A Therapist’s Perspective on “Worthiness Interviews” in the LDS Church #MormonMeToo
No matter how the LDS church adjusts “worthiness interviews,” I just can’t get behind them from a professional, moral, or spiritual standpoint. As a psychotherapist, I’m of the mind that these interviews condition children and adults to outsource their moral authority about right and wrong and set them up for a lifetime of dependency on an authority figure to determine whether or not they are “right” before God. Not only does this dynamic triangulate one’s relationship with the Divine, but it can also be confusing as the role of bishop changes about every five years (more often if you are in a congregation with a lot of turnover). For example, one bishop may tell you that a certain choice, behavior, thought, or feeling is wrong, and the next bishop could tell you it is just fine. Ultimately these interviews interfere with the principle spoken of by the founding LDS prophet Joseph Smith that church members should be taught “correct principles” and then be left to “govern themselves.” Moreover, in my opinion these required interviews can interfere with healthy psychological, sexual, and moral development across the lifespan.
Negative Outcomes for Females’ Development
“Worthiness” interviews can have negative implications for girls’ and women’s psychological development specifically. From the age of twelve on up, girls and women in the LDS Church are asked to regularly sit alone in a room with an adult male to discuss intimate topics that range from their beliefs about God to their sexuality—and even at times about their relationship to their own body as queries about masturbation are common despite being “off script.” This situation lays the foundation for females to feel God sanctions this kind of verbal probing of them by a man. This is dangerous because it can desensitize them to grooming behavior by sexual predators that most often prey on females. It can also unconsciously program girls and women to conclude that their value and “worth” is dependent on getting a male’s approval. It can center females’ sense of self on feedback they get from men and can set girls and women up to be vulnerable to male church leaders who may consciously groom them for nefarious purposes. We’ve seen this recently with the MTC sex abuse scandal in the LDS Church where an MTC president admitted to engaging in such behavior with young women whom he was responsible for in the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. This horrific story is sadly just one of many that are now being revealed regarding some male church leaders who have taken advantage of their position of authority behind closed doors.
Updated Church Policy Falls Short
Some may argue that the recently updated church policy that allows children and women to have a second adult present in these interviews is a safeguard against sexual predation or abuse. However it’s not that simple. Having another adult present does not eliminate the inappropriateness of minors and women being questioned about their sexuality by a man. It is also developmentally inappropriate for adult men to be required to answer questions about their sex life in order to be deemed “worthy” by a church leader. And we know that adult men can also be targets of sexual predation and that members of the LGBTQIA+ community are especially vulnerable to harm given that their sexual relationships—and legal marriages—are condemned in LDS church pronouncements and policies, even discriminating against children who live with their same-sex married parents.
In addition, the second adult option does not account for the fact that this second adult, whether a parent or another church leader, et cetera, could themselves be emotionally, spiritually, physically, or sexually abusive. The second adult chosen by a child to protect her/him could use the information gleaned from a confession during an interview with a bishop as fodder for more abuse. For instance, if a child confesses something an abusive parent deems abhorrent, it could set the child up to be victimized at home—under the guise that the church leader who condemned the child’s behavior also condones the abuse.
Abused children may not be aware of behaviors that constitute abuse (especially when it is emotional or spiritual abuse) and may choose an unsafe adult, who again could be their parent and unknown as an abuser to the child and to the bishop, to accompany them in these intimate interviews. This policy also doesn’t account for a minor or adult woman being interviewed by their bishop-father who may be their abuser. And most egregiously, the policy puts the onus on the minor child or adult woman to be informed about the policy and to invite another adult into the room. This seems to set up potential for the victim of abuse to be blamed when ecclesiastical abuse happens. And in my opinion, as long as worthiness interviews are conducted, incidents of abuse will continue. There is simply no way to safeguard against further victimization even with this new policy.
However, by instituting this new policy, the LDS Church seems to be acknowledging that there is reason to be concerned about the current set up. I see this as a positive step forward. But as a psychotherapist I fear church leaders may not be aware of the deep-seated psychological and moral damage that is being done by these interviews being required at all. Not only is the dynamic rife with potential for abuse of children, it is infantilizing of all adults and can stymie individuals’ and whole families’ healthy psychological, emotional, sexual, moral, and spiritual development. When church members are conditioned from a young age to believe that their bishop or other male church leader is responsible to judge a person’s “worthiness,” this can cause them to abdicate their moral authority over their own lives. This is antithetical to the LDS church doctrines of agency and personal revelation. My recommendation is for one-on-one meetings with any church leader to be on an opt-in basis only, and that confessions should be voluntary. I am not alone in this professional opinion. Additionally, church members should be able to choose between a female or male church leader to discuss private matters—always with the option for anyone to bring someone of their choosing into the room.
Independent Hotline Needed to Report Abuse
In order for the interests of the LDS church to not enter into the equation when someone has been victimized at church, when an allegation of abuse or need for counseling is made, any reporting system or therapeutic resource must be independent from the church. Too many competing interests have been in place for too long for victims to be believed and protected, or for members to get sound psychological treatment. Through the media’s reports of how the church responded to the MTC sexual abuse survivor, we are now seeing the kind of conflicts of interest involved when an institution is asked to hold perpetrators in leadership accountable. Other institutional churches outsource resources for reporting of abuse to keep their system in check. This seems like the next logical step in responding to our broken system.
Report Abuse to Police or Independent Victims’ Hotlines
Until the LDS Church decides to separate its interests from those of its victimized members, the free U.S. national hotlines below are places survivors can turn. I recommend that anyone victimized at church or elsewhere go directly to the police and not their bishop as a first step toward healing and holding a perpetrator accountable—whether the perpetrator is a church leader or not. (And for those in other countries, please include resources in your communities in the comments section below.)
National Sexual Assault Hotline
National Domestic Violence Hotline
Need for Routine Background Checks & Psychological Testing
All adults who work with children or youth should be screened with background checks, including all ecclesiastical leaders who should also undergo psychological testing as is standard for most clergy of other faiths before they are put in positions of power over entire congregations. These safeguards seem to be the most basic standard for best practices in responsible church organization.
Patriarchy Contributes to Sexism & Abuse & Harms Everyone
The damage done to the psyches and, too often, to the bodies of females during worthiness interviews cannot be underestimated in a patriarchal system like the LDS Church. It is ripe for misuse by male church leaders who are given ample opportunities to prey on the most vulnerable in our community. Granted, not every male church leader consciously grooms females or sexually assaults them. However, the current church system of girls and women being subjugated to boys and men—by all males from age twelve and up being given exclusive priesthood authority—contributes to overt and internalized sexism and misogyny. Girls and women are often told that their faithfulness and obedience to God is dependent on their submission to male priesthood authorities’ instructions about everything from how to dress their bodies to how to negotiate the complex dynamics in their most intimate relationships, including how they should interact with God (e.g., the prohibition against praying to the Feminine Divine, or “Heavenly Mother”).
This institutionalized sexism impacts all church members on an unconscious level because LDS church leaders consistently proclaim that the patriarchal structure of the church is of divine origin and is therefore forbidden from being questioned. This prohibition on criticism about patriarchal authority can have a deleterious effect on women and girls’ ability to identify abuse and assault when it is happening to them. It can contribute to Mormon men thinking they are entitled to dominate women. It can lead to girls and women believing this domination is God’s will. It can keep couples from sharing power and engaging in equal partnerships in marriage. Ultimately, it can limit every church member’s belief in their ability to claim authority over their lives and can prevent us from reaching our God-given potential.
Wendy is a psychoanalyst, licensed clinical social worker, and marriage and family therapist in private practice. She wants her church to be a safer place for everyone.