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Marci Hamilton

A Reply to Von Keetch's Comments on Clergy Child Sex Abuse and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints


Thursday, May 27, 2010

On April 15, FindLaw posted my opening column on the issue of how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which I will call the "LDS Church" or "LDS") handles clergy child sex abuse. As I stated there, I welcome further discussion of this important issue. In raising and discussing clergy sex abuse in the contexts of different religious institutions and faiths, I am interested solely in the truth and the protection of children.

Since then, Von Keetch, chief outside counsel to the LDS, has responded to my column, and FindLaw has also posted his response. As Keetch notes in his column, he has worked closely with the LDS Church on child abuse issues for twenty years, and has served as an ecclesiastical leader in the Church. In this column, I will discuss Keetch's points — but first, I will briefly summarize the immediate responses to my column that I received via email.

The Responses I Received from LDS Church Members

Except for one individual's email, the responses I received were unfailingly polite, which is a credit to the LDS Church and its values. And they ran the full gamut. There was the LDS public relations person, who responded very quickly to defend the Church. There were men who had been, or are now, in some positions of leadership who said they believe the Church's rule is to always report abuse. One told me that if that is not the rule, he does not care, because he will do what is right regardless.

But there were more who wrote to me to thank me for my column, saying that the LDS has work to do in this field. These included current members, ex-members, and child-sex-abuse survivors from within the LDS community. According to these correspondents, LDS bishops have ignored reports about abuse, and have often discouraged reporting. In addition, they say that LDS members have been shunned for telling the authorities or outsiders about abuse. Based on the comments I received, there also seems to be a strong value placed by LDS on keeping families together even when that means a child remains captive to an abusing parent. In light of these emails, I approach Keetch's lawyerly response with some skepticism.

Assessing Keetch's Points

Keetch is, of course, correct that child sex abuse is a "society-wide problem" that spans groups and families. The largest segment of victims is composed of persons who were victimized by family members or acquaintances. That is why I started my book on clergy child sex abuse, Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children, with an email from a victim of incest. This is — and always should be — about children. The reality is that organizational mishandling of the issue is just the tip of the iceberg.

Since we are primarily concerned with protecting children, I would warn every parent to be extremely careful about any organization that claims, as Keetch does, that it has set the "gold standard" on these issues. That has been the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy's mantra since 2003, but recent revelations have made it abundantly clear that a "gold standard" in this arena can be more about public relations than actual child safety.

Many believed, erroneously, as it turns out, that the Boy Scouts had set the highest standard, but the recent revelations detailed in the court case in Oregon in which the jury awarded both compensatory and sizable punitive damages, Lewis v. Boy Scouts of America, et. al., and the news coverage accompanying it — such as this article in The Oregonian, and this one — show that the Boy Scout organization has not lived up to its image of being child-protective.

Moreover, the problem with claims like "the LDS Church has had almost no child abuse problems with its clergy," is that only the LDS higher-ups would know for sure. While the Catholic bishops were telling everyone that the 2002 revelations in the United States were peculiar to the United States, no one outside the system knew, as the bishops themselves did, that routine cover-up of child sex abuse by clergy was actually a worldwide problem. In addition, given that the vast majority of abuse occurs in the family, I take cold comfort from the argument that LDS bishops are family men with children of their own.

Why Keetch's Explanations Raise More Questions than Answers

In fact, Keetch's explanations leave more questions than answers in my mind. Keetch states, "The Church fully supports compliance with child abuse reporting laws and regularly encourages members to report." However, I am not persuaded — for several reasons.

First, the same does not seem to be true for LDS leadership. This is what the 2006 Church Handbook of Instructions states:

"To avoid implicating the Church in legal matters to which it is not a party, Church leaders should avoid testifying in civil or criminal cases reviewing the conduct of members over whom they preside. In the United States and Canada, a leader should confer with the Church's Office of General Counsel if he is subpoenaed, is considering testifying in a lawsuit, is asked to communicate with attorneys or civil authorities regarding legal proceedings, or is asked to offer verbal or written testimony. Outside the United States and Canada, leaders should contact the administration office to obtain local legal counsel in these situations."

"Church leaders should not try to persuade alleged victims or other witnesses either to testify or not to testify in criminal or civil court proceedings."

Church Handbook Book (2006), 178.

How do these directives square with Keetch's portrait of the Church as transparent on these issues and devoted to zero-tolerance? Not well. A true zero-tolerance policy would encourage LDS members to testify in civil and criminal proceedings involving allegations of clergy child abuse within the LDS.

Second, the LDS Church has invested heavily in arguing against liability for its own victims in the courts. Most recently, it filed a joint amicus brief in the Nevada Supreme Court with the Catholic bishops, arguing that the First Amendment should protect the Church from liability for negligent handling of abuse. If the LDS Church has truly put children first and established "the gold standard" in this area, then why does it need constitutional protection from its negligent handling of child sex abuse? We know from other religious organizations, including the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Jews, that concerns about internal power, public image, and a greater concern for the preservation of wealth than victim suffering typically drive such arguments. Keetch has not explained why the LDS Church would be any different.

Third, Keetch's defense reaches the level of the ridiculous when he states, "Reporting abuse can raise difficult legal and personal issues. State reporting laws vary greatly." The public needs to understand what is really going on here. Keetch attributes the differences to "public policy makers." Yet, he knows full well who is lobbying to keep churches and clergy from having to report abuse: Churches are, with the LDS Church and the Catholic bishops at the forefront.

This reminds me of the qualification that the Vatican attached to its recent statement that bishops should report abuse: The Vatican encouraged reporting, but only when civil law requires it. Most media picked up this statement as if it had embraced a requirement that bishops report abuse, period. But the bishops themselves knew full well that they had lobbied hard in the United States to gain exemptions to reporting requirements, and broad interpretations of the so-called "confessional privilege." (I addressed the confessional privilege in a previous column.) When child advocates proposed a reporting requirement in Maryland without a confessional exception (under such a requirement, if priests knew about child abuse, they would have to let the authorities know, regardless of the source of the knowledge), the bishops pulled out all of the stops, including loudly accusing the child advocates of being anti-Catholic, and handing out flyers in the pews on Sundays that demanded that members call their elected representatives to reject the bill. Instead of offering a reporting bill that includes clergy, but has a confessional exception, they killed the bill altogether. So much for putting children first.

My position on these matters is simple: I will take seriously the religious organizations' apparent encouragement to report abuse as soon as they stop lobbying against, and start lobbying for, reporting requirements. That means they have to stop the lobbying behind-the-scenes, as well as in the public spotlight, and they have to sink their resources into laws that protect children.

Overall, It Still Seems Clear that the LDS Must Work on These Issues

Finally, one statement that Keetch made indicated to me that the emails I received from those inside the LDS Church saying that much needs to be done were correct. Keetch states, "A confidential confession to a clergyperson often breaks the cycle of abuse and is the first step in a process that leads to voluntary reporting by the perpetrator, victim, or others."

But that was the entire point of my initial column, and my work as a whole: Clergy have proven to be ineffective in stopping cycles of abuse — keeping abuse confidential (i.e., keeping the authorities out of the picture) is one sure way to ensure that a father who is having sex with one child can move onto the next one, and a teacher who is fondling a student will feel confident about going after the next one. As Keetch admits earlier in his response, LDS clergy are not trained professionals; rather, they take on these issues in addition to their other career and family obligations. Without professional training, all they have is what the Church tells them, and as the quote above from their own materials indicates, the LDS Church is not as clearly dedicated to the protection of children as Keetch would suggest. So this statement favoring confidential confessions to clergy undermines virtually everything else Keetch says.

Marci Hamilton, a FindLaw columnist, is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and author of Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge 2008). A review of Justice Denied appeared on this site on June 25, 2008. Her previous book is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005), now available in paperback. Her email is

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