Note: This interview was conducted over social media and has been edited for clarity.
Once a year, Mormon children have interviews with a bishop to determine their “worthiness” to advance in the church. But according to the group Protect The Children, many bishops ask children sexually explicit questions at those meetings — during which a child is alone with the bishop, with no parents present.
I interviewed Sam Young, the founder of Protect The Children. He’s a Mormon and a former bishop, and is organizing a petition to ask the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon church) to change the policy that allows bishops to ask these questions.
“In order for any child to go to the temple, questions about chastity are supposed to be asked,” Young explained. The standard question the bishops are supposed to ask is, “Do you live the law of chastity?”
But some bishops go further, Young said: “Often the questions posed to the child are explicit in nature. Like ‘Do you masturbate?'”
Young said he had no idea until recently that other bishops ask children questions like these.
“It wasn’t until last summer that I found out that one of my daughters was asked that question ‘all the time’ during her six years in the youth program,” Young said. “That shocked, angered and offended me. My 12-year-old daughter was asked about masturbation all alone behind a closed door and behind my back.
“For example, why would anyone ask a girl, ‘Did you masturbate under or over your panties?’ Or ‘how many fingers did you use?'”
When Young found out that questions like these were being asked of children, he went to his local leaders and asked that the policy around the questions be changed. No change happened.
Then he founded Protect the Children, and started interviewing other Mormons (360 so far) who had experienced harmful effects as a direct result of the explicit questions, some who were as young as 8 at the time.
Young lists 10 major harms that many of the stories have in common, including suicide or suicidal ideation, self-loathing, impaired sexual relations after marriage, and childhood sexual abuse. Some of the people Young has interviewed say they were molested by the bishops who asked them the explicit questions; others say that those questions “groomed” them to expect older men to talk inappropriately about sex, which led to later childhood sexual abuse at the hands of someone else.
Young started a petition that has gathered more than 15,000 signatures, and his cause got coverage from local media. As the story spread, Young was called into a three-hour meeting with his bishop and stake president (a regional authority).
“I was told … they will not be making any changes to the interview protocol,” Young said.
The leaders reiterated the policy: the interview is to be conducted “behind closed doors, no parent to be in the room, the bishop can ask whatever he feels inspired to ask.”
The meeting got worse from there, Young recalled.
“The stake president called me an apostate and reiterated that several times,” Young said. “He said that he has an obligation to protect the good name of the church, which I am sullying. I was told to stop speaking out in public. I view this as a threat of excommunication.”
“Apostate” is a specific term in the Mormon church, which Young clarified: “Several times [the stake president] read the first definition of apostasy in the [Church Handbook of Instructions]. Openly opposing the church or its leaders. Over and over, I reiterated that I didn’t oppose the church or its leaders. Just one policy. He insisted that was apostasy. I insisted it wasn’t. That’s why I view it as a threat of excommunication.”
If a member commits apostasy, Young explained, church discipline becomes mandatory. Church discipline can lead to disfellowship, which is a type of probation, or to excommunication.
“[The stake president] told me to stop speaking in public for the protection of our children. I told him that I was going to continue to speak out. I’m following the example of Christ: speaking up for the least of these,” Young said.
These sexual questions can cause severe psychological harm to a child, Young said. Breaking the law of chastity, which includes masturbation, is considered to be a sin next to murder.
Boys especially are vulnerable to these harms, Young argued. “It’s the shaming. When the bishop asks a boy if he masturbates, it’s 90 percent certain that the boy does.”
A bishop might then put the boy on unofficial probation, taking away religious privileges.
“When the bishop restricts them from passing the sacrament or going to the temple, now the kid is shamed in public,” Young said. “The child can’t quit. More shame. All this in front of someone who speaks for God,” Young continued. “The boy thinks he’s the only one doing it and the only one who can’t quit.”
Bishops are lay leaders and not trained like a Jewish rabbi or Catholic priest is — even though bishops are expected to counsel members about any issue, from sexual issues to domestic abuse.
Despite the fact that the church currently refuses to change its policy, Young believes it will eventually change.
“[This policy] will absolutely change. I’m confident of that,” Young said. “The civil rights laws were passed in 1964. Fourteen years later the church followed suit.”
In 1979, the church allowed men who are not white to hold the priesthood.
“Society began making these changes to protect children several years ago,” Young said. “Will it take another 10 for the church to follow suit? We are working to push the changes forward sooner.”