If we're seeing anything today, surely it is a desperate need for character and respect for moral virtue.
But raising young people to be women and men of conscience and integrity is no small feat, even as it remains a critical component of preventing the sexual misconduct that has forced so many men in power to resign in recent weeks.
Sexual assault and abuse of any kind is not merely reprehensible — it is evil. Perpetrators must be prosecuted and victims must be both heard and healed.
It appears society is at long-last awakening to the suffering caused by sexual assault and misconduct. From Hollywood to the halls of Congress, no institution or industry is immune. Prurient perpetrators are no respecters of sectors.
Religious institutions, in particular, must never tolerate or shield sexual misconduct. President Gordon B. Hinckley, the former head of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns this paper, declared unequivocally that sexual abuse is "an affront to the decency that ought to exist in every man and woman. It is a violation of that which is sacred and divine. ... It is reprehensible and worthy of the most severe condemnation."
Of all places, houses of worship should aspire to be refuges for those who are wounded; safe spaces where sick souls can be saved and sinners transformed into saints. But such work can't be carried forward without wise policies and practices.
In a press release this week, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, known for its commendable watchdog efforts on behalf of victims of abuse, raised concerns regarding one-on-one interviews between local Latter-day Saint church leaders and adolescent congregants, calling such conversations “an invitation” for abuse.
Most who understand Mormonism know that the relationship between local Latter-day Saint leaders and youths is not an invitation for abuse but rather an integral part of an environment that encourages moral and spiritual progress among Mormon adolescents.
In her influential book from Oxford University Press — “Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church” — scholar Kenda Creasy Dean offers a theory for why Mormon teens “were the least likely to engage in high-risk behavior and consistently were the most positive, healthy, hopeful and self-aware teenagers” in her studies.
The secret, she suggests, is that Mormon teens are mentored by myriad “religiously articulate adults.” In church settings, Latter-day Saint youths encounter leaders and mentors who help “demonstrate how to approach their creed, community and understandings of vocation.”
Can such adolescent-adult interactions occur without one-on-one conversations with local ecclesiastical leaders? Certainly. And churches and all organizations should continually seek practices and policies that prevent abuse.
But, as Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger noted last week, the purpose of priest-parishioner “confession” (and we would add conversation) “isn’t just to admit sin but to learn conscience.”
Indeed, society has long recognized the conscience-creating role privacy can play between ministers and church members. The conversations between “priest and penitent” are afforded special legal privileges akin to confidences between spouses.
Church is voluntary. So are one-on-one interviews. But it’s not hard to imagine how the conversation would likely change if parents or peers are in the room, particularly when working through challenges that all too often accompany young adulthood — anxieties at school and home, drugs, pornography or, in some cases, promiscuity.
Ideally, these conversations take place at home, with concerned and engaged parents. But sometimes it’s a confidential conversation with a church leader that catalyzes true dialogue and the kind of trust that can help set a young man or woman in a new and better direction.
This, of course, makes it all the more disturbing when a special trust is abused or perverted, as has sadly occurred in instances across denominations.
The LDS Church has a zero tolerance policy concerning sexual misconduct. It also gives specific instruction on conducting one-on-one interviews with youths, including encouraging them to have parents or other trustworthy adults sit directly outside the room. Church leaders are to avoid any situation that could be misinterpreted. And, according to LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins, local LDS bishops “are counseled to not be unnecessarily probing or invasive in their questions, but should allow a young person to share their experiences, struggles and feelings.”
This kind of confidence allows for counseling, for soul-shaping. It also guards against the untoward. As SNAP seems to support, the church should continually look for ways to both build and protect youths. It’s the conversations that shape conscience in adolescents that ultimately craft adult character and thus create a culture that protects these young men and women as they enter adulthood.
Rather than calling for an end to this kind of dialogue, society should seek ways to support youths and parents in developing deeply rooted moral moorings. Candid conversations — with the permission of parents and youth — are a critical component to crafting conscience and enduring character.