We can – we must! – do better. – By Common Consent, a Mormon blog

Although this post is certainly inspired by a recent – and explosive –AP news article and the entirely predictable and utterly lukewarm response from Salt Lake, it’s not (strictly speaking) about the scandal. I don’t know enough about the specifics of the serious and credible allegations against the Church to really weigh in… But I am a keen observer of the human condition and an active member of several policymaking circles, so I hope you will indulge in a small secondary comment.

The rage over the allegations is still burning, and who can blame the people? We are talking here about children, our most vulnerable—and literally the “the least of them”, “our little ones”. But at some point, we’ll have to take a step back to gather our thoughts, if we ever really want to make any changes. Burning stuff is cathartic — and can actually be helpful — but long-term success requires cooler heads and reasoned arguments.

Only in the rarest of circumstances is evil naked and pure. In our fallen world, most of the evil is actually found in the cracks between what we should be doing and what we are actually accomplishing… It is not the incendiary evil of dictators and movie villains, but the dry and irritating of a bunch of people doing less than their best. It is the wages of mediocrity. It’s ordinary. It can even be boring… And these are often (but not always) the direct (but largely unintended) consequences of bad systems.

Lay of the land

When I step back from the headlines, here are the different systems I see in play (in no particular order):

  • Sexual impropriety/misconduct/violence is pervasive in our society, whether frightening or violent. The likelihood of sexual impropriety/misconduct/violence in all of our congregations is extremely high.
  • Churches and other religious bodies are concerned with what the good life looks like and the contours of moral behavior. The Church is no exception here.
  • Churches and other religious bodies believe (correctly, I would say) that how we treat ourselves – socially and sexually – is at the heart of both issues. Again, the Church is no exception here.
  • The Church, however, does not have a well-formed socio-sexual moral framework; they are mostly listicles (3 things not to do with your penis, 7 things not to do with your vagina). This makes it difficult to talk about social and sexual morality… But above all, it makes it ineffective (see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).
  • Bishops (and their equivalents) – again, correctly, I would say – engage in varying degrees of pastoral/counselling work with their flocks.
  • Bishops, however, are — by design! it is something that missionaries often tout as a sign of a true, living church—untrained significantly in pastoral/counseling work.
  • The faithful (and bishops) have been trained to see bishops as unencumbered conduits for God’s wisdom – better than professionals, because they can get answers straight from the source. (Never mind that this is not how inspiration works – we have to train our minds and then use the Spirit to help us ask the best questions and then discern the best answers – and what is ‘professional training, but a rigorous approach to “study it in [our] the spirits”?)
  • Bishop-congregational communications are generally considered private, even if they are not. Bishops often share with Salt Lake’s blessing the details of our most private moments with their counselors, with auxiliary leaders, with the stake president, and whether you attend a Church school or are employed by the Church, with faceless (soulless) bureaucrats, there.
  • Because of this (incorrect) belief, many expect bishop-congregational communications to be treated by others, especially policy makers, as they treat priest-penitent communications from other churches and how they treat lawyer-client and/or physician-patient communications. .
  • It’s widely accepted – and with good reason – that these privileged communications are an important part of encouraging appropriate behavior from people who might not otherwise seek the kind of help they need.
  • Around the world, however, governments have begun to create exceptions to these types of privileged communications, designating certain people as “mandatory reporters” – requiring them to report things like sexual violence to authorities. The list of who qualifies as mandatory registrants, what qualifies as a triggering event, and who qualifies as authoritative varies widely – and laypersons (most of us, frankly) would struggle to describe with accurately the landscape of mandatory reporting for where we live (not to mention the neighboring jurisdiction).
  • The Church is highly/surprisingly/uncomfortably dependent/respectful of the legal advice it seeks from its retained attorneys* – and the headlines of the past half-century’s news are littered with truly laudable fallout from this co-dependency.
  • Back to sexual impropriety/misconduct/violence… It’s an incredibly wide range of behaviors, but we haven’t yet developed anything other than the most crass and blunt answers. Our laws, our penal system, our therapeutic system, our systems of intervention and our culture all lack the nuance that one would expect in the face of such a complex problem.
  • To add insult to injury, LDS language around the whole issue of sex is toxic. We identify consensual sex before marriage as “sin next to murder”. This means that not only do we not distinguish between consensual sex and pedophilia… We have built a vocabulary incapable of making this distinction.
  • Worse still, our response paradigm favors punishment over treatment – but such punishment is inflicted in a chilling and arbitrary way – with unhealthy doses of free get-out-of-jail cards for wealthy white men (or their offspring) .

So what do we want?

If we are asking for change… What kind of change do we want?

I know what I want. Maybe you might disagree… Although I suspect we won’t disagree too much.

  • I want fewer acts of sexual impropriety/misconduct/violence to occur, and for the acts that do occur to be of a less serious nature.
  • I want intervention to be more pervasive, earlier, more granular, less institutional/authoritarian, more therapeutic, more restorative, and less punitive.
  • And I want all of our efforts to underpin a radical change in our culture. We simply cannot build a regulatory framework strong enough to achieve our goals in the face of cultural intransigence, indifference or (worse) animosity.

And how do we get there?

My answer could literally be a book (or two)… So I will limit myself to my top ten suggestions, all of which assume that the Church is not just “allowing” these changes to happen, but is using its resources not negligible. at champion.

  1. It all starts with robust, age-appropriate, uncensored universal sex education, K-16, that centers consent and bodily autonomy in the curriculum.
  2. We need to standardize mandatory reporting in all jurisdictions and expand it to include bishops (and other pastoral counselors).
  3. We need to expand and improve training in identifying victims and perpetrators of sexual misconduct/misconduct/violence – not only for mandatory journalists but also for students in human development and related fields – and in best practices around common scenarios where sexual impropriety/misconduct/violence occurs .
  4. As a church, we need to develop a robust, gender-positive, and affirming socio-sexual moral framework that is fully grounded in our pastoral, devotional, doctrinal, and administrative spheres.
  5. As a society, we need to better define the contours of what constitutes impropriety, misconduct and violence. We have come a long way over the past few decades, mostly, it seems, thanks to the efforts of so many brave souls to center the topics of consent and bodily autonomy in our national dialogue.
  6. As a society, we need to move from a punitive framework to a therapeutic and restorative one. Institutional responses to allegations must be prompt, universal, data-driven and non-destructive.
  7. We need to significantly expand and support foster care, extended family and Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA)/Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) programs, including more in-depth support for social workers from First line.
  8. As a Church, we need to fund centers in colleges and universities with established writing programs across the country to develop healthier tropes and ways to engage unhealthy tropes in our mass media. Modeling healthy behavior in our mass media – and identifying and exposing harmful behavioral tropes will be key to changing entrenched and toxic narratives.
  9. Our country needs universal health care, including mental health; we need a universal basic income; and we need universal paid family leave. Getting help for ourselves or our loved ones shouldn’t break the bank… Many forms of sexual misconduct and violence occur in the workplace and we need to put more tools in the hands of families to take smart decisions based on what matters most and not strictly on who pays the bills… And we need the flexibility of schedules to do all of that while keeping those jobs.
  10. The Church must deploy a hotline that prioritizes the welfare of the victim(s), get help for the culprit AND compensate our lay clergy – and in the event of a conflict with the former, we give the first priority. It can be done.

These are my ten.

There are many more. But it would be an amazing start.

While we wait, let’s place the culprits in front of the obligatory reporters: “Ted, I’m so glad you came to see me. I want the best for you and for those people you hurt. Let’s get you and your family checked out. This is non-negotiable. We will use all the tools God has given us, including professional helpers.

We can be a light on a hill, we can be the force for social change that the Lord expects of us, we can be doers of the word and not just hearers.

* Yes, I’m talking about their pet attorneys at Kirton McConkie – which is a notoriously mediocre firm – who have, time and time again, prioritized the client’s legal responsibility over all moral/social concerns while lacking of vision or means to see this ignoring moral/social concerns is a long-term legal responsibility of the client.

picture by Thiago Cerqueira on Unsplash

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