One of the defining characteristics of our troubled era is the degree to which we have subjected children and youth to a remarkable level of exposure to sexual everything-you-can imagine—from leave-nothing-to-the-imagination depictions in pornographic videos to relentless teasers of the same in pop culture music, movies, and commentary.
So incessant has been this intense sexual immersion, that Americans have grown both accustomed to it—and increasingly tolerant of it. Indeed, many now consider it crucial to ensure sex education instructors be allowed to provide explicit descriptions of sexual acts, feelings, and experiences to young people in school.
So, it comes with some rich irony, surrounded by this intrusive culture, to have such an alarm raised about whether spiritual mentors such as Latter-day Saint bishops (among others) can or should be allowed to inquire into how well young people are navigating this same fraught environment.
Of course, it’s only understandable to have some level of concern amidst an unsettling time of seemingly unending, tragic revelations of the degree to which individuals in a position of trust (teachers, clergy, parents) have too often, to a heartbreaking degree, taken advantage of their own unique access to youth. Although it’s hardly possible to do enough to prevent this from continuing to happen, it’s certainly possible to overcorrect in a way that casts doubt on even reliable, helpful, crucial mentoring influences.
No one is arguing that appropriate precautions not be taken. This is precisely why adjustments such as Latter-day Saint policies insisting on two adults in a youth class—or allowing two adults in a youth interview—are both welcomed and wise.
But to take it one (or five) steps further and insist on scrapping any such mentoring oversight or inquiry demonstrates a profound error of judgment. In the very moment when youth need as much guidance, support, and encouragement as they can possibly get—especially in this area—this would deny them a uniquely-inspired source of the same. This is particularly true for youth without reliable parents consistently watching out for their well-being.
Not only would this greatly disadvantage many youth, but it would perpetuate a uniquely deformed image of spiritual mentors as being generally worthy of distrust in these matters. Amidst a growing crisis of trust in institutions everywhere, we would argue that about the last thing we need culturally is another effort to actively corrode trust—especially trust that has not yet been legitimately lost (and arguably deserves to be maintained).
While our dear Catholic brothers and sisters are grappling with a uniquely painful reckoning, Latter-day Saint congregations have managed a remarkably high level of safety. While some critics of our own faith community are perhaps waiting (hoping?) for the same dam to one day burst in the Church of Jesus Christ, there is good reason to believe it never will. And as even a cursory review of sexual assault claims against Latter-day Saint leaders would reveal, the relative rarity of these allegations is both remarkable and hardly ever acknowledged in media reports generally.
Why not? Perhaps because this rarity doesn’t fit the suspicious narrative of authority—especially religious authority—in our day. And no doubt, a happy view of the degree to which inspired spiritual mentors change lives, shape hearts, build faith, and prevent risky decisions might be confusing to a general public that continues to sour on the value of religion generally.
But what if all that benefit of inspired leadership is legitimate? That has not only been our experience—it’s been that of millions of Latter-day Saint youth over the years in relation to primary teachers, youth leaders, and priesthood leaders that individually invest many hundreds of volunteer hours.
Underscoring the valuable contribution of these spiritual mentoring leaders, to be clear, does not imply children and youth seeking support are greatly deficient or evil. It was the Book of Mormon that first forcefully clarified how wrong-headed it was to presume little children sin and have a need for repentance. However confused older youth might become, their beautiful innocence is not far behind them.
Perhaps this is what prompted a woman to say in a recent national report on the most recent General Conference, “In my eyes, all children are worthy. There’s no reason to interview them for their worthiness. In God’s eyes, they’re worthy.”
While Moroni would agree, “Yes, little children are worthy!” he might remind this woman that those same precious children go on to grow up in a remarkably challenging world—testing out their own agency and pressing forward in a world (or having the world pressed upon them) replete with intrusive sexual imagery.
Imagery that sometimes drags them in, and leaves them hurting, confused—and looking for a fresh start.
And it’s precisely because of how precious these youth and their healthy, happy development is, that we need to ensure caring and trusted parents and leaders continue to have the support to keep asking questions in a safe, appropriate way. And not just about general things, but also about how that child is navigating a sexualized, darkening world.