I’m a Mormon and an advocate for marginalized communities and children. As a graduate student in the mental health field, I’m interested in how institutional policies affect individuals, especially in the context of cultural traditions.
In a recent opinion article published in the Deseret News (a paper owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), BYU professor and church employee David Dollahite commented against the recent “Protect LDS Children” movement lead by Sam Young. Dollahite is an active church member and former LDS bishop. Dollahite currently teaches marriage and family life classes at BYU. Young is also an active LDS church member and former bishop. Young is petitioning the LDS church to change a long-standing policy where LDS bishops conduct one-on-one interviews behind closed doors and ask sexually explicit questions.
While I respect the dialog, I take exception to Dollahite’s arguments and feel impressed to comment on his article.
Dollahite suggests research supports the current LDS interview policy. Dollahite correctly cites Kenda Creasy Dean who says Mormon teens were ”the least likely to engage in high-risk behavior and consistently were the most positive, healthy, hopeful and self-aware teenagers” (Dean, 2010, p. 20). However, Dean does not conclude this was a result of one-on-one interviews. In fact, she suggests positive Mormon-youth outcomes stem from high-level religious observance, religious vitality, and spiritual congruence between beliefs and practice. What Dollahite is doing is taking a correlative factor and implying causation. Dean also cites several other Mormon practices including family devotion (family home evening), ritual service, peer accountability, goal-oriented orthodoxy, and religious education (seminary) as key influences (Dean, 2010, p 52). Dollahite correctly mentions Dean’s opinion that non-parental role modeling is a positive contributor for Mormon youth. However, most role leader-to-youth modeling is performed in a public setting with a diverse set of adults. Healthy role modeling does not occur in private settings with a man. In short, while research suggests Mormon social practices are adaptive, this study doesn’t conclude the results come from LDS interview policies.
Dollahite also references a study where at-risk youths who participated in mentoring programs experienced less depressive symptoms, had greater acceptance among peers and experienced higher levels of positive experiences at school (Herrera & DuBois and Grossman, 2013). While this study speaks highly of one-on-one mentoring, it says nothing about one-on-one interviews behind closed doors involving sexually explicit questions. Furthermore, the authors express their inability to describe how this process works, suggesting uncontrolled factors were not isolated (Herrera & DuBois and Grossman, 2013). Also, the authors remark the study is problematic due to self-reported exaggerations and a lack of emotional disclosure. Dollahite’s confidence in drawing conclusions from this study are misleading and potentially unethical.
Dollahite also references an article in The Atlantic where the professor of psychology Jean Twenge says social media caused depression is reduced when youth attend religious services (Twenge, 2017). However, Twenge also says depressive symptoms were also reduced when youth participated in sports. Twenge is not suggesting one-on-one interviews behind a closed door with an older man with no training in human psychology and sexuality while asking sexually explicit questions is a factor, nor should Mr. Dohaite.
Dollahite suggests violations of ecclesiastical trust are uncommon and rare. I agree that the vast majority of LDS bishops are good men with no ill intent toward the children in their stewardship. However, all youth (especially girls, and minorities) are inadvertently taught grooming behaviors through current LDS interview practices. Even if the bishop is not a sexual predator, the impact to children creates psychological heuristics to trust authority figures without protective boundaries afforded boy scouts, tithing receipts, primary age children, and young women at girls camp. Such grooming practice results in adolescents or adults granting trust to potential victimizers in situations as demonstrated in the 1984 rape of an adult female LDS missionary while in the LDS missionary training center (MTC), in similar interviews with an authority figure and MTC President Joseph Bishop.
Dollahite says recent church policy changes have taken steps to ensure the protection of youth. While these baby steps are positive, they do not add anything substantial to previous policies. Bishops are not required to have another adult present, and an adult “nearby” doesn’t constitute safety. Can you imagine the outrage if LDS scouting policies allowed for a boy scout leader to sleep in the tent with a young boy, even if another adult was in an adjacent tent?
I agree with Dollahite that religious standards are healthy for most LDS youth. What Young is asking for is the end of one-on-one interviews, not a change in moral standards. Bishops are not trained in human development or psychology. Also, LDS Bishops do not understand, nor are they trained in trauma, abuse, or the complex nature of human sexuality.
Dollahite says the value of the priest-penitent relationship is valued in society. The vast majority of the supporting evidence contributing to social support for what Dollahite says is “candid and confidential conversations” comes from ecclesiastical leaders who have been trained and certified in pastoral counseling. This may be why no other mainstream religious organization conducts worthiness interviews or asks questions of their minors in the manner the LDS church practices.
Dollahite suggests there is no substitute for confidential conversations and counsel. While I agree parishioner confidentiality is important, the current LDS handbook of instructions for bishops enumerates allowances for breach of confidentiality, and do not include informed consent regarding how confidentiality is practiced (as if a minor can provide consent). This lack of pastoral care confidentiality standards creates an augmented unsafe environment for victims of abuse, individuals struggling with mental health disorders, and complicates social shaming dynamics in lay membership models.
Other religious institutions (like the Catholic church) have navigated many of these same situations in years past. Author John Cornwell, describes the horrific practices that occurred in the confessional by Catholic church leaders who didn’t understand how “shame heaped upon the laity caused incalculable and unnecessary suffering” (Cornwell, 2014). Other researchers note historical attitudes in Mormon attitudes toward human sexual behaviors are deeply problematic (Malan & Bullough, 2005). Should we be asking how many of these cultural viewpoints are influencing private conversations behind closed doors?
Dollahite fails to connect any evidence that one-on-one interviews with untrained bishops asking sexually explicit questions are connected to Mormon youth satisfaction and positive behaviors. While we agree Mormon youth success stories exist, we may disagree that private one-on-one interviews are required for healthy psychosexual and spiritual development for youth. Respectfully, Dollahite’s belief in the reliability of the LDS confessional neglects the reality of real-life situations experienced by thousands of LDS children. I support Young, we should focus on creating safety for youth and children, so bishops can do their job in helping augment the goals of parents in the spiritual development of our children.
Cornwell, J. (2014). The dark box: a secret history of confession. Basic Books (AZ).
Dean, K. C. (2010). Almost Christian: What the faith of our teenagers is telling the American church. Oxford University Press.
Herrera, C., DuBois, D. L., & Grossman, J. B. (2013). The Role of Risk: Mentoring Experiences and Outcomes for Youth with Varying Risk Profiles. MDRC.
Jean M. Twenge. (2017, August 3). Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/ Malan, M. K., & Bullough, V. (2005). Historical development of new mas…tion attitudes in Mormon culture: Silence, secular conformity, counterrevolution, and emerging reform. Sexuality and Culture, 9(4), 80-127.