When the Sam Young movement began, and the Church responded by revising guidelines to allow an adult to be present during the interviews (something many ProgMo parents were already insisting on), my first reaction was that children or teens who are being abused at home will be very unlikely to disclose that information if their parents are present. Additionally, if they have been sexually abused in another setting such as school, and they are unwilling to disclose it to their parents for whatever reason, this would shut off one more place they could get help from a caring adult. Disclosing abuse is not the overt purpose of the youth worthiness interview, but I know several people who have used it for this purpose, unfortunately with varying results.
My other concern with the push to have another adult in the room during youth interviews was the message it sends to our kids, that they are children in need of protection, not adults (or becoming adults). It felt a little helicopter-parent to me, more appropriate for a twelve year old, but less appropriate for a sixteen year old. How does the teen perceive this protective stance (that their peers probably don’t have)? Some may feel embarrassed or infantilized. They aren’t developing their own skills at assessing who is trustworthy and who is not. As I put it (tongue in cheek) in one discussion forum: “Kids need to learn to lie to the bishop on their own terms.”
In a recent Mormon Land podcast, therapist Jennifer Roach discusses what she views as the case for routine youth interviews in the Church. There is a follow up article to this interview as well. She is a fairly new Church member (less than 2 years) with a background in both Evangelical congregations and as an ordained minister in the Anglican Church. She is also a survivor of repeated sex abuse as a teen from a youth pastor. While she also wants children to be protected from grooming or predatory behavior, she believes that teens benefit from having a safe space like a routine youth interview to disclose sexual abuse that may be happening to them in other facets of life. Exposure to various adults may increase the likelihood that they can get the advice and help they need. There was a huge backlash against her stance in social media, but she does make a few points that have been lost in the clamor. I wanted to discuss some of the points she raises. Jennifer Roach asserts that abused teens may benefit from a private youth interview with a leader. That leader could be the bishop, a counselor, a young women’s leader, or any other caring adult. Developing a regular touch base with a trusted adult who isn’t a parent may help teens develop into adulthood and give them additional perspective on navigating sexual experiences during a confusing time.
Roach accused the Protect the Children movement and other critics of the Mormon youth interview process of a few mistaken ideas, including:
- That other faiths don’t have these types of processes and risks. I can attest to this one, particularly among Evangelical church groups with a youth ministry focus. During the #metoo movement, there was a sister movement called #churchtoo that was congregants sharing stories of being sexually harassed or abused by clergy, and the stories coming out of the Evangelical churches were on par with anything teed up by the Mormon Protect the Children group. So, yeah, they do these. And apparently they have the same problems we do.
- That any questions about chastity are always problematic. This is a key sticking point between progressives and conservatives, and probably also varies based on one’s personal perspective on the role of religion in a healthy sex life. So much bad advice is given by well-meaning Church leaders, and the advice varies so much from person to person that it’s hard for me to see these conversations as beneficial. Roach’s example is a teen struggling with masturbation, feeling guilty and lacking in self-control, who seeks counsel to help him or her overcome it. She does not, however, claim that all masturbation is wrong or sinful. In her example, it’s a teen who feels s/he has a problem to overcome, not that the action itself is the problem. Her view of the interview is that the valuable content is teen-initiated, not leader-initiated. But that leaves us with the role of religion in one’s sex life, and I just don’t see these things as symbiotic. Even a conservative friend of mine once observed that if sex isn’t dirty, you aren’t doing it right.
- That developing teens require parental protection and intervention. This was one of my concerns also. I suspect my kids would have been mortified if I said “I’m going to sit in with you” during a youth interview, and I’m a cool mom (wink). I like to think of my kids as savvy enough to figure things out, and just to be sure, I’ve raised them on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. When they say they think an adult is creepy, we talk about steering clear of creeps. I don’t defend creeps. If someone gives you the creeps, there’s usually a reason. I also pointed out that if an adult makes you uncomfortable, you don’t need to answer their questions or do what they say. The more they ask, the less you tell.
- That professional clergy are better at this, and that a lay clergy is worse due to lack of training. There are flaws with both systems. Basically, a predator can get a theology degree or be a doctor or lawyer or school teacher. Some abuses are due to misunderstanding or awkwardness or prudery or just a leader being an idiot, and training can help in those areas, but professional clergy aren’t getting great training in how to talk to kids about sex. They are getting different training than Mormon leaders get, and Mormon leaders get some training in protecting children, and a hotline to protect themselves (yikes), but in her view, you’re just as likely to get good outcomes with our untrained but well-meaning lay clergy as you are with a professional clergy. That may be so. I have certainly known great bishops on par with any professional Anglican priest, and also terrible bishops on par with any self-righteous prig with bad ideas and a toxic personality. I’ve also wondered if predators are like mercury in the desert. If you step on them, they just reform elsewhere. Shutting off the formal interview as an avenue for predators doesn’t mean it stops them; they just have to use whatever system they have to find opportunities, like rapists at BYU using the honor code to blackmail their victims.
One thing Roach did not specifically call out that I believe is an incredibly important criticism of the current youth interviews is that all interviews are done by men. I have no doubt that in many cases, it would be more appropriate for a girl to meet with a woman leader than with a man. Although it’s true that I’ve known many women leaders in the Church who are basically the worst (the ones that buy totally into patriarchy suck big time), on average, I’d trust the YW leaders over the bishopric for these discussions.
She also conveniently forgets that some of these teens are LGBT.
Jennifer Roach outlined four benefits she sees to youth interviews.
- Kids need a non-parent trusted adult as a safe place to talk about sex and work through their feelings and concerns, especially as a disciple who is trying to square sexual desires with the Law of Chastity. This may be valid, depending on how trustworthy the adult is, what their purpose is, and whether the advice they give is wise or dangerous. I’m sure lots of kids don’t want to talk to parents about these things. Is their bishop or counselor the best person, though? What if they are gay? What if they question their gender identity? What if they are a girl seeking advice–is it really best they talk to their friend’s dad??
- Mormons are not alone in providing this type of interview setting; it’s the norm. This one isn’t a reason so much as social vetting. We’re in company, whether good or bad. All the other religions are doing it. You’ll be popular. While some have pointed out that other religions receive better training in counseling, which Roach concedes, she also points out that nobody receives sufficient counseling in how to talk to teens about sex, that our approach of having random adults talking to kids about sex is on par qualitatively with what other faiths are doing. tl;dr, everyone’s bad at this, and we’re no worse (?). I probably wouldn’t use that in an advertising slogan.
- Teens learn what a high-demand religion is like through these interviews which continue throughout adulthood, including chastity questions. Teens can determine if they want to continue with that into adulthood. The problem I see with this one is that teens are learning what a high-demand religion is like, and they are leaving in droves. Do teens like youth interviews? I certainly don’t think they are a big selling point. They may wear down a teen’s resistance to authority, a prerequisite to participating long-term, but they are just as likely to turn kids off from my experience. Additionally, this “benefit” sounds like the very definition of grooming, wearing down someone’s normal defenses to allow an outside agent to control them. Do I think most leaders are trying to groom victims? No, of course not (although if they are, this is handed to them on a silver platter). But by putting it this way, she unintentionally points out that the Church is trying to groom us all to do what it wants, and honestly, she’s kind of right. From a psychological perspective, that’s kind of disturbing. You could charitably say that the Church is attaching the younger generation to the older, but can’t we do that without exposing our kids to the misguided sexual opinions and advice of their friends’ parents?
- Leaders can uncover abuse and help address it. This goes back to the same concerns as the first point. Does the bishop (or counselor) understand what abuse is and know what to do to address it or to assist the teen? While this may be a side benefit to the youth interview, it’s not the point of it, and I know of many, many examples of young people (mostly girls) disclosing abuse who were told they needed to repent and were put on church discipline. That’s horrifying and totally common. I love the idea of a wise and caring bishop sleuthing out the abuse and protecting the teen congregant just as much as anyone; I just see too much counter-factual evidence to imagine it’s the norm.
She points out that having these interviews be routine rather than voluntary is one reason they are helpful. Routine conversations are important for abuse victims to be willing to disclose. They will put out a little “bread crumb” or clue that they were abused to see if the adult will pick up on it. If the adult responds supportively, then they might tell them more.
Aside from the rare abusive monsters who use their position to groom kids or gain sexual gratification from their disclosures, most bishops likely see the youth interviews as a way to stay close to the youth and to help them stay members of the Church. If so, that’s consistent with the role Jennifer Roach sees them taking, the same role these types of interviews fulfill in other churches. She also cautions that teens need to trust their feelings and not confide in a leader who gives them the creeps. I completely agree, but to be clear, kids receive ample encouragement to trust leaders over their own feelings. This wasn’t always the case, but it has become more so in my lifetime. The idea that human authority figures shouldn’t be questioned is one that has gotten legs in the last few decades, to everyone’s detriment. A local leader who thinks their “lofty” position makes them more infallible than others, a trustworthy “Judge in Israel,” will probably not be a wise counselor to a confused teen (or anyone else).
What is the best case outcome to a discussion of chastity? Jennifer Roach would say the best case is that the teen wants to discuss troubling feelings or events and the leader listens and gives thoughtful advice, stepping in to assist. I’m just not convinced that’s a very likely outcome of our current system. I’d give that about a 25-30% chance of happening if the teen initiated such a conversation. I’d also guess it’s a similar percentage who would misunderstand and assume the teen was at fault, encouraging them to repent. The remainder would mostly be either clueless or bewildered, leaving the “bread crumbs” on the table. A few might reach out to the church’s counsel line and be given advice on how to protect themselves legally (and the church), not how to protect the abused teen.
Her observation that sex is a topic that can’t be off limits because it’s important to discipleship sounds legit, on the one hand, but also problematic because the way the Church talks about sex is not always correct, consistent or informed. For example, when gay Church members have come out to their bishop, they’ve been given advice that runs the gamut. Some have been accepted and loved for who they are. Some have been told they are unworthy sinners and should be disciplined. Many have been told they can become straight if they just pray and date the opposite sex. Some have even been encouraged to marry someone of the opposite sex as a remedy, and we all know how that turns out. The one thing that’s consistent is that ALL of those Church leaders think they are perfectly aligned with Church teachings.
But is all this sex-related hand-wringing, confessing peccadilloes to church leaders, beneficial and necessary? If so, why? Roach points out that sex is a big deal, and it’s a big part of childhood development. I certainly agree with that. She never goes so far as to say that masturbation must be confessed, only that it can be a problem for some teens, and that if it becomes a problem, they should have someone to talk to about it. OK. Maybe. Like, what’s a problem vs. normal? (I usually think in terms of something preventing you from holding down a job–that’s when I know it’s a problem).
In writing this article, I did the unthinkable–I read the comments in the SLTrib. If I strip away the dumb ones and the hysterical ones and the just plain anti-Mormon ones, there are some themes that are worth reviewing:
- If we have good sex education in the schools, we don’t need clergy to insert themselves into this type of discussion. In general, schools are going to be more science-based and less opinion-based, but of course there’s a spiritual component that will be lost. However, that “spiritual” component (according to other comments) may consist of hyperbole, calling normal teen sexual behavior to “the sin next to murder.” As a commenter put it, this just results in church people spreading their own weird sexual hangups to others. A few of those hangups as described in other comments included the idea that oral sex is evil, that sex should only be used for procreation, and that women don’t like sex. (Odds of women liking sex probably go way down the more repressive the religious culture is).
- Any religion with only one gender in charge (and only cishetero males) is going to have problems in these types of interviews as only one perspective is represented. Male and female sexual experience, motives, and behaviors are not all the same, not at all. There are many power differentials in sexual relationships that cause male leaders to assume attractive girls are seductresses when they are victims, for example. Teens of all types are subject to emotional manipulation from peers and others in sexual situations; assuming they are fully in control of their actions is uncharitable at best, extremely harmful at worst.
- One commenter accuses Roach of suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. I’m not quite ready to go that far, but all religious adherents develop a view of “normal” from within their system, and so long as that system hasn’t killed them, they will stay within that system. Any system we live in that is partially a protection to us, even if it is also harmful to us in other ways, works like this. We haven’t literally been taken hostage, but it’s hard to leave a system that we see as also protective or beneficial.
- It’s shocking that we don’t do background checks on all those who work with kids and older youth.
- The Church vets leaders well, but doesn’t train them well in counseling, preferring to let them follow “the spirit” which usually means to follow their own instincts, whatever those may be.
- The Church’s record on LGBT, particularly electric shock and other conversion therapies at BYU, should disqualify it from conducting these interviews. Some of these kids are gay. Their odds of receiving good advice are very low when the Church’s party line is already psychologically harmful to them.
- Converts like Ms. Roach are always enthusiastic with rose-colored glasses about the Church, but don’t always know what they are talking about. She admits that as an adult convert, she hasn’t been through these interviews as a youth in our Church (although she did go through them as an Evangelical and was abused, and then disclosed her abuse to a different leader who addressed it).
- Interviews are not framed as “Is your life safe?” but instead are framed as “Are you worthy?” which will sometimes lead to the interpretation that someone who is unsafe is unworthy.
- A few lamented that this OP was just Church propaganda, and that they expected better from the Trib. They called it amateur hour.
The points Ms. Roach doesn’t address that I think are most salient are:
- The Church’s record on LGBT issues makes these interviews unsafe for any kids who aren’t cishetero.
- The fact that only male leaders conduct these interviews makes them less appropriate for girls. (She does address it as possibly preferable to invite a female leader to join, but at some point the kid feels outnumbered).
- The purpose of the interview creates a problematic framework for abuse disclosure that will cause leaders to blame victims.
- Lived experience with these interviews shows that the interviews are all over the map in terms of effectiveness. They may not be the source of abuse, but they are often harmful in other ways, creating sexual repression and negative sexual attitudes that have decades-long consequences for people. As many newly married Mormons have said, it’s incredibly difficult to transition from “all sex and sexual feelings are sinful” to “anything goes” in the course of an afternoon.
What do you think?
- Do you agree with Ms. Roach that bishop interviews are a good place for abuse disclosures?
- Do you see benefits to the worthiness interviews that make these interviews necessary for Church members, particularly for teens?
- Do you think these interviews are a way for the Church to groom and control member thought and behavior? Is this different than in other faiths or is it the role of all religions?
- Do these interviews lead to spreading of hangups and misinformation, if not outright abuse by leaders, or is that still a “few bad apples”?
- Do you think it’s ever appropriate for a Church leader to discuss chastity with teens or adults? If not, do you nevertheless believe the Law of Chastity should be observed?
On the question of abuse disclosures, I think this is a fine idea, but it would only work if we were intentional about it. Leaders would need to be trained on this topic, and girls should be meeting with a woman ideally, not a man. I’ve often wondered why the “advisors” aren’t doing this role. It’s practically baked into their job title. On that last question, I suppose my view is that there is no need to discuss every single commandment with a leader behind closed doors, and a policed testimony or commitment is not one at all. If we need to apply social pressure to conform, we aren’t as committed as we would be without those pressures.
In changing the title of this OP to “Defund Youth Interviews” I’m making a tongue-in-cheek poke at the term “Defund the Police” which doesn’t actually mean the same thing as “abolish” the police. It means that we should rethink, fundamentally, what we want to accomplish with policing (and youth interviews) and then make the changes that support those actual outcomes. Until we do that, we will keep getting the mixed results we are getting, and like most things, they work fine for those who have worthiness privilege (not abused, given trustworthy leaders), and they hurt the most vulnerable who don’t have those same privileges.