Disclosing Child Sexual Abuse: What Mormons Should Know
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.
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.
DO NOT CALL THE BISHOP!
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?