Latter-day Saint Life

How can Latter-day Saints better prevent child sexual abuse?


Child sexual abuse is not exclusively a Latter-day Saint problem. It is a problem for all of humanity. While statistics vary, the CDC reports that one in four girls and one in thirteen boys experience sexual abuse at some point in their childhood, and 91 percent of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone known to the child or their family.

And the repercussions of abuse are far-reaching and long-lasting. Chris Yadon is the managing director of Saprea, a nonprofit that seeks to aid in the healing of victims of sexual abuse and provide resources for prevention. He says that the repercussions of sexual abuse “manifest as things like mental health disorders. By age 30, 85 percent of child sexual abuse survivors have a diagnosable mental health disorder.” Additionally, “an individual that is sexually abused is three times more likely to attempt a suicide than someone that is not,” and “a child that is sexually abused is 40 percent more likely to drop out of high school.”

Yadon hopes to combat the problem of child sexual abuse in his professional career. From his perspective as a Church member and former stake president, he believes abuse is something the Church has been concerned about for a long time, contrary to recent media reports. He cites a Church pamphlet released in the early 80s that strongly encouraged parents to talk to their children about sexual health and even gave recommendations on how to do that but the counsel seems to have gone largely unheeded.

"To think the Church approached that in the 80s and as Church membership we’ve largely ignored it is really a big concern in my mind," he says.

While abuse is a problem that extends far beyond the Latter-day Saint community, Church members who have worked within this space say Latter-day Saints can better engage in prevention. In addition to Yadon, Natalie Moon from the Mama Bear Effect, a nonprofit focused on providing parents with the education and tools they need to prevent child sexual abuse, and Sage Williams, a registered nurse and member of the Global Network of Religions for Children, were generous enough to help us better understand the complexities surrounding sexual abuse prevention and provide five ways we can all contribute to prevention.

1. Arm Children with Knowledge

One of the most critical keys to prevention, according to both Yadon and Williams, is giving children the vocabulary and understanding to identify what is and is not appropriate in their interactions with others.

“If [a] child has the words around sexual health topics, if they understand the importance of things like boundaries and bodily autonomy, they are much more likely to elevate something to their parents or to a trusted adult if something is going wrong,” Yadon explains. “A lot of children don’t even recognize, especially younger children, when they’re being abused.”

“It is important that parents recognize how powerful an open home can be. When parents consistently teach about healthy sexuality, answer questions honestly, and refrain from ridiculing a child’s curiosity, they are teaching their children that their home is a safe space and victimized children will feel more comfortable disclosing abuse,” Moon explains. “If a child is curious about pornography, they will feel comfortable going to their parents. If a child perpetrates on another child, they will recognize that their parents will do everything to get them the help that they need to heal and not offend again.” You can learn more from Moon on Mama Bear Effect’s website page on Sexual Behaviors in Youth.

Williams explains that there is an opportunity for Church leaders to ensure that each child is being taught consent through agency.

“Of course, the ideal is that kids are taught [about consent] in the home, but the reality is that sometimes the parent or another caregiver is the perpetrator, and home isn’t a safe place. Church leaders have a tremendous opportunity to make a difference in a child’s life by teaching about this in age-appropriate ways. … This also helps the child know that there is a safe adult they can talk with if they are experiencing abuse at home,” she says.

2. Proactive Parenting

For parents who desire to take a conscientious role in prevention, Yadon says that the good news is it requires a relatively small investment in education to help parents and children identify and manage risky situations. For example, he says, if a parent understands that putting a child in the care of a trusted adult—such as a soccer coach—puts the child at greater risk for abuse, the parent might manage that relationship a bit differently.

“This isn’t about becoming paranoid about every risk that’s out there, but it’s about understanding the risks—and managing the risks—just like they do for car seats,” Yadon says. “They understand the risk of their kid being injured in a car accident, so they manage the risk by putting them in a car seat. They’re not paranoid every time they drive that they’re going to get in a car wreck.”

Moon suggests that parents have an open and honest conversation with any adult who may play a prevalent role in their child’s life about abuse prevention. The parent may list the measures they hope this adult will respect:

  • Limiting one-on-one interactions (in person or over the phone)
  • Respecting the child’s boundaries and always asking for consent before physical touch
  • Eliminating the use of secrets
  • Respecting body safety rules the family has in the home

“This conversation can be natural, just as if a parent were to discuss their child’s allergies with a babysitter and the restrictions they have in place to avoid their child having an allergic reaction,” Moon says.

This same idea applies to talking with babysitters and daycare providers. Moon suggests visiting Mama Bear Effect’s website and reading a Babysitter Body Safety Checklist for further questions they might ask a babysitter or daycare.

“Most parents, understandably so, are nervous to discuss these topics,” Moon adds. “However, if the babysitter, daycare, coach, etc., are safe adults, they will respect these conversations.”

3. Emphasizing Innocence

The role of a religious community and the influence of Church leaders can also help victims recognize their innocence and their worth.

“It’s really common for a survivor to blame themselves for the abuse, in part because they’re often groomed to believe that they were complicit. For example, if kids don’t know that sexual arousal is an autonomic response, it’s so easy for them to be manipulated to incorrectly believe they wanted the abuse when their body responds with pleasure,” Williams says.

While Church leaders should certainly connect survivors to secular sources of healing, faith leaders can play a role that is distinct and useful.

“The messenger matters—especially for Latter-day Saints—because our values around sexuality are so connected to our faith and spirituality,” Williams says. “Hearing the truth that [victims] are innocent often means so much more coming from a bishop or other faith leader than from a secular medical professional or therapist.”

She continues, “Another great thing about the structure of the Church is that because it is organized locally in even the most remote areas of the world, we have huge potential to help many survivors start their healing journey when they otherwise would not get any help. In many areas of the world, the capacity of law enforcement to respond, or access to mental health care and social services, is extremely limited. In these cases, local Church leaders may be the only people to respond and support survivors as they begin healing. Church leaders who are prepared to act can make a significant impact for good in individual lives.”

4. Recognizing and Preparing for Complexity

There is a great deal of complexity surrounding cases of sexual abuse. For example, 80 percent of abused children report knowing their abuser, and in 20 percent of cases, a family member is the perpetrator. Additionally, over half of survivors report being abused by other juveniles.

According to Johns Hopkins Magazine, “One-third of all offenses are committed by teens, usually boys between the ages of 12 and 15. Offenses by juveniles often involve close relationships and opportunity—perhaps a sibling or close family friend. They’re most likely to occur in someone’s home (69 percent), followed by school (12 percent).”

Moon emphasizes that while the prevalence of child-on-child sexual abuse is high, the methodologies used in these cases are different, and treatment for those abusers is also different. As a result, if a parent learns their child has been a perpetrator of sexual abuse, they should recognize that treatment success is possible through therapy.

Implementing open-door policies during playdates, discussing their home’s body safety rules with other children that come over to play, and highly supervising sleepovers (if parents choose to allow sleepovers) can all aid in preventing child-on-child sexual abuse.

Yadon agrees that these perpetrators are responding maladaptively to something that is unhealthy in their own environments and adds that there is hope for youth that have been perpetrators. “We’re not dealing with a pedophile in that case; we’re dealing with a teenager that’s making a horrific mistake that’s doing a lot of harm to another child. But there is nothing that says that teen is permanently broken, that that teen can’t heal, that that teen isn’t deserving of someone investing in them to help them be healthy. And if we can do that as a society, we can really change two lives: not just the person that they harmed but the individual that did the harm as well.”

Williams adds, “We just want to think that people are all good or all bad, and it’s just not black and white. And the gospel of Jesus Christ has a different narrative to give, which is that both people can receive healing,” she says.

5. Hope and Healing Are Possible through the Atonement of Jesus Christ

Moon, Williams, and Yadon all stress that hope and healing are found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not only are survivors able to find healing, but they are able to use their own experiences for good.

“There’s hope for anybody, the Atonement of Jesus Christ is infinite—it’s not limited, and it can heal anything,” Yadon says. “We should never, from a gospel perspective, say that someone is broken beyond repair. I think that’s us putting limitations on the Savior’s ability to heal.”

Williams emphasizes the role that each of us can play in decreasing the stigma around talking about sexual abuse so that everyone who has been impacted can openly share their stories and testimonies of the Savior. “My life has been so enriched by hearing many survivors share their experiences. When I hear about the depth of pain and hurt they have experienced, their faith in Jesus Christ, and their love for others, [it] inspires me to live with greater faith, integrity, and empathy. I truly believe that our communities will be deeply blessed and experience collective healing as individuals impacted by sexual abuse feel greater safety in sharing openly.”

Moon adds, “The Savior has a significant role to play in preventing sexual abuse and healing wounds of sexual abuse. Everybody who is impacted by sexual abuse can lean on their Savior and find rest. … As Latter-day Saints and followers of Jesus Christ, we all have a role to play in abuse prevention. As we aim to follow our Savior’s example of advocacy through standing with survivors and supporting offenders who wish to heal, we will see Him amplifying our efforts and granting us miracles.”

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