Facing excommunication, former LDS bishop says Mormon leaders could learn from Catholic Church

ST. GEORGE — A man who is facing the prospect of excommunication from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for his activism against the way the church conducts youth worthiness interviews says implementing policies like those of the Roman Catholic Church that prevent one-on-one interactions between clergy and children will better protect young church members.

Sam Young, a Texas man who served as a bishop for the church from 1991 to 1996, said he received a letter issued by the church Wednesday notifying him of a “formal disciplinary council” in which he could be subject to probation, disfellowship or excommunication from the church.

Sam Young, a Mormon father from Houston who is seeking an end to sexually explicit interviews of Mormon youth by their LDS bishops, talks during a news conference in Salt Lake City, Jan. 18, 2018 | File photo by Steve Griffin/The Salt Lake Tribune via Associated Press, St. George News

Young has spearheaded the “Protect the Children” campaign, calling on church leaders to bring an end to closed-door, one-on-one interviews in which adolescent church members are asked by adult male lay leaders if they are adhering to the church’s rules regarding sexual activity.

In the disciplinary letter, Young is accused of encouraging others to vote opposed to church leaders and organizing more than one public action that expressed opposition to the church or its leaders.

Since October 2017, Young has led multiple protests, issued a petition and engaged in a 23-day hunger strike in an attempt to effect change in the youth interview process, which he says has the potential to shame children.

“I don’t want to be excommunicated. I want to go in and vigorously defend myself,” Young said in an interview with St. George News, adding that he doubts he will be successful in preserving his church membership based on the contents of the disciplinary letter.

“It sends a lot of signals to me that excommunication is a foregone conclusion,” Young said.

Whatever the outcome of the disciplinary proceeding ends up being, he said it will be another opportunity to shed light on a practice that he and thousands of others have voiced opposition to.

“We’re the most dangerous institutional church in America, and I’m working to change that,” Young said.

About 1,000 Mormons and former Mormons march to the church’s headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, to deliver petitions demanding an end to one-on-one interviews between Mormon youth and lay leaders and the sexual questions that sometimes arise during the meetings, March 30, 2018 | Associated Press file photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

Following the public outcry over the youth interview process, the church made some policy changes and clarifications, including allowing children to ask a parent or adult to be present with them during the interviews.

But Young said the changes don’t go far enough in ensuring the safety of Mormon youth.

“The interviews are only not one-on-one if the kid asks for someone to be in the room,” he said. “So we’re putting the responsibility to protect our children on the children themselves. That’s a ludicrous policy.”

The church also recently released a list of 13 questions clergy are expected to ask during interviews, which includes the direct question: “Do you live the law of chastity?”

Young says the list of questions are ones church leaders “have to ask,” but they have discretion to ask any other questions they see fit, including ones of a sexual nature.

“They have not addressed the sexual questions at all,” Young said. “Everything’s still fair game.”

He said the church distributes literature to youth that compares the severity of sexual sins to murder.

“That’s a horrible message to send to kids,” Young said.

Mormons and former Mormons march to the church’s headquarters to deliver petitions demanding an end to one-on-one interviews between Mormon youth and lay leaders and the sexual questions that sometimes arise during the meetings, Salt Lake City, Utah, March 30, 2018| Associated Press file photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

In a previous statement, church spokesman Eric Hawkins said church leaders are counseled to not be unnecessarily probing or invasive in their questions but that there are times when a “discussion of moral cleanliness” is appropriate.

“In these instances leaders are counseled to adapt the discussion to the understanding of the individual and to exercise care not to encourage curiosity or experimentation,” the church-issued statement reads.

Since taking up the cause, Young said he has received accounts from thousands of current and former church members who say the interviews caused them distress in their youth. Some people, he said, were driven to consider or even attempt suicide because of the shame they felt as a result of probing questions about masturbation, pornography or sexual activity.

Young said the church could take a cue from the Catholic Church, which has instituted policies eliminating any one-on-one interactions between priests and children in the wake of decades of sexual abuse by clergy involving thousands of children.

“The Catholic priests can no longer ask the children sexually explicit questions,” Young said. “If a Catholic priest asks a youth if they masturbate, they fire the priest. It’s a fireable offense.

“The Catholic Church has put things in place to prevent it. We (the LDS church) have all the things in place to continue to facilitate the horrible things that have happened in our church just like they happened in the Catholic Church.”

Jesse Stay, a former scout master, shows his support with other Mormons and ex-Mormons before marching to the church’s headquarters to deliver petitions demanding an end to one-on-one interviews between Mormon youth and lay leaders, in Salt Lake City, Utah, March 30, 2018 | Associated Press file photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

In his statement, Hawkins said any church leaders who become aware of incidents of abuse are directed to call a 24-hour help line to seek guidance from professional counselors and legal professionals in how to identify, report and respond to abuse.

Young said the church should further change its policy to require at least two adults to be present at all interviews and ban any questions of a sexual nature.

“My focus is protecting children,” Young said, explaining that he attempted to go through the church-prescribed channels to try to effect change before making the issue public.

“Nothing worked when I just went to the bishop and stake president. I gave them letters to go to the apostles – they went nowhere. So, the only avenue I have for effecting change is to create awareness.”

But the church says it has listened to Young’s concerns, saying the following in a July 29 statement posted on the church’s Newsroom website:

Church leaders at every level—from Sam’s local bishop and stake president to a recent conversation with a general authority—have met with him to express love, to listen and to counsel with him. They have received and reviewed his materials and understand clearly his viewpoint. Further meetings with him are not necessary to clarify his position on this matter.

Young said he accepts the possibility that he will be “laid on the altar of spiritual death by being excommunicated” if it means garnering further awareness of the issue to church members and nonmembers alike.

In a statement issued to media, the church said it doesn’t provide information about disciplinary proceedings in order to respect the privacy of those involved and that church discipline is administered by local leaders who are familiar with the individual and his or her circumstances.

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