Disclosing Child Sexual Abuse: What Mormons Should Know

Disclosing abuse is hard. For adults. For adolescents. Especially for children.

Most child victims of sexual abuse experiences will delay or never disclose the abuse to friends, family or authorities. Slightly more than half of the victims will disclose if there is corroborative medical evidence, a witness walked in on the abuse happening, or a video or audio recording of a perpetrator confession is obtained by police. An immediate disclosure is only probable if the perpetrator is a stranger.

Most victims want the abuse to stop, but they do not want to talk about it. Generally when a victim discloses abuse it is because the distress and suffering they experience in not telling have become intolerable. The desire for healing or for the abuse to stop is greater than the anxiety, shame, and depression caused by the possibility of harming a perpetrator who is most often an older child, or a beloved adult friend or family member. Disclosing the abuse may create intense feelings of anxiety, despair, and guilt at bringing consequences upon the perpetrator. It may precipitate self-harm or suicide attempts. Most survivors report delaying or never disclosing because they feared they would not be believed.

Unfortunately, there is a pervasive cultural myth that children lie about sexual abuse or makeup or embellish false allegations. The opposite is true. Study results vary but aggregately 90% of child disclosures are true. In the rare cases of a false allegation, the allegation is most frequently made by an adult parent embroiled in a custody dispute, not the child. These children are frequently victims of emotional abuse and neglect in the midst of a high conflict divorce with the anger of their parents eclipsing the capacity of the parents to nurture the children and meet their emotional needs.

A peer, mother or teacher are most likely to receive disclosures of abuse. The most common scenario I witnessed during the years I investigated child sexual abuse with the West Los Angeles DCFS (Department of Children and Family Services) is that a child makes an accidental comment or deliberate disclosure to a peer that is educated in body safety and recognizes that the victim is disclosing something serious that should be reported. The peer then tells their mother or teacher. Most frequently the mother tells a teacher. The teacher is a trained mandated reporter that will face legal consequences if they shirk the responsibility of reporting. The teacher calls the child abuse hotline and a report is made to both child protective services and police, triggering an investigation.

What should you do when someone discloses to you? When you receive a disclosure of sexual abuse you are receiving important public safety information. Another human is expressing trust in your safety and goodness as a fellow human. Although death may not be imminent in the case of sexual abuse, this is a crisis. Think about how you respond to other public safety concerns such as a fire or medical crisis. Responding to a public safety emergency can be frightening. We rehearse and train in school and professional settings to know how to best protect public safety in an emergency.

Some Mormons are confused by sexual abuse and believe it to be a moral concern rather than an issue of public health and safety. This is a dangerous misconception.

In a tragic example from my present labor as a social worker in a cancer hospital: A 50-year-old adult dying from an HPV (human papillomavirus) cancer disclosed that cancer is not the worst thing to happen in their lifetime. This righteous and monogamous member of the LDS faith was exposed to HPV as a result of repeated rape in childhood. Thirty-eight years after the sexual assault occurred it killed them through cancer. Adults die from child sexual abuse.

Engage with me in a review of public safety issues and when to notify the Bishop of your ward.

1. When your neighbor is experiencing cardiac arrest, do you call the Bishop?
No, you call paramedics. When the patient is stable you might call the Bishop to arrange for a blessing of healing or comfort. You might call the Relief Society President to arrange compassionate service for the patient and their family. You call the appropriate public safety agency in the moment of crisis. If you called the Bishop instead of the paramedics your neighbor might die. You would be complicit in failing to obtain the appropriate assistance for a fellow human in need.
2. When your house is on fire, do you call the Bishop?
No, you call the fire department. Later you might call the Bishop to coordinate with the Priesthood and Relief Society to clean up, provide temporary shelter, meals etc. as you cope with the aftermath of the fire. But if you called the Bishop and not the fire department… and your Bishop is not a firefighter with a fire station at his disposal at home…you may lose your home, other homes might burn down, and people or pets might die in the fire. If you called the Bishop, you failed to obtain the appropriate assistance to protect public safety.
3. When your house is burglarized, do you call the Bishop?
No, you call the police. The Bishop cannot investigate and make an arrest. He might come over and offer support while you call the police, but he does not have the authority to investigate or obtain justice. If you call the Bishop and do not call the police other homes may also be robbed. Other humans might be harmed or lose valuable possessions because you failed to act to protect public safety. Your Bishop is not a public safety officer.
4. When you witness or personally experience a physical assault, do you call the Bishop?
No, you call the police. They are the public safety officers entrusted with stopping violence and ensuring that the perpetrators face consequences. If you call the Bishop and not the police the perpetrator may harm other humans. You are complicit in allowing the perpetrator to walk free and continue to harm others.
5. But what if the physical assault is domestic violence, sexual assault or child abuse?
This is where some churchgoers get confused. If a member of the church is hurting another member of the church, especially a family member, do you call the Bishop?
The violence of one human, directed at another human continues to be a public safety concern. Basic human decency and public safety require that the assault is reported to the appropriate public safety officer with jurisdiction over the crime. Even when it happens in a family. Even when it happens at church.
Call the police! If this is intimate partner violence call the local domestic violence shelter and consult with them as to available resources. If this incident is abuse or neglect of a child call the local child protection hotline and consult as to additional reporting requirements and resources.

Ask the assigned public safety investigator when it would be OK to reach out to others for support. Your call to the Bishop might result in the tip to the perpetrator that they need to dispose of their hard drive or other evidence of child pornography on their property. Your call to the Bishop may be the lead time the perpetrator needs to flee the country. Your well-intentioned conversation with the Bishop may derail a criminal investigation.

Do not discuss the case with others until investigators or prosecuting attorneys have given you the go-ahead to do so. Then ask the victim before you tell their story. Do not repeat their story with any identifying details without their consent. Be supremely cautious in discussing your own experience with reporting a crime as what you disclose might be sufficient for others to identify the victim and subject them to shunning, shame, gossip or other injuries of public opinion. When you have the OK from the investigators and the consent of the victim THEN you might contact the Bishop about paying for counseling services for the victim or providing other forms of assistance. But really this is not your story to tell to anyone outside of public safety reporting. Respect the wishes of the victim in what you discuss with others. Do not force assistance on someone that has already suffered repeated violations of consent.

Most perpetrators are not arrested. The skin of the most intimate parts of our body, like the delicate tissue of the tongue, heals quickly. A forensic exam outside of 72 hours from the last assault may not result in evidence of the crime. Even when there is excellent forensic evidence, some victims are not believed and juries let perpetrators go free. In most cases, there is not enough evidence for local law enforcement to press charges. Most of the hundreds of perpetrators I have investigated are out free in the community. You should still report any suspicions of neglect, abuse or crime! A history of insufficient evidence reports can become an important tool in bringing justice.

In one case I investigated an 80 year-old-perpetrator went to jail after assaulting dozens of victims in his lifetime. He went to jail because a brave granddaughter reported he caressed the side of her breast over her clothes when he hugged her goodbye and she had a bad feeling about it. The mother affirmed that the alleged perpetrator had access to other children. The other children were interviewed by trained investigators skilled in asking open-ended questions that do not plant information or lead to false disclosures. Other children disclosed extensive abuse. The parent of one of the child victims was also abused by the perpetrator in childhood, disclosing many more victims among her now adult peers. The police were able to obtain forensic evidence from the recent crimes that combined with the allegations from two generations of victims led to a plea and a life sentence.

The granddaughter who reported her “creepy grandpa” also told her friends at school about what had happened. She was confident in sharing her knowledge of body safety and consent with her peers. One of those friends was being molested in her home and did not know that what was happening to her was abuse. She told her teacher after she realized she was being touched inappropriately. A report was made. The perpetrator was required to move out of the home. The evidence, in this case, was insufficient for prosecution, but all involved received counseling and support and the perpetrator was eventually rehabilitated. Safety for one family started with a schoolmate sharing her knowledge of body safety and consent.

This is what public safety looks like. Humans holding their family members, friends and children accountable for treating others with kindness and respect. Humans reporting suspicions that someone is behaving unsafely.

When you receive a disclosure of abuse, tell the correct public safety officer. Do not delay relief and safety for the victims. Perpetrators rely on the silence of good people to persist in their criminal activity. They tell children, “No one will believe you.” Don’t make it true.

Finally, be aware that if you are an adult with children your failure to appropriately report abuse may trigger an investigation into your own competency as a parent. The safety of your children in your home may be questioned.

Failing to report child sexual abuse is a public safety failure. If you know more than five children, odds are that a child you know is in need of rescue. The harm may be happening in their home. The perpetrator might be someone they call friend or family. What will you do to restore them to health and safety when they are brave enough to disclose?

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15 Responses

  1. ElleK says:

    I cannot overstate how important this is. Thank you so much for providing this succinct, well-written resource.

  2. Wendy says:

    Excellent educational post, April! Thank you for sharing your professional knowledge with us. It is invaluable!

  3. pijohnso says:

    Great comparisons to improve our understanding of what to do and how important our actions are.

  4. :'( says:

    As somebody whose child was sexually assaulted by a member of our branch, I can attest that your counsel here contains one huge, glaring error: we can NOT go to the authorities at all without HUGE consequences to our family’s eternal salvation! Because when the authorities decide we don’t have enough evidence to prosecute, but the assaulter is angry and turns us in to church authorities for supposedly lying, said church authorities then have a bone to pick with us and can threaten to tear apart our family in the eternities! THIS is why we gently probe church authorities first: hey, Branch President, do you think, just maybe, that there is enough evidence here for you to sort of kind of want to move this guy away from my teen daughters? No? Okay, sorry to trouble you–no PLEASE don’t revoke my membership, mmkay? Thank you SO much!
    –THAT is why we women are so cautious. We are trying to save ourselves years of heartache, tears, letters to leaders, and an eventual uprooting and move to a new home in order to escape all the contention, drama, and agony that my kids ended up suffering, not to mention threats to our membership and potential loss of our family sealings/eternal status of our family. All because mom wanted to do the proper channels thing, which turned out to be NOT smart!

    Every church leader is different, some can be mercurial and have their own agenda/biases, so it is always better to find out which side they stand on (pro woman/anti abuse or boys’ clubber?) BEFORE reporting. Otherwise, a family could find their entire eternal relationship completely dissolved by one cranky bishop, and once that happens, SLC typically refuses to step in.

    (note: this only applies to women. Local branch leaders can’t excommunicate a Melchizedek priesthood holder without stake approval, but they can remove the membership of sisters at the local level, according to Handbook 1)

    • :'( says:

      In other words: when the abuse happens AT CHURCH, we tend to want to report it AT CHURCH, first, so that we have someone AT CHURCH by our side to guide us in reporting to the authorities. Unfortunately, that doesn’t ever seem to happen. “What happens at church stays at church” seems to be Mormons’ secret, underground motto, including with abuse. What I really wanted was for church leaders to stand by my side as I reported to authorities so that authorities would be more likely to believe me and prosecute. The absolute opposite happened. As a result, the predator who assaulted my teen daughter still has his high calling at church, but we had to flee the area in shame.

    • Pamela Eliason Fuhr says:

      Something is very off here. I don’t understand your way of thinking. My first and most important thing to do in this case is to protect my child. I couldn’t care less about the “church” or my “membership”. Priorities sister!!! And this is the problem with this way of thinking. This is why we have this problem in the church because people put their “eternal salvation” and “church membership” above and beyond protecting the INNOCENT. Check yourself sister!

    • tomwheeler says:

      I understand your concern but I would hope a parent would put the safety of their children ahead of any other concerns, even church membership. Anyway, the bishop does not have the authority to judge your eternal standing. He can pass judgment on your membership & temple worthiness, but God will be your ultimate judge and certainly any mistakes made by priesthood authorities will be corrected in heaven. Also – I don’t know the details of your experience, but any church discplinary council decision can be appealed up the chain to the stake presidency, and higher. There is a process if you feel the proceedings were unjust in some way.

      • I agree with April C. that I do not believe God would honor a local priesthood leader’s decision to bar someone from eternal salvation under these circumstances, but I am glad this barrier to reporting for Mormons was brought up. We should not not be teaching that local priesthood leaders have the power to bar people from heaven by invalidating their saving ordinances, we should not give priesthood leadership such wide leeway to punish people who do not comply with their demands, and if we do need to have church discipline process, women should not be excluded from among this who staff and decide them. The problems with church discipline are all very relevant to this problem, and even if most of us would disregard these risks to go against a Bishop’s wishes and report abuse to the police, the fact that our policies and teachings create this barrier is wrong and we should be working to change that.

  5. April says:

    I don’t believe in a God that cancels sealing blessings or dissolves the bonds of an eternal family because the family follows the laws of the land (and Heaven!)and protects a Child of God from abuse. Amen to the priesthood of any leader so corrupt as to enable a perpetrator to destroy lives without consequences. Helmuth Hübener was excommunicated by his Stake President and guillotined by Nazis for his resistance to Nazi tyranny and holocaust. Who was a friend to Jesus Christ, the Stake President or Helmuth Hübener?
    I am sorry your leaders did not behave as loving Christians. I am sorry they harbored a criminal and you had to leave. I do not believe they acted with a speck of Godly power.

  6. Violadiva says:

    Oh, wow! Such a great post. Thank you, April. Bookmarking to share with every bishop forever.

  7. meg says:

    You have put into words what I could not, when I sat in a church meeting listening to the directive to tell the bishop immediately if I suspect abuse happening with any of the people under my stewardship. I knew something didn’t feel quite right about that, but I couldn’t put my finger on why it didn’t seem right. I wish I had read this before the meeting so I could have spoken up. Now I know better. Thank you.

  8. Thank you for this post, April C.! When I interviewed our friends at Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, they also emphasized that reporting to the church is not an effective way to get justice. https://www.the-exponent.com/stopping-sexual-abuse-by-ecclesiastical-leaders-with-mary-dispenza-and-judy-larson/

    Between both of you, we have a long and convincing list of reasons this is not the way to go.

  9. spunky says:

    This is brilliant, April! Thank you!

  10. John says:

    Um. What? Mormons feel so separated from the rest of society that many do not comprehend the fact that rape IS a serious and yes, potentially life threatening CRIME that must always be reported to the police!? Seriously? That just blows my mind. I had thought the church had grown over the last few decades. Apparently not.

    Also, really? Did you really need to emphasize how this woman didn’t deserve to die from a sexually transmitted cancer because she was righteous? To clarify, NO ONE deserves to die of a sexually transmitted cancer rather they were monogamous or not.

    On that note, this is an otherwise well written and enlightening article.

  1. March 29, 2019

    […] an Exponent II blog post she wrote a year ago, while “super angry and frustrated,” she equated abuse reports with other […]

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