Friday, May 28, 2010

LDS Legal Counsel Von Keetch Explains The LDS Church's Current Position On Child Abuse And Its Disposition Of Abusers And Victims - Zero Tolerance

Because of some recent high-profile civil lawsuits involving members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who sexually abused children and teenagers in the past, most frequently during the 1980s, the LDS Church is sometimes portrayed as sweeping child abuse under the rug. The high-profile Kerry Lewis case is just the most recent example.

Not so, according to Von Keetch. And he should know; he's the chief outside legal counsel for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And so he wrote an essay, published in Findlaw, which effectively sets forth the Church's position on child abuse and its disposition of abusers. In Matthew 18:6, Jesus Christ Himself takes extremely strong issue with child abuse, saying "But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea." The Church's policy reflects the Savior's tone; the LDS Church is the only church which will excommunicate ordinary members for verified child abuse. Excommunication, the harshest ecclesiastical punishment possible, terminates a person's membership in the Church. And a return to membership may take many years; perpetrators who truly change their lives can eventually be readmitted to Church membership, but their membership record is permanently marked with an annotation that precludes them from ever again associating with the Church's children or youth.

Other steps the LDS Church has taken to minimize the risk of child abuse:

-- Members are taught to be aware of the issue and to alert law enforcement and Church leaders if they believe a child is in danger. The Church fully supports compliance with child abuse reporting laws and regularly encourages members to report.

-- The Church enforces a "two-deep" policy so that adult males who work with children or youth are never alone with a minor.

-- At considerable expense, the Church is currently installing windows in the classroom doors of thousands of its meetinghouses so that children are never out of sight.

Von Keetch explains when the Church first recognized this issue to be problematic and outlines the progressive steps taken toward mitigation:

Church leaders at the highest level began making such statements and aggressively addressing the issue even before clergy-abuse cases raised public awareness in the mid-1980s. Since 1976, more than 50 articles have appeared in Church publications condemning child abuse or educating members about it. ...Church leaders have given sermons about it more than 30 times at the Church's worldwide conferences. Preventing and responding to child abuse is the subject of a regular lesson taught during Sunday meetings. The Church has produced and distributed extensive training materials for local leaders and members alike. To this day Church leaders continue to speak publicly about abuse and forcefully address it. The Church's official instructions for ecclesiastical leaders sums up the approach: "Abuse cannot be tolerated in any form."

Von Keetch also explains what LDS leaders do when they learn of abuse allegations:

When local clergy learn of alleged abuse, Church policy states that their first priority "is to help those who have been abused and to protect those who may be vulnerable to future abuse." But as anyone with experience in the area knows, dealing with alleged abuse can be very complex. Because its clergy are laymen without professional training or qualifications in social work, in 1995 the LDS Church established a 24-hour Help Line and instructed its ecclesiastical leaders to call it immediately when they learn of abuse. The Help Line is staffed by licensed social workers with professional experience in dealing with abuse. They advise clergy about how best to protect the victim from further abuse, protect others from abuse, deal with the perpetrator, and aid the healing process for victims. Child abuse is a crime with serious legal consequences. The Help Line provides legal counsel to aid clergy in complying with the law and working with law enforcement.

Reporting abuse can raise difficult legal and personal issues. State reporting laws vary greatly. A broad majority of states exempt confidential communications with clergy from reporting duties. Why? Because public policy makers have concluded that confidentiality helps victims and perpetrators alike come forward and get help. A confidential confession to a clergyperson often breaks the cycle of abuse and is the first step in a process that leads to voluntary reporting by the perpetrator, victim, or others.

Abuse victims themselves often demand confidentiality. Many victims who reveal tragic abuse experiences to clergy—some of which may have occurred decades earlier—do not want to be traumatized again by a criminal investigation and public prosecution. In navigating these complex and wrenching situations, Church clergy are instructed to comply with the law. The Church routinely reports child abuse to law enforcement. And even where reporting is not mandatory, the Church usually finds ways to get abuse reported while still respecting the victim's desire for privacy.

Of course, the Church is made up of imperfect people; variances can occur. But the mechanisms and mindsets are in place to ensure that exceptions remain exceptional -- and rare. An official LDS function is one of the safest places for kids nowadays -- we even police the music played at Church youth dances. The Church has even started a preemptive website,, which can help those who become enmeshed in pornography fight their way out of it before they begin experimenting with live victims. Most people who become child sex abusers started out with pornography.

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