Reform Church Interview Practices Related to Sex
21 March 2018 (updated 5 January 2021)
Evidently, a former LDS Church mission president, responsible for the missionary training center, has admitted to committing sexual assault. Mormon Leaks released an interview between the former leader and a woman who says she was one of multiple women he admitted to assaulting. And the Church has released a statement acknowledging the seriousness of the charge and communicating its intention to proceed in a manner consistent with its “long-standing policy of no tolerance for abuse.”
It appears that the sexual assault was facilitated by LDS Church interview practices related to sexuality. All members of the Church who wish to attend temple services (different from chapel services on Sundays), or who wish to serve in any position within the organization of the Church, must have an interview (sometimes multiple interviews) with Church leadership. Usually, the interviews are performed by local leaders, such as a bishop or stake president. During the interviews, the topic of sexual morality is commonly addressed. And sexual morality is a required topic when the interviewee is seeking permission to attend temple services.
The core requirement of sexual morality in the LDS Church is called the “Law of Chastity.” It is defined explicitly in Mormon temple services as requiring persons to have “no sexual relations except with their husbands or wives to whom they are legally and lawfully wedded.” Beyond that explicit definition, Church leaders have elaborated on implications of the Law of Chastity in various, sometimes conflicting, ways over the years.
When Church leaders interview members about the Law of Chastity, there are perhaps only a couple constants. The Church requires leaders to ask, “Do you live the law of chastity?” And the Church requires leaders to report to local government authorities any admissions of breaking local laws.
Beyond those constants, I suspect practice varies widely. While I’ve never experienced it myself, I’ve heard stories of leaders probing deeply into members’ sexual lives, including matters that aren’t relevant to the Law of Chastity. For example, a friend once told me that her bishop had asked her whether she was making an effort to satisfy her husband’s sexual desires. And I’ve also talked with Church leaders who have explained to me that they have been encouraged by their superiors to engage in such probing. For example, a former bishop once explained to me that his stake president had encouraged him to ask all teenage boys, “When was the last time you masturbated?”
Encouragement of probing private interviews into matters of sexuality creates an environment that facilitates abuse. I suspect most Church leaders navigate this risky environment without problems. But clearly some do not, as is evidenced by the news that inspired this post.
In light of this, I hope more of us will recognize that it’s time to reform LDS Church interview practices related to sexuality. Here are five ways we might do that:
Interviewers should always offer and be required to accept that a third-party of the interviewee’s choice attend the interview – maybe a parent, a spouse, or a friend.
Whether or not the interviewee invites a third-party attendee, a responsible adult should always be outside the door of the room where the interview is taking place – regardless of the gender of the interviewee.
Interviewers should never ask anything more about sexuality than whether the interviewee keeps the Law of Chastity – no probing into details.
Interviewers should discourage sharing more about sexuality than whether the interviewee keeps the Law of Chastity – perhaps encourage expert sexual counseling instead.
Interviewers should never share their own views regarding sexuality or their interpretation of the Law of Chastity – save that for public discussion in appropriate forums, such as adult sunday school or teenage youth group meetings.
I believe these five reforms would go a long way toward mitigating the risks presented by the current environment in which Church leaders perform interviews about sexuality. And, in themselves, they would not generally prevent leaders from receiving information they need about members’ claims to keep the Law of Chastity.
Some may be concerned that, without probing from leaders, members may choose to lie about the Law of Chastity. But of course members may choose to lie even with probing. And if there’s reason to believe a member is lying then the leader should probably find some other way to manage the situation. In most cases, it may be as easy as a simple statement that the leader doesn’t feel the member is ready to attend the temple or take on a position in the Church until the member attends some classes about the Law of Chastity. In serious cases, a disciplinary council, consisting of multiple interviewers, may be appropriate.
In any case, we must improve the situation in which we find ourselves. It’s a moral obligation. In fact, as expressed in Mormon scripture, there are few moral obligations more serious than ensuring the moral use of religious authority. That’s because the immoral use of religious authority undermines communal esteem for that authority and, thereby, undermines the efficacy of the authority in its role of teaching and influencing morality.
This is pointed out rather severely in the Book of Mormon by Alma. One of his sons “forsake[s] the ministry,” “goes after [a] harlot,” and consequently led “many people to destruction.” Alma says this sin is “most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost.” Some have misunderstood Alma’s claim to be a judgment of fornication generally. However, the text makes clear that the gravity of Alma’s concern arises not from fornication in itself, but from the consequences of a person with recognized religious authority engaging in behavior that undermines the trust of the people. Alma concludes, “O my son, how great iniquity ye brought upon the Zoramites; for when they saw your conduct they would not believe in my words.”
How true! And how relevant to the matters at hand. When members and non-members of the Church learn that a Church leader has sexually assaulted Church members, it undermines trust in the message of the Church. Of course, one might argue that the veracity or utility of the message of the Church should stand or fall independent of the vicissitudes of any particular leader. But the reality is that the moral influence of our leaders cuts both ways, for better and for worse.
So we have a responsibility, even a reverent obligation, to do our best to mitigate the risks of abusing the authority of our Church. I believe that in sentiment and word and often in action, most Church members and leaders take that responsibility quite seriously. And I think it’s time to take additional action that reflects the seriousness of the risks that are coming to our attention with clarity. It’s time to reform LDS Church interview practices related to sexuality.