The protection of children from emotional, physical and spiritual harm is paramount.
Anything other than this awakens in us an intensity and breadth of emotion that is beyond adequate expression. It is shocking, almost inconceivable, that someone would hurt a child. It is the ultimate form of betrayal. Society is uniting and focussing on the need for greater child protection. Over and over again, we see entire communities mobilize to search for children feared kidnapped or harmed. It is national news when a single child is in danger.
But this type of harm was not always the subject of national media reports. The evil lurked in the shadows, mostly unseen, almost always unmentionable. Yet even before the issue first came to the forefront in the United States, Gordon B. Hinckley, former president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, publicly denounced child mistreatment as a terrible evil. In the early 1980s, he captured our thoughts and feelings when he said in a worldwide conference broadcast: "I am glad that there is a growing public awareness of this insidious evil. The exploitation of children . . . for the satisfaction of sadistic desires is sin of the darkest hue."
The issue goes to the heart of Church doctrine. Little children are innocent and precious in the eyes of God. Jesus Christ experienced some of His most tender moments with children and reserved His strongest language for those who abuse them. "Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea" (Matthew 18:6). Moreover, the family is at the core of the Church. Children attend Church services with their parents. Church practice includes a weekly family night, in which other interests are set aside so that strong family relationships can be built. In the family, parents draw strength from each other to cherish and protect their children by providing an environment where children can grow and develop in an atmosphere of love and support. The Church provides a gathering place for families intent on raising their children with spiritual values. Both the Church and family have the highest interest in the welfare of children.
The Church has a lay clergy. Leaders of congregations in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are called bishops. Bishops are selected from the local membership to serve as volunteers for about five years. Most have lived in the community for a long time and consider the members of their congregation to be personal friends and neighbours. And most bishops have children of their own, often young ones, who attend church and participate in its activities. Bishops are therefore already heavily invested in the safety and wellbeing of their Church community. When an individual threatens the safety of children in their congregation, bishops have no incentive, financial or otherwise, to do other than protect their Church family as they would their own.
A Latter-day Saint congregation is like a big family, a group of people working together with an attitude of mutual support. The Church has long encouraged families to talk about child abuse, to educate themselves on how to recognize and prevent such tragedies. Since 1976, more than 50 news and magazine articles have appeared in Church publications condemning child cruelty or educating members about it. Church leaders have spoken out on the subject more than 30 times at Church worldwide conferences. This is the subject of a regular lesson taught during Sunday meetings.
The Church has also developed extensive training aids including audiovisual material. These materials are used to train Church leaders on how to identify and respond to such tragic situations. A 24-hour Help Line staffed with professional counsellors provides customized advice so local leaders can take appropriate action in each case.
Helping the victim is of primary concern. It is the very nature of Christians to reach out with compassion and love to those who are struggling with the agonies of a childhood robbed of peace. It is integral to our ministry. Within the Church, victims can find spiritual guidance that eventually leads to healing through faith in Jesus Christ. Abuse victims are also offered professional counselling so they can benefit from the best of secular expertise, regardless of their ability to pay. The Church's official handbook of instructions for leaders states that the first responsibility of the Church is to help those who have been victimised and to protect those who may be vulnerable to future harm.
How does the Church do this? Since its founding, the core family concepts and doctrine of the Church have provided this support. Additionally, a Help Line was established in 1995 to provide bishops with immediate access to professional counsellors to guide them in protecting victims.
Members of the Church found guilty of such crimes are also subject to the laws of God. President Hinckley has said: "Our hearts reach out to the offender, but we cannot tolerate the sin of which he may be guilty. Where there has been offense, there is a penalty." Convicted perpetrators are excommunicated, the highest possible discipline our faith can impose. Excommunicated members cannot take part in Church meetings or hold responsibilities of any kind within the congregation. Since 1995 the Church has placed a confidential annotation on the membership record of members who previously harmed children.
At the heart of many legal contests is when and whether notice of a potential harm is reported. Church officials follow local law regarding when and how to report an act of child cruelty to public authorities.
Simply put, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to those who harm children in any way. When this is suspected, the Church directs its members to first contact the legal authorities and then their local bishop for counselling and support. The Church cooperates fully with law enforcement in investigating incidents and bringing perpetrators to justice.
We all have something precious to protect — the innocence of our children.