What would ‘doing it well’ look like?

“How did you get this number?”

“I found it online. I was amazed that the church would have a helpline like this for–“

“This line is only for bishops or sometimes other priesthood leaders. We can’t talk with survivors.”

“Is there a church hotline for survivors?”

“No. Please contact your bishop for support. Goodbye.”

I’d been “in the field” — if you can even call it that (fn1) — for about two months when I made this phone call in spring 2009. I was poring over every written work, talk, or resource ever published by the church or its leaders on family violence and stumbled across the helpline in an online chat forum. I was delighted — at least until I saw a few people commenting that it didn’t do survivors much good because it was only for bishops and priesthood leaders.

No way, I thought. You can’t support the survivor if you don’t support the survivor — like, you can’t address abuse if your services exclude the people who have been abused. This can’t be right. There’s no way the church missed something that basic.…right?

So I made this call. And found out that the people I thought must be misrepresenting the church’s position were telling the truth. The church had invested huge resources and effort into addressing abuse, and then had excluded abuse survivors from accessing them.

What the helpline basically amounts to is liability management for the church through conversations between local priesthood leadership (mainly bishops) and the Kirton McConkie law firm. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In an organization as large and diffuse as the church, with local leadership that changes so rapidly with so little training, a resource like the helpline offers a port in the storm for bishops, prevents a lot of legal issues from poor training, and infuses the entire structure of the church with resources and a scaffolding to respond to abuse. Especially in the 1990s, when the helpline was established, it was an avant garde investment in response to abuse. 

Because the helpline has been the main organized, comprehensive abuse resource the church offers to its wards and stakes for decades, many people hope or assume it must have some ministerial function, just like I did in 2009. But it does not. Survivors, leaders and other bystanders who look to the Church’s abuse helpline expecting to hear the Sermon on the Mount or see Christ cleansing the temple will leave empty, frustrated and spiritually hungry or broken. It’s more like the abuse equivalent of the White Handbook for missionaries. 

But here’s the thing: imagine that you’re a missionary, and the only church tool you have to help investigators transform through the love and Atonement of Jesus Christ is the White Handbook (and you can’t even let them read it). What an epic disaster that would be. That’s not where the Gospel is; that’s not where hope, healing and conversion in Jesus Christ come from (fn2). Without the ministerial aids that help missionaries and investigators come unto Christ in an intimate, personal way, the administrative liability prevention policies outlined in the White Handbook would be spiritually irrelevant. And so it is with the abuse helpline.

Unlike the White Handbook, resources like Preach My Gospel focus on ministerial content, rather than administrative procedures. They explain how to use the foundational resources of our faith – scriptures, prayer, modern revelation, etc – to light a person’s path toward conversion in Christ. That is why the White Handbook is useless to anyone but set-apart missionaries, while Preach my Gospel can feel relevant and edifying before, during, after, and independent of any set-apart missionary service. 

If the abuse helpline is the White Handbook of the church’s abuse response diffused through wards and stakes, what would be the Preach My Gospel of the church’s abuse response? What would be the intervention arm that centers the worth of souls and lights their path toward healing in Christ (survivors), repentance through Christ (perpetrators) and Christlike support (bystanders and leaders)? 

In other words, what would a ministerial companion to the administrative liability prevention helpline look like?

Would it look like… abuse.churchofjesuschrist.org?

The first thing to do would be to take a closer look at a ministerial abuse resource the church already has: the 2018 churchofjesuschrist.org/abuse website (aka, the church abuse website). The content is compassionate, accessible, and based on current evidence-based practices for abuse intervention. Its practical ministerial support applies to leaders, members, survivors and perpetrators without placing anyone in harm’s way. Further, it is the first church resource ever to direct survivors to contact professional abuse support services rather than just their bishop (who would then call the liability prevention helpline). The second most frequent comment I hear when I discuss abuse in LDS settings is “I want to help. I just don’t know how,” and the church abuse website gives a lot of support in that direction (fn3).

Yet, while the abuse website is available to all members, it’s not diffused through wards and stakes in the same way that the abuse helpline is. In our mission analogy, it’s more like the Come Unto Christ page of the Church’s website (formerly Mormon.org) than Preach My Gospel – definitely a ministerial resource geared for its audience, but you have to know about it to find it. It is much, much harder to find and access than the abuse helpline. 

In order to broadly reach abuse survivors and other members, the church’s abuse website would need the same type of publicity and awareness that Mormon.org received a decade ago. This would include both public awareness (think the “I’m a Mormon” campaign) and church-wide awareness. For example, it would be quoted freely and referenced often in General Conference talks, Come Follow Me, and any other church materials that address families, children, conflict, power, and more.

Would it look like… a survivor helpline?

Okay, so what about a helpline that does what we all thought the abuse helpline did? A phone number that helps victims, leaders, and other support structure members with evidence-based support, information, and access to local resources at any time of day or night? 

Fortunately, there’s already an organization that does that. RAINN (the national sexual assault hotline in the US, and it has counterparts in many other countries) provides those exact services. The church has recently emphasized collaboration with the Christlike efforts of other organizations (be they of any or no faith), rather than reinventing the wheel, in its recent ministerial efforts. For example, we donate our supplies and other resources to Catholic Charities and the Red Cross, who excel at distribution networking for humanitarian needs. The church can absolutely do the same for child abuse and family violence. 

If information and directives about RAINN were distributed through local leadership with the same urgency and prevalence as information and directives about the administrative abuse helpline, the quality of ministerial care for survivors would transform. Local leaders – and therefore survivors and other members – would have access to the local and best-practice information they would need to act effectively and compassionately toward survivors’ safety. Like the administrative abuse helpline, this ministerial aid and information would then be diffuse throughout the church. 

Would it look like…local expertise?

Linking the church abuse website and RAINN is the space where best practice abuse interventions and specific religious contexts meet. Some faith communities have leaned into this space, creating positions within their congregations and/or global communities whose job is to integrate professional abuse support into their religious practice. Some ways they may do this (on a local or global scale) include:

  • Serving as a “go-to” for pastors or congregation members with information about professional community resources for abuse.
  • Personally accompanying survivors to police departments, advocacy centers, or other resources.
  • Becoming trained abuse advocates and holding workshops for local leadership, congregation members, youth, or other groups.
  • Serving on interfaith coalitions that address abuse.
  • Creating materials that explain and offer support for abuse using the language and values of their faith.
  • So much more.

A third component of a ministerial response to abuse in wards, stakes, and even the global church would be to cultivate this expertise among church members. With very few additional policies or programs, the church could call at least one person in each ward and stake organization (Relief Society, Elders Quorum, YM/YW, Primary) to be aware of how to access RAINN and other abuse hotlines, to know about local professional resources for both abuse survivors and perpetrators, and facilitate leaders’ and members’ access to these organizations. One person in each stake could oversee and provide support for these ward-level ministerial efforts, join local interfaith coalitions, and serve as a local resource and ministerial support for bishops and stake leadership the same way the abuse helpline serves as an administrative support. 

On a church-wide level, joining national or global interfaith coalitions against abuse would provide support for local abuse efforts in wards and stakes and allow the church to be part of systemic national and global abuse response, similar to the partnership between the church and the NAACP or the church and the IRC. Additional resources (e.g., books, pamphlets, art, speakers, etc) that integrate LDS doctrine and culture with abuse awareness and best practices would provide additional informal means for survivors, perpetrators and others to receive support around the ministerial aspects of dealing with abuse.

The will to support abuse survivors (and perpetrators) abounds among church members. It is central to the very first covenant we make – to “mourn with those who mourn” – and is foundational to our experience of Christlike love and service. 

The expertise to support abuse survivors (and perpetrators) also abounds among church members. Organizations like LDS Family Services, multiple departments at BYU, and the vast, vast number of LDS therapists and DV advocates that exist around the world speak to this. 

All that’s missing for a robust ministerial response to abuse within the church is something that only the church itself can provide – an organizational structure for putting that will and that expertise into practice. 

Expanding members’ access to the resources at abuse.lds.org, partnering with high-quality ministerial resources by those not of our faith (such as RAINN and interfaith coalitions against abuse), and providing a scaffold to channel the genuine will and expertise for abuse intervention that exist among church members would provide a ministerial resource for abuse in the church that matches the administrative resource of the church abuse hotline. 

With these ministerial resources robustly in place, the church’s response to abuse would not only meet all legal requirements in jurisdictions where it operates; more importantly, it would effectively support survivors’ healing, perpetrators’ repentance, and leaders’ and other members’ service to those rebuilding their lives after abuse. 

As in a ministerial passage referring to ancient survivors of abuse (Isaiah 49:22-23), “they shall bring thy sons in their arms, and thy daughters shall be carried upon their shoulders…thou shalt know that I am the Lord: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me.”

****

fn1: Basically, I had a 1-credit course taught by my roommate, read an introductory book on domestic violence, and gone on a spring break full of on-site field trips.

fn2: I’ve wondered what people would think the church is about if they excavate a White Handbook and that’s their only point of reference.

fn3: The most frequent thing I hear is “This is me. I’m a survivor.”

****

If you suspect you or someone you know may be experiencing abuse, the following resources are available to call or chat 24/7. Abuse is never the survivor’s fault:

  • Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-422-4453; https://www.childhelp.org/hotline/ 
    • available to kids, parents and concerned individuals in the US and Canada
  • RAINN: 1-800-656-4673; https://www.rainn.org/ 
    • available to survivors of unwanted sexual contact, parents, caregivers and concerned individuals
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233; https://www.thehotline.org/
    • available to survivors and concerned individuals in the US
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255; https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/
    • available to anyone with thoughts of self-harm or suicide, their loved ones, and other concerned individuals.

Comments

  1. Thank you. This is excellent.

  2. A Non-E Mous says:

    This is excellent. Thanks for sharing these constructive insights.

  3. Anonymous survivor says:

    I am troubled that the go-to seems to be fix how the church helps victims rather than recognizing the church is not equipped to help victims. While I recognize this is meant to help victims, the recommendations here likely will do more damage than good because it will encourage people to go to the church instead of to people and places which are trained and able to best help victims.

    Victims should be referred to professional help, just as perpetrators should be referred to law enforcement. The church fails when it trains ecclesiastical leaders to help perpetrators repent rather than reporting to the law. EG– the helpline. It encouraged bishops who you would think would use common sense and report egregious abuse–to call the church instead. It puts the church and its members outside routine social and legal processes into damaging processes built into the subculture. The church will further fail if it refers victims to people it has trained to help victims. It leaves too much up to personal bias and mingling scripture with whatever inadequate training the person has received. There will be a renewed push for victims to forgive, just like with perpetrators the push is to repent—neither of which the church is able to do without professional and legal involvement.

    A friend of mine, a trained social worker who works for LDS family services, does not think leaders and church social workers should report to law enforcement if a child claims abuse because it becomes victim’s word against the perpetrator’s– and they “church shouldn’t decide who’s telling the truth.” She was right, the church shouldn’t decide, law enforcement should investigate and decide—and victims shouldn’t go to LDS family services under those circumstances. The church doesn’t need a website with broader dissemination—it needs referrals to outside help. I am not meaning to be overly critical, but say this as both a victim and someone who has very much worked in the sector of care for victims. The church, to help, should stick with Jesus and recognize that even Jesus won’t fix this without professionals, which the church is loathe to do.

  4. Angela C says:

    This sounds a whole lot better content than any of the fifth Sunday meetings I’ve ever attended.

  5. Isn’t what you want being done as part of LDS Family Services? With a Bishops approval the church will help you with professional councilors.

  6. Kristine says:

    jader3rd, LDS Family Services functionally doesn’t exist outside of Utah.

  7. Mark Brown says:

    In addition to these excellent suggestions, I want to see some changes on the hotline itself.

    We need to have follow-up and accountability. After a bishop has called the hotline, he should get a return call within a few days. “What have you done so far?” “What steps have you taken to make sure the abuse you reported is not still happening?” “What steps have you taken to assist the victim?”

    This might seem like micro-managing the bishops. Maybe it is, but it is necessary. If a bishop forgets to deposit the tithing money in the bank by Sunday evening, He gets a call from SLC on Monday morning. We need to have an urgent sense of accountability about abuse, just as we do with the church’s money.

  8. The $64,000 Answer says:

    Is there anything to prevent LDS members from coming together and establishing such a hotline and its supporting infrastructure themselves, without waiting for enlightenment to dawn upon their leaders?

    As OP points out, the Mormon community as a whole is not lacking in managerial talent, financial resources, or subject-matter expertise.

  9. lehcarjt says:

    $64K – How would having a private hotline outside the organizational structure of the church (a number of which already exist) help when victims (or their bishops) are looking for assistance inside the organizational structure of the church?

  10. Thanks for sharing. One minor note: there is a national hotline for sexual assault and child sexual abuse too. Here, you mentioned the domestic violence helpline. While it is great, it’s not the right resource here.

    Too many already conflate child abuse, sexual assault, and domestic violence, and while they are all awful, they are not the same. And different resources need to be applied to help all three.

    This conflation leads to sexual assault and child abuse prevention and care funding being ignored and legislators not understanding why all three need to be funded. I’d love to see the national helpline for sexual abuse and assault included. Also most states already have state helplines, which is typically what the national one redirects to.

    While some states do have a dual coalition for domestic violence and sexual assault, the national one is split as are over half the states. They should call SA resources when SA has occurred.

  11. Mark Brown says:

    Now that I think on this some more, I realize how hopelessly, infuriatingly inadequate our process is.

    When a bishop gets a confession or a report of the sexual abuse of a child, for instance, he is faced with some messy, long-term problems. It will be crucial to find good therapy for both the victim and the abuser. Somebody might be going to jail. There will probably be multiple encounters with criminal courts and family courts. There might be a divorce, or the wife might hate the bishop for bringing the problem to light. The family will lose income, and maybe their house. The children might go into foster care. Etc., etc.This is a full-scale disaster all around, it will be a full-time job, and it will go on for months, at least.

    It’s easy to see why a bishop who is already feeling overwhelmed would want to avoid all that and think “Well, I called the hotline and I did what they told me. My hands are clean.” This is how we get situations where the abuse goes on for years and years.

    I don’t see how we can claim to take this seriously unless we step up and show up in a much bigger way than we have to this point.

  12. lastlemming says:

    Echoing Anonymous survivor above, there are hotlines and other resources available outside of the Church. They know what they are doing. Just use them and stop trying to reinvent the wheel.

  13. Rockwell says:

    @ The $64,000 Answer said, Is there anything to prevent LDS members from coming together and establishing such a hotline and its supporting infrastructure themselves, without waiting for enlightenment to dawn upon their leaders?

    Heck yeah there is something preventing them. Top on the list is tithing and callings. Most LDS folk make the majority of their charitable budget in both time and money to the church. Most church members have little left to contribute after their voluntold donations.

    Next on the list is a false expectation that the church provides support to survivors already. That is apparently not happening.

    That said, I agree with other comments that existing non-church resources are the way to do. There are some great ideas in the OP about leveraging and promoting existing hotlines, for example.

  14. The $64,000 Answer says:

    > victims (or their bishops) are looking for assistance inside the organizational structure of the church

    Nothing in OP’s post suggests that the services she would like to see provided to victims may only be generated “inside the organizational structure of the church.” It is not clear to me why it should be assumed that faithful LDS members, seeking to assist Mormon victims of sexual violence, should consider their hands tied in this regard until the Powers That Be in Salt Lake City decide to take up the question. The latter never may, or may never do so in an adequate manner. However, that failure on their part to discharge their moral responsibilities does not, in my view, excuse individual LDS members of their obligation to discharge theirs.

    > Most LDS folk make the majority of their charitable budget in both time and money to the church. Most church members have little left to contribute after their voluntold donations.

    This, I believe, is closer to the mark. It amounts to an acknowledgement that “most LDS folks” don’t care enough about the victims of sexual violence in their midst to exert themselves on the latter’s behalf, because they have higher priorities elsewhere. That has the ring of truth about it, because it corresponds to the similar lack of response on the part of members of other denominations, *e.g.* the Catholic Church.

  15. Danica, thanks for your important edit — the post is updated.

  16. Jader3rd, the LDS Family Services resource you’re describing is an in-house referral to counseling for survivors, perpetrators and families, as well as an optional resource for ministerial feedback for bishops. That’s definitely not nothing, but it falls short of a full-throttle ministerial response to abuse.

    For example, in the recent AP story, neither bishop was required to use this resource. If they had, there would be no guarantee that the person on the other end — or their supervisor — would be trained in responding to acute abuse (and, I’ll be honest with you, it’s improbable that they would). That professional skill belongs to advocates like those at RAINN. Sometimes therapists, doctors, law enforcement and others can be cross-trained in these skills, but it is generally not a job requirement.

    To your point, one very straightforward positive step the church could make would be to mandate that all LDS Family Services employees are cross-trained as abuse advocates in their jurisdictions (e.g., in California, sexual assault advocacy requires a 70-hour training course). That would definitely help.

    Even with that, though, a closed, confidential resource for bishops doesn’t infuse wards and stakes with tools to respond to abuse in their congregations. Only bishops need the White Handbook, but all members need Preach My Gospel.

  17. $64,000 answer, are you going to spearhead that? You don’t need any special training, church connections, etc., to recruit people who do. Don’t throw stones if you live in a glass house.

    However, why invest so much time, energy and so many resources into reinventing the wheel when state-of-the-art resources like RAINN already exist? Why not put that time, energy and talent into raising awareness of these resources and making them accessible to church members?

  18. I appreciate these thoughts. The contact information is important.

    That noted, in our experience, we have found it is best not to go to the bishop as an abuse survivor. Why discuss something like sexual abuse with someone who is most likely not trained to deal with the long term effects of abuse and may be released at any time?

    LDSSS, if it is available, is not equipped to handle for long term counseling and may not have abuse specialists.

    We found the best approach is to find abuse specialists that are trained and experienced with the specific diagnosis. Unfortunately, the healing process is not linear, and may take you to a number of professionals to make progress.

  19. nobody, really says:

    The last time I was in a regional bishop’s training meeting, they brought in LDS Family Services to outline what resources they have available for bishops. It was a great list – depression counseling, domestic abuse counseling, addiction recovery, abuse survivor counseling, job training and rehabilitation, all available on sliding scale or though fast offering funds.

    To wrap up the meeting, they let us all know that they have no time to actually provide these services. 90% of their time was being spent counseling missionaries currently serving, and 10% of their time doing evaluations on prospective missionaries on the autism spectrum to determine if they should knock doors or sweep floors. They spent more time outlining the services they *could* offer than they had available to provide those theoretical services.

    So, the final advice was to utilize professional community resources, but with a warning that those resources might not be able to provide counseling with a focus centered in the Restored Gospel. Almost like a warning that if bishops sent someone to a licensed counselor or therapist, they would end up leaving the church and moving to a pot farm in Tennessee.

  20. The $64,000 Answer says:

    > $64,000 answer, are you going to spearhead that? You don’t need any special training, church connections, etc., to recruit people who do. Don’t throw stones if you live in a glass house.

    That’s a fair question. And, so far as the Catholic Church—of which I am a member—is concerned, the answer to it is “yes.”

    The organization I and some other Catholic laypeople came together to create for the purpose of providing such assistance to victims of sexual violence in our diocese will mark its fourth anniversary this coming December.

  21. “It is not clear to me why it should be assumed that faithful LDS members, seeking to assist Mormon victims of sexual violence, should consider their hands tied in this regard until the Powers That Be in Salt Lake City decide to take up the question.”

    I guess I see this as a bit of a mis-understanding of LDS culture.

    It’s not that LDS people don’t do a great job of creating nonprofits/supports (case in point the work done for LGBTQ youth in Utah), but a very, very high percentage of LDS people (including Bishops and victims seeking assistance) *want* to stay within the church structure.

    The culture/teachings of the church push that the help, repentance, assistance, salvation comes only through the medium of the church. Only the church is ‘authorized’ from God. Only church priesthood leaders speak for God. A group of members putting together an outside victims assistance group wouldn’t be ‘authorized’ from God and possibly would be seen as suspicious because they’d be in competition with what the church provides. (Not saying I believe this personally, but most of my extended family in Utah/Idaho absolutely does.)

  22. The $64,000 Answer says:

    “Only the church is ‘authorized’ from God. Only church priesthood leaders speak for God. A group of members putting together an outside victims assistance group wouldn’t be ‘authorized’ from God…”

    This is what I referred to as “spiritual blackmail” in a comment on another thread about this matter. We have seen something very like it in the Catholic Church as well, whose pontiffs also assert that they hold the keys to the Kingdom. (If you’ve ever wondered why two crossed keys appear on the Vatican flag, that’s why.) However, both the theological and rational arguments against a proposition that proclaims the duty of acquiescing in evil as a form of rendering obedience to Jesus Christ are so obvious that they ought not to require elaboration here.

  23. $64k, I agree. It also is what it is in terms of helping victims today and the reason the institution has to change.

  24. The $64,000 Answer says:

    “It also is what it is in terms of helping victims today…”

    Only if individual LDS members are prepared to have it be so. If it is indeed the case that Mormons decline to take any action that is not approved of by their spiritual leaders, even when the latter are complicit in, or actively perpetrating, evil, then there is of course nothing more to be said. They will have made their choice, and will have to live with the consequences of that choice, in this world and the next.

  25. I disagree that there is nothing more to be said. The LDS church isn’t entirely evil. There is so very, very much good. Which is why conversations like this are worth having and member of the church should be discussing the difficult questions. How do we make the good better? How do we fix the failures? And how do we change the culture of trusting only our own in-group organization?

  26. petemaxwell15 says:

    I really think that good priests and religious counsels really do good specially for those who are incarcerated. I myself who served probation for Domestic violence needed their help, along with my good probation officer from https://ampprobation.com/domestic-violence/ who really did a great job in monitoring me to help me get back to the right path.

Trackbacks

  1. […] a Latter-day Saint with a doctorate in social work, Laura Brignone believes the church needs a far more robust, research-backed approach to training for all local […]

  2. […] a Latter-day Saint with a doctorate in social work, Laura Brignone believes the church needs a far more robust, research-backed approach to training for all local […]

  3. […] interventions for domestic violence and sexual assault, discusses how the church could partner with existing help lines to assist abuse victims and offers suggestions for enlarging the group of helpers. Listen […]

  4. […] and interventions for home violence and sexual assault, discusses how the church may accomplice with existing help lines to assist abuse victims and offers suggestions for enlarging the group of helpers. Listen […]

  5. […] interventions for home violence and sexual assault, discusses how the church might accomplice with existing help lines to assist abuse victims and offers suggestions for enlarging the group of helpers and the approach they’re […]

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