This is a guest post from reader MTodd.


The announcement of Sam Young’s impending disciplinary court got me thinking again about the interview practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [1].

Over the last six years of my corporate career I have held various controls roles at a Fortune 50 company. In our company, some employees regularly have access to large sums of money. To prevent losses and avoid running afoul of regulators, these employees must follow detailed policies and procedures. The department I’m currently in writes these policies and procedures and then tests and monitors employees for compliance with these protocols.

Establishing an effective controls program

The first step in an effective controls program is to assess the inherent risk of a situation.. Inherent risk is understood by asking two questions: “How likely is it the event will happen?” and “If the event happened, how severe would be the impact?” Here’s a simple risk assessment matrix that illustrates how to use these questions to understand inherent risk.

For example, say I own a diamond retail business in Columbus, OH. If I had no controls whatsoever, it is very likely an employee would steal from me and the impact of employee theft could be major or severe, depending on how much the person steals. Therefore, the inherent risk of employee theft would be high. In contrast, hurricane-force winds could cause moderate temporary damage to my business, knocking power out for a week or longer; however, because of my store’s location, it is very unlikely that my store would ever be hit by a hurricane-force winds. Therefore, the inherent risk of hurricane winds would be considered low. [2]

After assessing inherent risk, controls can be implemented to mitigate that risk. The best controls are strong, preventative controls which seek to stop the risky event or situation before it can happen. Less effective, but still important, are detective controls which identify issues after they occur so changes can be made to address the situation. The remaining risk, after applying all controls, is called residual risk.

Concerning the risk of employees stealing diamonds, before hiring anyone, my company requires thorough background screening to ensure we hire only employees with no serious criminal history. Once they start, new employees must pass rigorous training to help them learn all the store’s policies and procedures. Tenured employees go through annual refresher training as well because, let’s be honest, even the best employees forget sometimes. Once hired, individual employees may access the glass cases displaying merchandise to customers, but to access the vault which secures most of our inventory, two employees must enter their unique passcodes; then one employee watches as the second employee performs any necessary business in the vault. This dual access requirement is a preventative control meant to minimize employee theft. Surveillance cameras, a detective control, monitor the entire store, including the vault. If employee theft occurs, video can be used as evidence to attempt recovery of some of the stolen jewelry (and to fire the offending employee). Random inventory audits also help to detect theft. Each of these controls alone is insufficient at mitigating the risk of employee theft; all together, however, they provide layers of controls that are relatively strong. Yes, there is still residual risk, but the controls in place significantly reduce the inherent risk.

How does all this relate to Sam Young’s Protect the Children movement?

First let’s assess the risk of one-on-one interviews. How likely is it that, without any controls, sexual misconduct would occur as a result of priesthood interviews? I’m sure that some department somewhere in the Church Office Building has the statistics needed to answer this question precisely, but based on my anecdotal information (i.e., my interactions with bishops as well as my wife’s), I’m going to guess that it’s very unlikely. However, given the instructions for prospective missionary worthiness interviews made public by MormonLeaks–“Worthiness interviews need to be specific and explicit (e.g., not just, ‘Do you live the law of chastity?’).”–I fear that the true answer may only be unlikely instead of very unlikely.

Pushback against the Protect the Children movement often focuses on this first component of inherent risk: “I have had hundreds of bishops and none of them ever asked me anything inappropriate. Same with my wife.” Responses like this fail to acknowledge the second factor in assessing risk: “If the event happened, how severe would be the impact?” I hope we can all agree that the impact of sexual abuse, the worst form of sexual misconduct, would be severe or catastrophic if it occurred as a result of a priesthood interview. I haven’t met Sam, but from his writings I imagine this second question, impact rather than likelihood, is what drives him.

On most conservative risk assessment matrices, a risk with possible severe consequences, even consequences that are very unlikely, would be rated at least a moderate risk, if not a high risk. Given the potential for harm to a child, the risk of interviews between adults and children should be considered high. As Christ warned, “If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matt 18:6 NIV) The risk isn’t just for the irreparable harm to a child; there is risk to the soul of the adult leader who harms the child. Surely this is a risk deserving of strong preventative controls.

Next let’s assess the strength of the controls the church has implemented. In June, after months of Sam’s organization publicly calling on the church to change, just before the Protect the Children demonstration at the church headquarters, the newsroom announced new guidelines for interviews with youth. These guidelines end with this admonition:

When a member of a bishopric or stake presidency or another assigned leader meets with a child, youth, or woman, he or she should ask a parent or another adult to be in an adjoining room, foyer, or hall. If the person being interviewed desires, another adult may be invited to be present during the interview. Leaders should avoid all circumstances that could be misunderstood.

Explicitly allowing a child to invite a second adult into the room if they wish is an improvement over the previous policy, which made no mention of this allowance. The question is, does this new policy effectively mitigate the risk of sexual misconduct during priesthood interviews? Having a second adult in the room is a pretty good deterrent against sexual misconduct. However, this control works only when the child thinks to invite a second adult. Because of the non-mandatory nature of this policy, in my opinion, it does little to mitigate the risk of sexual misconduct. In the previous example, our diamond business requires dual control; voluntary dual control would rarely catch theft. (“You only need to accompany another employee to the safe if you don’t trust them of have a bad feeling about them going alone.”)

This policy doesn’t go far enough because it does nothing to overcome years of cultural bias that have lulled parents (myself included) into thinking it ok for an adult to take a child alone behind closed doors. As Peter Drucker may have said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” [3] Or in other words, the new policy is unlikely to do any good because the current culture of trusting our leaders will easily counteract the benefits that may have come from the new policy. (“My bishop is a good man. I don’t need to worry about an interview with him.”)

I predict there will be more adoption of calling ourselves members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints than there will be of youth insisting on having a second adult attend interviews with them. This name-change effort, though in my mind foolhardy, at least has the support from on high to make members want to alter their culture. Imagine if this new interview policy had been rolled out with President Nelson saying, “The Lord has impressed upon my mind the importance of protecting our children. We have to work to bring ourselves in harmony with His will. We should encourage children, youth, or women [4] to invite another adult to be present for their interviews with leaders if they so desire. Additional training on this important topic will be shared with leaders at all levels and discussed during combined Priesthood and Relief Society meeting next month which will include the youth.”

So what’s the church to do?

Protect the Children is advocating for no more one-on-one interviews between adult leaders and children, as well as an end to all sexual questions. This would not completely mitigate the risk of sexual misconduct, but the residual risk would be very small, much smaller than it is under the current optional dual-adult policy. I think making mandatory the presence of two adults during all interviews with youth is non-negotiable in order to have an effective control during interviews. [5]

Many online discussions about Protect the Children, even some that concede the need for mandatory presence of two adults during interviews, argue that the church needs to continue asking sexual worthiness questions to understand adherence to the law of chastity. Why the church needs to know more than a simple yes or no to the question of “Do you live the law of chastity?” is beyond me, but assuming the general church leaders feel that this change is a road too far, how could they design an effective control that allows this questioning to continue?

Remembering that two adults present during interviews is non-negotiable, the risk of sexual misconduct could be mitigated if leaders received better training. Leaders who conduct interviews should have to complete several hours of interactive training. Such training could include videos blended with online assessments instructing leaders what questions are or are not appropriate when conducting an interview, and then take the leaders through various scenarios of how to (and how not to) handle sticky sexual subjects. Furthermore, this training should be made accessible to all members of the church, not just leaders. If all members have been trained, when they act as second adult during an interview with a minor, they will recognize (and hopefully put a stop to) any discussion that is veering inappropriate. Also, if leaders know the other adult in the room with them has been trained, the leader is much less likely to get inappropriate in the first place

Again, remembering that two adults present during interviews is non-negotiable, the risk of sexual misconduct could be further mitigated if leaders at all levels did a better job of discouraging leader worship. [6] Leader worship creates a perfect environment for sexual predators. A critical aspect of grooming is developing a relationship of trust with the intended victim. They also work to gain the trust of the child’s parents in an effort to short-circuit doubts or concerns the parents may have. Leader worship teaches children an unwarranted sense of trust in the adults around them; it teaches them to trust men, not because the trust was earned, but because of a title or position. We need more General Conference talks that admit leaders are just good men who make mistakes sometimes. We need more fourth Sunday discussions about mistakes that leaders have made.

Other controls could add more layers of protection (e.g., background checks for any leader who works with youth, add windows to the bishops office) but in the end, mandatory two-deep adult presence during interviews, better training, and quashing the culture of leader worship would go a long way to building effective controls to combat sexual misconduct in interviews. And by removing interviews as an opportunity for grooming our youth, it would likely lead to a reduction in sexual abuse by Mormon leaders in non-interview venues.

Leaders in the church are not perfect, members of the church are not perfect, and contrary to popular belief, the church as an institution is not perfect. Because the church is not perfect, its imperfect members sometimes need to take a stand and demand that the church be better. It is possible to protect our children. A better system can be created to protect our youth

Food for thought:

1) Do you agree that two adults should be mandatory during all youth interviews? If not, why not (and can you propose an alternative control that is equally as strong)?
2) Can you think of additional controls the church could layer on to improve their program for protecting youth from sexual misconduct?

[1] Look, Mom! I can follow the church’s style guide even if I think it’s dumb.
[2] Winds from hurricane Ike actually did make it all the way to Columbus OH and killed power in places for more than a week.
[3] This article begins with a brief discussion about how the attribution of this quote is under dispute. The article itself is a good reminder that leaders need to focus on managing culture. The church would improve if its leaders focused more on managing the church’s culture which is often pharisaical.
[4] Why the revised policy not include men? Do we not need protection? Are we chopped liver?
[5] Ok, actually I would be willing to admit that having two adults present during interviews is negotiable. It is not absolutely required, but the alternatives (e.g., audio and video recording of all interviews) clearly have significant costs and downsides and would not likely be as effective as mandating two adults during interviews
[6] An unhealthy culture strikes again.