When and How Would and Should You Respond

(Trigger warning for discussion of sexual abuse, child abuse, and other related subjects)

By Kelly Ann

The scandal at Penn State has generated a lot of discussion in the media about when and how would and should you respond to abuse – whether sexual, child, or otherwise.  While I have shied away from reading all the details of this heinous case, in drawing lessons, my first response was that I am not likely to walk into the men’s locker room nor be the head of department or clergy member to whom someone would confide in.  Rather I think about when and how I or people I know might encounter it in our lives and think about how would and should I respond – so that if I ever have to, I will be prepared.

In reflecting a little about it over the past week, I imagine what most people encounter in their life will be grayer than the stories we hear on the news. While I hope I would respond properly if I was abused or knew anyone that was abused, the reality is that thankfully in my life I really have had limited experience.

So for the purpose of discussion, I would like to gauge theoretical responses and legal requirements to the following hypothetical scenarios (some which may have more standard answers than others):

1) A student in your primary class routinely has bruising that you are worried about

2) A classmate at BYU confides to you that she was date raped but doesn’t want to report it because she feels at fault for crossing other chastity lines and wants to be able to finish the semester (i..e she doesn’t want her Bishop to know)

3) The custodian at school makes you uncomfortable in the way he is chummy with the student and gives them candy but you don’t actually have anything else to report

4) You are concerned that an adult friend is being abused by her husband (more emotionally than physically) but don’t know how to bring it up

All thoughts on these and any other theoretical or actual examples of when and how should and would you respond are welcome.

I’m also really curious to know what are the exact requirements for Mormon Bishops.

And finally, how do you teach your children safety and prepare them for what they might encounter.

I hope this discussion might be useful.

You may also like...

19 Responses

  1. christer1979 says:

    I’ve been pondering similar BYU situations a lot lately. For what it’s worth, BYU has a Women’s Resources Office to help women cope with issues like this. Although I couldn’t find out from quick skim if telling someone there will lead to ecclesiastical leaders finding out, I really want to say that they two remain separate. Ultimately a rape is a criminal matter, and the website directs women to this number: “If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual violence, call the Utah Toll-Free 24-Hour Rape and Sexual Assault Crisis and Information Line at 1-888-421-1100 to speak confidentially to a victim advocate. The Utah Valley Rape Crisis line is 801-377-5500.”

    Unfortunately, Mormon young women tend to blur the lines between accountability and violation of choice (rape) a LOT. I know it’s been shared here before, but the reactions from rape victims in this article are deeply disturbing and show how far we’ve gotta go in teaching morality and agency at church:


    I’ve never been told by an actual victim; I’ve heard of assault through mutual friends, and urged the mutual friend I actually knew to call Women’s Services and Resources, call the police, etc. on behalf of her friend. I don’t think she did, and to this day I regret not being more proactive.

    So if a victim told me, first I would try to listen to her whole story, then assure her other intimate behavior NEVER means she has to give up her choice, that it’s NEVER okay for someone else to assume she will do or take more than she has verbally expressed. I’d try to express my faith in her as a person and her undiminished worth. Then I would plead with her to call WSR / the police. I’m not sure if I would call if she wasn’t willing. I don’t know. What do y’all think?

    • Janell says:

      Hm. That does remind me that in conservative society there is a lot of notion that a girl who is raped was, “asking for it,” by either dressing scantily, behaving flamboyantly, or by simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The victim is never the law-breaker, but some people have difficulties seeing that 🙁

      I didn’t know there was a crisis line for this type of situation – including those for “or someone you know.” Thank you for that information.

      • Diane says:


        I hope in your response that you are not trying to imply that what happened at Penn state would never happened at BYU. Rapes and sexual assaults happened all the time on college campuses. Byu is not impuned

    • christer1979 says:

      Diane, I definitely believe that BYU has its share of sexual assault and rape. That’s what I was trying to share with the ksl article from 2002. I also believe that rape goes highly unreported at BYU and I want to stop that. In fact, the high rate of not reporting probably contributes to the fact that I’ve never had a friend tell me of being raped or assaulted. I’m fairly confident, based on statistics, that there are women I work and go to school with every day who have unfortunately dealt with this.

      • christer1979 says:

        just kidding, deseret news article… anyway, I apologize for anything that may have suggested that rape is not as common at BYU. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that.

  2. Janell says:

    These are my first strategies

    1) Keep an eye on the child. Write down a few notes about what I’m seeing physically, emotionally, and in the child’s temperament. If I see a pattern or cause for concern that may indicate abuse (be it a parent or a bully), raise up the comment to either the Primary President or the Bishop depending on the situation.

    2) Encourage her to report the incident to the police. That first thing is what matters the most. Declare that rape has no baring on the law of chastity, and if she’s feeling shaken in spirit she ought to have a discussion with the Bishop or a trusted adult woman. If it feels right, also encourage her to get a blessing for peace and comfort noting that she doesn’t need to tell the details to those who are blessing her and she can set the parameters for who is near her.

    3) If I’m familiar with the child’s parents, bring up the situation to them describing the discomfort. (Less “the janitor is a nice grandfather fellow” and more “he’s leering at your child.”) Give the same report to the school’s principal (and if no change in behavior is made escalate to the District Supervisor and cc the district’s legal department.)

    4) That one stumps me.

  3. Faith says:

    (1) Former CPS investigator here–please, please, please, do NOT report it to the Bishop or RS President. If you have reason to believe a child is being abused or molested in any way, call Child Protective Services. They will investigate the case, and do everything in their power to protect the children, where too often church officials will end up doing more to protect the perpetrators. I know that in the state of Texas, anyone with cause to suspect child endangerment is legally required to make a report.

    (2) Rape is rape is rape is rape is rape. It doesn’t matter if you went a little too far with your boyfriend. At the moment you said, “Stop,” or “No,” you have withdrawn your consent to those intimacies. If he persists, he is a rapist and you have been raped. Years ago police sent Officer Friendly to schools to warn kids about stranger-danger. But stranger rapes are only a fraction of the total number. You’re far more likely to be molested and/or raped by a family member or a friend than you are by a stranger.

    (3) Talk to the principal about your discomfort, and keep an eye on the custodian. I’m not sure what else to say there. Some people just seem creepy, but they’re not necessarily sexual predators.

    (4) Just be there for your friend. I have an emotionally abusive husband, and the thing that helps me most is to be able to talk freely with my friends and my sister. Find a questionaire–they’re available online–where you can assess whether you’re being abused. When the time seems right, give it to your friend. Let her know you’re there for her. If she wants to leave but doesn’t know how, help her get in contact with a women’s shelter. If she decides not to leave, don’t be judgmental. It’s a huge step, and it can be incredibly difficult. The support of her friends can be the only thing getting her through it.

    Great questions. I hope you find the answers you’re looking for.

    • rk says:

      I couldn’t agree with you more. The police and/or CPS need to be the first call on these things. The church is made up of very ordinary people who are probably not equipped to properly handle abuse accusations. Members need to be trained to go to the police to report abuse rather than a bishop or RS president.

      It would be appropriate to let the bishop know about an allegation after the police have been contacted so he can release an accuser of a calling pending an investigation.

      I really wish the parents of these abused children would have known the warning signs of a predator grooming a child. Every parent should be aware that an adult or an older child showing unusual interest in a child is a big red flag.

      Some time ago I went through the Boys Scouts Youth protection training and came away quite impressed. They emphasized that if you witness abuse #1 Stop the abuse #2Contact the police #3 contact a specific person in the organization. If we witness suspicious behavior, (too much touching, any one-on-one adult-child interaction)we stop it and immediately report it to the organization. I more secure with myself knowing that what I needed to do in the case that I witnessed abuse or anything else that is “off.” I wish more members had this type of training.

  4. Diane says:

    I am with you, do not report it to the Bishop.go directly to the police, There was an article in the Salt Lake Tribune, where a local Bishop, who was also a practicing attorney, as well as the School Superintendent went to the girls parents to try to get them not to report the assault because he was concerned about the boys reputation.

    Even reporting the behavior to police is no gaurentee. According to victim #1 the boy and his mother made complaints to the his high school principle after Sandusky kept trying to take him out of school with out the parents permission.

    After reading that I was just like what the heck, some other adult is allowed to take a child of mine out of school, how the heck am I suppose to protect him?

  5. April says:

    1. Where are the bruises? What do they look like? Bruising on children’s knees and elbows is normal. Kids play rough. The American Association of Pediatrics explains which kinds of bruises should raise red flags and which are normal for a rambuctious, accident-prone child: http://www.aafp.org/afp/2000/0515/p3057.html I would not call CPS about a child with consistently scraped up knees (makes me think of a kid that likes to try bicycle stunts) but I would for a kid with bruises on her neck or bruises shaped like a blunt object. I would report to police or CPS, not to the bishop, etc. At Penn State, lots of people reported to someone in slightly more authority than they themselves, but no one reported to the police or CPS. Skip the middle man.

    2. Maybe see if she is willing to call a rape crisis line, if not the police? They can help her work through her concerns and it is confidential. Also, is it soon after the rape? Emergency contraception will work up to 5 days afterwards (used to be only 3, but there is a new kind now). Tell her about that. Also, I didn’t go to BYU, but it sounds like the Honor Code there causes all kinds of unintended consequences. Maybe someone should point out the need for some rewrites to school policy?

    3. Not so sure about this one. In my judgmental society, people are frequently “uncomfortable” about people who are different than they are; I would have to think hard–am I uncomfortable because I really am seeing signs of a predator grooming a child, or because in my society, I have been trained to be uncomfortable around people who are poor/Hispanic/gay/disabled/etc.?

    If I could honestly say that this situation was bothering me for more reasons that simple prejudice, I would ask the child about it (if I were in a position to do so) or ask the school principal to talk to them about it. School age kids are old enough to talk about these things, but usually not unless someone asks them. Starting when I was 7, my parents started regularly asking me questions like, “Have any grown-ups done anything to make you uncomfortable? Has anyone touched you in your private body areas? Has any grown-up ever told you to keep something secret from us?” The answers to these questions might reveal something that should be reported, or they might just reveal that the janitor is just another harmless, poor, Hispanic, gay, disabled guy.

    4. Emotional abuse is wrong but not illegal. I don’t see this as something you report. And frankly, I don’t know if I would bring it up to my friend, either. I don’t think pointing out to her that I’ve noticed that her husband is rotten would help. Maybe, if she ever hints about being abused or just stressed, I would just make a standing offer to her that she can always come over to my place anytime, day or night, if she needs a break.

    • Diane says:

      I’m really surprised by your response that you shouldn’t report emotional abuse. Emotional abuse, is the same as bullying and this is why we are having a lot of our kids committing suicide. I could not agree with you any stronger, but, to say, hell, yes report it.

      • amelia says:

        To whom, Diane? No matter how terrible emotional abuse is (and it can be very terrible), there is no legal action that can really be taken on the grounds of emotional abuse, not by law enforcement. I suppose one could report it to an ecclesiastical leader, but I’m not at all sure such a course of action would lead to any real good and it could lead to some very real harm. Most emotional abusers are very adept at playing their public image so that others don’t see them as emotionally abusive at all. I think April’s suggestion is probably the most realistic response until the woman being dealt the abuse has realized that she’s ready to leave and sever the relationship.

  6. Pablo says:

    As a Bishop, I understood that if I had reasonable suspicion of abuse-neglect, sexual or physical-I had to obey any state law that required me to report. I carried a card (which I turned over to the new Bishop when I was released) with the Church’s 24/7 hotline. When a case of child neglect was reported to me, I called the hotline and talked to a volunteer that was getting a degree in social work. After discussing the situation over two days with the volunteer and a Church attorney and researching applicable state law, we determined that (1) there was reasonable suspicion of neglect and (2) I had an obligation under state law to report it to the appropriate state agency. I was asked to determine if there were another person in the Ward that was aware and could report it, rather than me as Bishop. There was another person who was willing and reported it. I made the mistake of sharing the fact that it was reported with a member of the Welfare Committee and that person did not keep the information in confidence. This led to some problems.
    In retrospect I do not regret reporting the neglect, but I wish I had not shared the fact I reported it with anyone. People who should know how to keep confidences frequently don’t or won’t.
    With all that, I am very frustrated with Penn State’s administration keeping this hidden during what I think was a 4 year investigation and not acting until it became public and the administration was able to gauge public reaction. There is a tendency to protect child molesters because we do not see them as predators. This is because we like them and the kids ordinarily like them. Predators are manipulators and work to be liked-otherwise we wouldn’t trust them around our kids. Jim Boeheim’s comments about his assistant coach at Syracuse being unable to have commit such abuse and calling the accusers liars come to mind. Another major irritant is the legal fiction of the presumption of innocence. It is true that until a person is convicted in a court by a jury or other trier of fact that he is presumed innocent, but that doesn’t mean that the public has to employ such a presumption. We get to make judgments about what we understand the evidence to be to protect our children or protect other children.
    If a person is accused of child exploitation, you need to act to protect children and the accused. If he is serving in a Church position around children, he needs to be removed from the situation regardless of how outlandish the charges are until the charges are resolved. That protects him, any potential victims, and the Church. That is SOP with the Boy Scouts. The Bishop doesn’t have to announce the accusation or investigate it, but he does need to act to protect the three entities: potential victims, the accused, and the Church.
    Two final notes:
    1) These cases are tough to prove in criminal courts. There is rarely any physical evidence, eyewitnesses, or confessions by the offender. Since molesters have to ingratiate themselves into a situation in order to abuse children, the community usually loves them, parents trust them, and kids are hesitant to tell what happened to them by a beloved member of the community. Juries frequently acquit. Prosecutors are better now about bringing the cases to court, but that has only been a recent development. They used to just not prosecute the cases, making it even more difficult to convict an offender.
    2) Victims of sexual abuse beat themselves up for years and even decades. I prosecuted a creep for molesting his 6 year old next door neighbor. Two of his nieces wrote letters to the judge saying that the creep molested them decades before and they lived every day with the horror that some other child had been abused because they had never reported the abuse. The nieces did not know that the other had been abused until we caught him, decades later.

  7. aerin says:

    I’m not a licensed social worker or therapist; nor do I work with children. But I would call CPS depending on the situation. I would always want to find out more info, if possible.

    I am aware that some of these accusations can have lifetime consequences, even if a person is not convicted. So while erring on the side of caution, of the victim, it’s also important to be mindful.

    I would like to see more education at byu (and everywhere) about consent. What is consent? Who can give consent? What is rape? What is sex you consented to but regret? There is a huge difference. So with more education about consent, the better for everyone. Some of the lines are not always cut and dry.

    In sex ed. in high school, we watched a video where a person claimed (this was a long time ago) that it was better to submit to the rape (violent act) than to fight, in some situations, fighting could lead to your death. I was struck by this statement as a teen, but I understand it. I wish that the LDS church would repudiate The Miracle of Forgiveness as non doctrinal ( i.e. anyone who survives a rape needs to repent) to move forward and help members recovering from these crimes. If the work is not doctrinal (and many say it is not), than surely this clarification can only help the healing.

  8. Risa says:

    As a social worker, I’m a mandatory reporter. I could lose my license if I don’t.

    1) Report it to CPS. It’s their job to investigate, not mine.

    2) Encourage my friend to go to the rape crisis center or Women’s Center on campus. This did happen to me in college with a friend of mine (not BYU). The rape crisis counselors are the ones who do the heavy lifting. It’s all about pointing people toward the right resources.

    3) Document specific times and places. It didn’t happen if it’s not written down. Take it to the principal. If problems continue to persist, take it to the school board.

    4) Write about it at length in the fMh closed group on Facebook and I’m sure some helpful person will copy and paste it and send it to her.

    For real though, be her friend and listen. Tell her what he says to her is not okay. His manipulation is not okay. And point out to her that it is manipulation because when you’re in it they’ve brain washed you to think you deserve it. The worst thing you go do is not say anything at all.

  9. georgy says:

    1. calling the cops
    2. calling the cops
    3. calling the cops and reporting it to school authority, on up the line if first reported gets me no where.
    4. having an intervention with a trusted friend and refering out for counseling.

  10. Mike H. says:

    In my judgmental society, people are frequently “uncomfortable” about people who are different than they are

    You’re not kidding. I had some mothers of some YW in my Ward blow a fuse for me just chit-chatting with them at a party in another member’s home. Yet, another brother in our Ward does that, and no one complains. Tell me why I’m supposed to feel so glad about interacting with Church members after that? So, I feel for the Janitor, to some degree.

    Rape in general is under reported, Provo doesn’t have a lock on that, but, yes, the blame the victim urge is great in the Church. Do we really need more dead rape victims?

    I had a Stake President, who was also a professional counselor, announce in a Stake Conference that there was to be no sexual, physical, or emotional abuse in the home. I also remember Elder Holland’s clarification of “Rebuking with sharpness”; It was not clenched teeth yelling, or demeaning all aspects of a person, it was getting to the point of the specific offense.

    On calling CPS: I had CPS called on us for having a sloppy home that “smelled like animals”. I suspect it was a former Bishop of ours who called. They came into our home, talked with us, and found that keeping things perfectly clean was hard with my wife & I working, and 3 autistic sons. We had 2 guinea pigs & 2 cats at the time, but it was not as bad a described. On a side, the former Bishop is now a High Counselor, who still feels that Church Leaders don’t have to repent of sins they make as Church Leaders until the day of judgment. I still have yet to find any justification for that thinking, but what do I know?

    There’s also questions about the Police not investigating things reported earlier at Penn State. I’m sure more will come out.

  11. Rachel says:

    I just wanted to talk about the last question–about how to prepare children.
    I’m a clinical social worker, and spent some years in the trenches of Child Welfare more than 20 years ago. Talk about vicarious trauma that I still haven’t completely shaken!
    My girls are aware there are sick people out there, and the likelihood of them being abused is more likely to be someone they know well than a stranger. They know I basically don’t want to put anyone in a precarious situation, and for that reason I don’t do slumber parties/sleep-overs, and I never leave kids (other than my own) here for play dates with only my husband present; same for them being at someone else’s house. All it takes is one person saying just the wrong thing and a person’s life is ruined. And, on the other hand, bad things really do happen.
    One of my daughters is 11 years old. She goes to piano lessons at a man’s house for an hour. Half of the time his wife isn’t home from work yet, so for 30 min she is there alone. I leave her there and it is all I can do to do it. Have we had a million conversations about safety? You bet. It’s a horrible thing to assume that everyone is a predator. But, figuring out how to err on the side of caution while being kind yet firm is what I’m trying to explain to my kids without making them neurotic is my goal.

  12. Anon says:

    I have a family member in an emotionally abusive relationship. Her husband can act very nice and friendly, but I have also seen him lose his temper and I believe the things she tells me about him. He demeans her, refuses to help parent their child, swears at her when angry, etc. She is aware that their relationship is not healthy and has even attended a few meetings that I referred her to for a support organization. It’s frustrating because she just doesn’t make the choices I would make in that situation. Her husband does travel quite a bit, so I guess it works out for her. At this point, being a SAHM and being married are more important than being in a healthy relationship. Since I know that she is aware of what she has gotten herself into, I mostly remain a close friend and have let her know that she is always welcome in my home if she needs to get out. Unfortunately there’s not a lot you can do when dealing with an adult.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.