Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

My wife’s life changed forever on a hot summer evening when she was 12 years old. Up until then she had lived a fairly sheltered life in a predominantly Mormon community in a cookie-cutter suburb in the Mountain West. This was a typical suburb–sprinklers greening up the lawns, bicycles in the driveway, the occasional cat or stray dog–no other wildlife to speak of.

On this evening, behind closed doors in his office at the ward building, the mild-mannered, middle-aged, soon-to-be excommunciated-for-adultery bishop, asked innocent little Lilian if she practiced bestiality.

Bestiality?! She didn’t even completely understand sex, let alone carnal knowledge of a non-human mammal. She did not live on a farm, she did not own a dog, and she was a girl (which, to this naive blogger, seems to present further challenges to the practice). Lilian, sitting in her little gingham dress, barely out of Primary, had to ask the bishop what bestiality was. And he obligingly explained it to her, alone, the two of them, in that office.

Do I even need to say how outraged this makes me feel, writing about Lilian’s experience? She felt extremely uncomfortable, but he was the bishop, and so she figured that that’s just the sort of thing they asked in temple recommend interviews. For that reason, it didn’t occur to her to tell her parents, and she would have felt way too embarrassed to do so anyway. So she got to take this warped sex education message home with her, to ponder in her heart and wonder about the depravity that was sexuality, to feel fear and disgust thinking about what it was that people did with each other (and with animals!) behind closed doors. All this from the spiritual leader of her ward. What a twisted narrative of sexuality to give a girl entering adolescence, trying to figure out her body, her emotions, and how to relate with others in adult ways.

Now, I realize that it could have been worse. Lilian was not sexually abused by her bishop. Fortunately, she did not undergo that trauma experienced by far too many girls and women. But her experience was traumatic enough. It caused her to develop negative beliefs and attitudes about sex. If sexual desire could make people do such disgusting things, she wanted no part of it. The interview played a role in turning her off to sexuality and making her suspicious of the motives of men in the sexual realm. What’s more, it caused her to feel deeply distrustful of church leaders and their supposed “inspiration”.

Did this need to happen? Of course, people can say that there’s always going to be a few bad apples. But why must we give bad apples the opportunity? Why do we continue to put our girls and boys in this potentially harmful position? And beyond protecting our children, shouldn’t we learn from the Catholic Church sex scandals and rethink the interview process if only for public relations and legal reasons?

But bad apples aren’t the only problem. Even when nothing goes wrong, having older men ask teenagers, especially girls, about their sexual behaviors is just plain creepy. In a highly unscientific poll about recollections of teenage interview experiences, my wife, daughter, and sister all responded identically: shaking head, shuddering, and saying, “Eww!” I don’t think they are alone in this sentiment. Is this the kind of church experience we intend for our girls? And why do we put our leaders in this awkward position? Personally, I would be reluctant to accept a calling to the bishopric because I don’t feel comfortable doing that part of the job.

So, there appears to be some tension between the institutional needs of the Church and the well-being of its members. As a Church we have decided that assessing members’ worthiness, including in the sexual realm, is important for entrance into temples. We perform recommend interviews because we believe the temple is the house of The Lord, a holy place, and we want to ensure that the members who go there respect this holiness by living righteously. So far, so good. However, it is obvious that the temple recommend interview is inadequate to this purpose. People can and do lie when interviewed, or they may deceive themselves, rationalizing their behaviors. Furthermore, the recommend questions can hardly be considered the final word on righteousness. For example, based on the recommend questions it is theoretically possible to exclude from the temple someone who affiliates with feminists, while allowing attendance to someone who subtly belittles his children and tells his wife that sex is her wifely duty. In other words, though recommend questions call out certain behaviors, they fail to adequately regulate other behaviors essential to a life of Christian discipleship.

As a result, I would conclude that the primary purpose of temple recommend interviews is not to keep unrighteous people out of the temple; the temple is chock full of unrighteous people–us! Rather, the primary purpose is to help us evaluate the righteousness of our lives on a regular basis, strengthening our resolve to live well and improve by being accountable to our spiritual leaders. The interview is for our benefit, not to protect the holiness of the temple or the other people who go there. This purpose needs to inform possible solutions to problems with the interview.

I see several solutions to the interview problem, both individual and institutional. The Church could have the Relief Society president or the Young Womens’ president do the interviewing of the girls. Was Deborah not a judge in Israel? Or a smaller step might be to require one of these leaders to be present when girls are interviewed. If personal accountability is paramount, perhaps we could think outside the box and have the youth sign a statement affirming the answers to the recommend questions. I am sure there are other ways the Church’s needs can be met while still protecting our children.

As parents, we can choose to attend these interviews and explain to our children why we are attending. As they get older and feel more self-assured, they can decide to go by themselves. We can also tell them (as I do) that they need not enter into details about sexual behaviors during the interviews (in fact, I tell them that I don’t think such details are the bishop’s business). The bishop can ask them if they live the law of chastity, but they need only answer yes or no; the details they should work out with the Lord. By helping our children have a more positive interview experience, we can help them see the temple as a spiritual resource rather than something they associate with discomfort and awkwardness.

Personally, I have drawn considerable strength from temple covenants and I appreciate how the temple rituals can draw me into a sacred time and space where I see myself more clearly and can reach out to a bigger, better, more beautiful reality. And so it makes me both furious and hurt that to go to the Lord’s house, some of our children must go through an animal house. There must be a better way.


  1. When I turned 12, my Bishop interviewed me and asked if I masturbated. I didn’t know what he meant. He then spent 15 minutes detailing different methods punctuated by “have you done that?”.

    I later learned he did that to all the boys. On scout camp outs the kids would replicate the activities he described.

    The ward thought he was great. I thought he was a pervert.

  2. I have made the decision to go in with my kids to their interviews. I wish it were policy to do it that way.

  3. I grew up in a predominantly Mormon rural community in Idaho. When I say predominantly I think there were maybe two people in my high school who weren’t LDS. On Sundays many of the young men would play football on the lawn behind the church house. This presented a great opportunity for the bishop to call each of in for our interviews. One that sticks our in all of our minds was when he brought up masturbation. I still remember part of what he said.

    “Today I want to talk to you about masturbation. More commonly know as jacking off.”

    We all came out of the interview and laughed ourselves silly over the bishop using the term “jacking off”. It is the only thing I remember about the interview.

    This particular bishop was a great individual and major mentor and role model for me.

  4. I don’t even think the interview is to give us cause for reflection. I think we see it as an ultimate gauge of our righteousness when in fact it’s just a gauge of basic obedience, maybe to cull out non-members.

    Maybe that’s something our leaders will re-think in the future because it is kind of a joke. I cross my fingers and just get it over with as quickly as possible because I don’t want to get into a deep discussion of “why I stay” vs. stuff that bugs me and my dissenting opinions. Which would be over most of my bishops’ heads anyway.

    I lived with a relative when I was 15 and when his wife was gone on certain nights for PTA meetings and Primary stuff, he would call me on his break from his night job and try to initiate conversations about sex, telling me how fun it was. I would dread answering the phone, but I’d get in trouble if I didn’t because it was in the guise of checking on the family while she was gone. He was the Elder’s Quorum president at the time.

    That was 45 years ago and it still grosses me out.

    Our patriarch was removed just after Sarah’s patriarchial blessing for accessing child pornography. I stayed with Sarah during the whole blessing, not having a clue then about his problems.

    Sigh……..I think the hardest thing for many to accept is that our church is full of mistakes because our leaders are terribly fallible. I don’t feel like leaving because of it, but many do. An imperfect life experience is what it’s all about, really.

  5. No bishop or stake president or mission president has ever asked me anything more detailed than “do you keep the law of chastity?” (sometimes offering me the opportunity to ask questions if I have them) whether as a young girl or a middle-aged woman or anything between. I’ve had those interviews in four states and three countries and more wards than I can remember.

    I say that with no intent to discount anyone else’s personal report, but only to say that these experiences are far from universal, and are utterly alien to me.

  6. Reading the comments, it once again strikes me as crazy that we either put bishops in a position where they feel obliged to talk to teenagers in private about masturbation, if that was the policy (based on the CHI I can’t believe it is the current policy), or that we put teenagers in a position where their bishop on his own decides he ought to talk to them in private about masturbation. How does this not strike everyone involved (I mean everyone in the Church) as problematic?

    Regarding how often bad stuff happens in interviews, I’ve no idea, but I imagine it is rare. I have not had a bad experience with a bishop, but have felt uncomfortable on several occasions. Even so, is there some minimum amount that we would consider acceptable? And what about putting good bishops in a position where they might succumb to some sort of temptation (as much as I find the idea disturbing that some of our bishops would find such a situation tempting)? And what about the mildly creepy factor that many youth (especially girls) and adults may feel? Why would we want that associated with going to the temple?

    I do hope such things happen only rarely, and my faith in bishops makes it hard for me to believe that this is a common problem. And yet I don’t know that anyone was suspicious of Lilian’s bishop at the time he was asking such things. A few years ago we had a counselor in the EQ presidency who seemed nice enough–married, two kids, good job–who was picked up for molesting young girls in the shopping mall. He was caught on security cameras. Who knew? It just seems to me that the supposed benefits of the current interview situation don’t outweigh the harms.

  7. I strongly agree that girls and women need to be interviewed by a female leader or by a paired bishop and RS president.

    This is a bit tangential but relevant to this post – I’m very concerned that former defacto checks and balances have been dropped. That is, current church policy is to have our various Salt Lake City leaders redirect any members’ complaints about local leaders back to those same local leaders. How then can the admittedly rare bad-apple bishops be culled to protect our children?

    Heathermommy, if I still had kids at home, I would go with them to interviews too, great idea.

  8. I don’t really see having a female confessor as any real improvement. I know I would prefer a female confessor, even though I am male, but how do you keep people from deciding which confessor they like better, or whichever one is more lenient with their specific sins? Not to mention the continued problems of 1-on-1 confessions, no matter what the genders involved. Despite perceptions, women can also have problems with others.

    Confessing to two at the same time just seems worse – bad enough confessing to one person, but how many more people do you need to discuss this with?

    I tihnk the best option we have is working with what we have curently, but actually talking to our children and spouses about our experiences. Lacking a parent or spouse, at least a friend. Lacking that there’s not a lot that can be done.

  9. how do you keep people from deciding which confessor they like better, or whichever one is more lenient with their specific sins?

    I’m not sure I see this as a problem.

    I think the best option we have is working with what we have currently, but actually talking to our children and spouses about our experiences.

    I think the default should be that minors take an adult they trust to their interview. I don’t see that as confessing to two people at once — I see it as having someone in your court.

  10. I don’t really see having a female confessor as any real improvement. I know I would prefer a female confessor, even though I am male, but how do you keep people from deciding which confessor they like better, or whichever one is more lenient with their specific sins? Not to mention the continued problems of 1-on-1 confessions, no matter what the genders involved. Despite perceptions, women can also have problems with others.

    This may need a post all to itself, but I’m very interested in all of your several thoughts here, Frank. First, I’m curious about why you would prefer a female confessor (and sorry for singling you out – I would ask this of any man who made this statement). Why do you suppose you would rather talk about such things with a woman?

    I can think of a lot of possible reasons – plain and simple individual preference foremost among them – but I wonder. How many American LDS men, if given the option between a female and a male ecclesiastical leader, would choose to speak with a woman? Women in American culture are often encouraged to articulate their emotions in a way that men aren’t, and are given far more freedom to emote. Men in our culture are typically socialized to talk about their most private, inner feelings with women (mothers, sisters, wives/girlfriends). There have been some studies on this lately, noting that adolescent boys have emotionally intense relationships with each other, sharing their hopes and dreams, up until their mid-to-late teens, and then they are subject to intense social pressure to stop and to confide exclusively in women. I wonder how this phenomenon would affect men in the LDS church if they had female ecclesiastical outlets.

    (Here’s a book that talks about the phenomenon of American cultural pressure discouraging boys from continuing emotionally intimate friendships: Niobe Way. Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection. [Harvard UP: 2011]

    Second, like Melyngoch, I’m not sure that I see the ability to choose your confessor as a bad thing. Part of this, for me, stems from my belief that we should have more pastoral care offered in our church, in the traditional sense of ministering to each other’s needs. I would think that a sense of trust and rapport with our ecclesiastical leaders would have great potential to help us heal.

    Third, I completely agree with you that there are always potential problems with one-on-one meetings, regardless of the genders of the people involved, and there are women who are sex offenders. However, as Pepper alluded to above, instituting options like Mike suggests – like encouraging the presence of a parent or trusted leader in the room during chastity interviews, or turning the issue of chastity over to the parents entirely – would help to build some safeguards and checks and balances back into our system.

  11. Even when nothing goes wrong, having older men ask teenagers, especially girls, about their sexual behaviors is just plain creepy.

    This is a great point, Mike. I think there are clearly lots of people who have nothing but good experiences being interviewed by their bishops, but just as clearly, this outcome is based on having good bishops. The structure as we have it provides no check to prevent bishops from asking outrageous things. Most bishops don’t, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t have a better way of handling such interviews.

  12. Frank, I appreciate your trying to reason through the challenges of making the situation better. But your last sentence troubles me.

    “Lacking that there’s not a lot that can be done.”

    I sincerely hope that we’re not yet at a point where as a Church we view my wife’s experience and others like hers as just the cost of doing business.

  13. Having a female confessor would be a significant improvement for female members. Especially young ones. I find it unfathomable that anyone would be unable to understand that. Trust me as a former 12 year old girl: having an old man talk to you about sex is super uncomfortable. Even if he’s tactful and brief about it.

    I hate the thought of offending people and it will take considerable chutzpah for me to do this because I don’t want my very nice bishop to think I think he’s a creep (because I don’t think he’s a creep), but I’m going to go into interviews with my kids. At least until they ask me to stop. These stories are just too awful. It’s my and my husband’s job to educate our kids about sex and chastity, and I’m not turning that over to a bishop.

  14. I lived in 3 different Wards growing up and served an LDS mission. I had 4 different Bishops, an MTC Branch President, and a Mission President. Every single one of them, without fail, asked me if I masturbated. One Stake President (when I was 18) even asked me if I’d had homosexual experiences. This still bothers me 25 years later.

  15. The reason sexuality is brought up early with children by these leaders is because shame over it is the primary tool used to generate guilt. Religions control people with guilt.

    A child of 10 or 12 really has no “sins” for the church to use for guilt generation. Since nearly everyone masturbates, and it’s natural and normal, it’s perfect to characterize as a bad sin to get the guilt going. I left Mormonism, and won’t be joining any other church either. They’re all evil.

  16. I don’t know when this happened, but I can tell you that the Church, as an institution, HAS altered the temple recommend interview. There is a list of specific questions that leaders are required to read word for word. (Even though I have never had a divorce, I still get asked if I owe any unpaid alimony or child support.) The question on the law of chastity is simply “Do you live the law of chastity?” If someone needs clarification on anything, it is provided, but they don’t ask specific questions on specific activities.
    AT the end of the interview, the question is asked “Is there any sin or misdeed that should have been resolved with Priesthood authority, but has not?” This gives the interviewee an opportunity to discuss other concerns, without having the pressure of being asked about specifics.

    Now, I know that there are plenty of people out there who are going to say “That’s what they are supposed to do, but my Bishop does XYZ.” The important thing is the “What they are SUPPOSED to do.” If a spiritual leader in the LDS church isn’t following the Church’s standards, or is making someone feel uncomfortable, or pressured, then TELL THEIR LEADERS. Tell the Stake President, or whoever. Call the LDS Church headquarters if necessary. The idea that we have to blindly submit to our spiritual leaders, without question, is NOT part of the Church’s doctrine or teachings. We are obligated to seek revelation and answers for ourselves. In other words, if the Bishop places you in a situation that is harmful, don’t just go along with it. The Stake Presidency, the local area authorities, the General Authorities- these people all share responsibility for making sure the Bishop is doing things right.

    Whenever we talk to children about bullying or abuse- especially sexual abuse- we always tell them “If someone says or does something that makes you uncomfortable, tell an authority figure, so they can make sure it doesn’t happen again. And keep telling them until someone believes you.” Those same rules apply to teens and adults as well, whether the abuser is a teacher, a boss, or a Bishop.

    Just my two cents worth- take it or leave it.

  17. The church paints itself into a corner with several different doctrines and practices. In time, this one will really bit them in the collective butt. If we are not going to have a professional clergy, bishops at the very least should be going off to some kind of “bishop camp” where they learn a boundary or two, and what constitutes a lawsuit.

    I leave you with this: My father passed away suddenly when I was on a Scout trip and staying in the dorms at University of Utah. The bishop waited until I was in the shower, then came naked into the shower with me, and told me about my father. Many people believe that maybe it was a feeble attempt to abuse me, but let’s say that it was not. But still, is this a way that a self-respecting member of any clergy would tell a young man about his father’s death? (Eventually, this bishop would go on to be arrested for something that happened in a men’s room in a department store, the details of which never came to light, and then he was excommunicated. Just sayin’.)

  18. I was personally invaded from age 11 by my bishop. At 17, the next bishop also felt he needed to ask if I masturbated. I was a really good kid. I gad a 3.6gpa. I started on the football team. Seminary pres . Played piano. Volunteered. Was extremely active in the lds church. But because I touched myself once in awhile my bishop decided I was not worthy and placed me on probation. Maybe once or twice a week! Come on. It was a nightmare having to sit with my family during sac mtg believing everyone guessed why I wasnt passing or blessing the sacrament. I suffered low self esreem. It was hooooorible. So unecessary. I am convinced the taboo placed on it creares its own attraction. Once I ditched the notion that the church held any authority ocer me (read:right to ask me such bizarre questions), the frequency evaporated to next to nothing. I hate how the church robbed so many years from me that I will never get back.


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