the public in understanding a complex and largely still unrecognized problem.

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