No, there have not been 30 talks about child abuse in General Conference since 1976

The Mormon Newsroom article on child abuse from 2010 that was recently published with a 2016 date (because of a “technical error”) includes the following claim, as evidence of how seriously the Church takes child abuse:

Since 1976, more than 50 articles have appeared in Church publications condemning child abuse or educating members about it. As wrenching as the topic is, Church leaders have given sermons about it more than 30 times at the Church’s worldwide conferences.

I spend a fair amount of time poking through old General Conference talks, and this latter number—30 sermons about child abuse—seemed high to me. So I thought I would check it.

I used the lds.org search tool to search for “child abuse” (without the quotation marks), and limited the results to General Conference talks. The search doesn’t require the words to appear together, so I was casting a pretty wide net, not just looking for talks that had the exact phrase “child abuse.” In fact, I ended up having to discard a bunch of talks in the results because they never discussed child abuse even though they included both words (frequently they talked about drug abuse and mentioned a child in another context).

For each talk, I counted both the total number of words in the talk and the number of words in the talk that discussed child abuse. When deciding whether to count words as discussing child abuse, I erred on the side of counting too many. For example, if a paragraph had a single passing mention of child abuse, I counted the entire paragraph. To count words, I used the Firefox plugin Word Count Tool.

I found a total of 42 talks, with 38 coming from the date range in the Newsroom article (1976-2010). So hooray, right? There’s even more discussion of child abuse in Conference than the article suggested. Unfortunately, there are some big qualifiers to that number.

First, the article says Conference speakers have “given sermons about [child abuse]” more than 30 times. Very few of the talks I found were about child abuse. All the ones I’m counting at least mentioned it, but hardly any had child abuse as the main topic, or even as a main topic. By my count, two talks were close to 100% about child abuse. Both were given by Elder Scott, and they actually cover a lot of the same ground. Other than those two talks, though, no other talk had as many as half of its word devoted to child abuse. The next highest was at 29%. (All 42 talks are listed and linked at the end of this post.) Here’s the breakdown of number of talks by percentage of words devoted to child abuse:

  • 91-100%: 2 talks
  • 31-90%: 0 talks
  • 21-30%: 3 talks
  • 11-20%: 5 talks
  • 1-10%: 32 talks

By far the majority of talks that mention child abuse (76%: 32 of 42) use no more than 10% of their words discussing child abuse.

Second, many of the talks that mention child abuse don’t actually discuss it in any meaningful way. For example, in President Uchtdorf’s talk that I count as spending 25% of its words on child abuse, he tells a story of a girl who was abused as a child, grew up and joined the Church, and was eventually able to overcome her sadness and anger over how she had been abused. Child abuse is just the backdrop in the story that he tells in discussing the light of the gospel. Similarly, in Elder Holland’s talk that I count as spending 10% of its words on child abuse, his major topic is the importance speaking kindly to each other, and his admonition to speak kindly to children is both a small point, and considers examples so mild that they may not even qualify as being abusive. The most extreme examples of mentioning child abuse but not discussing it are talks in which the speaker simply includes child abuse in a list of evils that he is lamenting. For example, then-Elder Packer said in a 1984 talk:

The doctrine we teach has no provision for lying or stealing, for pornography, immoralities, for child abuse, for abortion, or murder. We are bound by the laws of His church, as sons and daughters of God, to avoid all of these and every other unholy or impure practice.

It’s clear from such a list that the speaker sees child abuse as a bad thing, but the fact that he includes it in a list of evil things is far from giving a talk about child abuse. Of the 42 total talks on the list, eight (19%) do no more than mention child abuse in a list of evil things.

Third, talks that do discuss child abuse often conflate it with spouse abuse. I get why they do this: the problems are related, and someone who abuses their children may be more likely to abuse their spouse as well. For example, both of Elder Scott’s talks that I said are entirely about child abuse are actually entirely about abuse, without distinguishing different kinds. Certainly it makes sense to address related topics together when you can, and spouse abuse is a problem too. My concern here is that more focus on abuse in general means less focus on issues unique to child abuse. It’s misleading to claim that child abuse in particular is being addressed when it’s actually only abuse in general.

As an aside, moving beyond the frequency of talks about child abuse to consider the content, even when speakers discuss child abuse, what they say is not always helpful. Elder Scott, in his two talks, for example, spends most of his time addressing victims of abuse, with hardly any words condemning abusers. He focuses a lot on victims’ need to get to a place where they can forgive their abusers. In the first of the two talks, he infamously told victims to counsel with their leaders to figure out how much they were to blame for being abused. He also tells victims that they “must do all in [your] power to stop the abuse.” In talks that spend so much time blaming victims, this strikes me as perhaps the most unhelpful and wrong piece of advice.

Speakers who do discuss child abuse also manifest total faith in local leaders. They recommend that victims go to their bishops first. They seem unaware of the fact that local leaders do not always take allegations of abuse seriously. There are many stories shared on the blogs recently (and over the years) about bishops who didn’t believe victims, or when they did believe them, pushed victims to sweep abuse under the rug for reasons like avoiding embarrassment for the abuser or keeping the family together. Even worse, Conference speakers seem unaware of the fact that bishops themselves are sometimes abusers. They offer no suggestions for a victim faced with this situation. I know we don’t know how common such problems are, but even if they’re rare, it would seem prudent for Conference speakers to acknowledge that going to one’s bishop isn’t always the best first step for a victim of child abuse.

In summary, Conference speakers do not mention child abuse often (42 times in 45 years), when they do mention it, they often do so only in passing or when talking about abuse in general. It is misleading to say, as the Newsroom article does, that “Church leaders have given sermons about it more than 30 times at the Church’s worldwide conferences.” Using my generous assignment of words in talks, there have been a total of 11,650 words discussing child abuse since 1971. The average total length of the 42 talks is 2362 words, so that makes for about five talks’ worth of discussion of child abuse. There are over 70 Conference talks given each year, between the April and October Conferences. Thirty talks in 35 years (as the Newsroom article claims) would be a small number. Five talks is pathetic.

__________

Here is the complete list of 42 talks.

Yr/Mo Talk/Speaker Words
Total Relevant Pct
1992 Apr Healing the Tragic Scars of Abuse – Richard G. Scott 2116 2116 100%
2008 Apr To Heal the Shattering Consequences of Abuse – Scott 2143 2106 98%
2012 Oct Protect the Children – Dallin H. Oaks 2028 580 29%
2013 Apr The Hope of God’s Light – Dieter F. Uchtdorf 2102 516 25%
2002 Apr Personal Worthiness to Exercise the Priesthood – Hinckley 2499 597 24%
1994 Oct Save the Children – Gordon B. Hinckley 2818 555 20%
1998 Apr Agency and Anger – Lynn G. Robbins 1146 181 16%
1991 Oct Precious Children—A Gift from God – Thomas S. Monson 2931 409 14%
1990 Apr “A Little Child Shall Lead Them” – Thomas S. Monson 2927 355 12%
1987 Oct Overcoming Challenges along Life’s Way – Joy F. Evans 2224 261 12%
1986 Oct Little Children – Boyd K. Packer 2237 243 11%
2007 Apr The Tongue of Angels – Jeffrey R. Holland 1857 189 10%
1986 Apr Welfare Principles to Guide Our Lives – Robert D. Hales 2149 210 10%
1983 Apr Train Up a Child – L. Tom Perry 2319 218 9%
1998 Oct What Are People Asking about Us? – Gordon B. Hinckley 2540 232 9%
1994 Oct Being a Righteous Husband and Father – Hunter 2085 190 9%
1972 Apr What Will the Church Do for You, a Man? – Hinckley 2383 171 7%
1979 Apr The Need for Love – Theodore M. Burton 1399 97 7%
1989 Oct Modern Pioneers – Dallin H. Oaks 2875 191 7%
1978 Oct Spiritual Development – M. Russell Ballard 1599 102 6%
1992 Oct “Behold Your Little Ones” –Michaelene P. Grassli 1710 101 6%
1986 Oct Godly Characteristics of the Master – Ezra Taft Benson 3297 193 6%
2009 Oct School Thy Feelings, O My Brother – Thomas S. Monson 2252 131 6%
1990 Apr Blessed Are the Merciful – Gordon B. Hinckley 2778 161 6%
1985 Oct Questions and Answers – Gordon B. Hinckley 2990 163 5%
1994 Apr The Father and the Family – Boyd K. Packer 1915 104 5%
1989 Oct Rise to the Stature of the Divine within You – Gordon B. Hinckley 3505 188 5%
2002 Oct Dad, Are You Awake? – F. Melvin Hammond 1487 77 5%
1992 Oct The Joy of Hope Fulfilled – M. Russell Ballard 2366 107 5%
2015 Oct God Is at the Helm – M. Russell Ballard 1866 82 4%
2002 Oct To Men of the Priesthood – Gordon B. Hinckley 2545 108 4%
1997 Oct Look to the Future – Gordon B. Hinckley 2798 118 4%
1978 Apr The True Way of Life and Salvation – Spencer W. Kimball 3174 117 4%
2009 Oct That Your Burdens May Be Light – L. Whitney Clayton 1576 54 3%
1987 Oct Ethics and Honesty – David B. Haight 2013 65 3%
1977 Oct Obeying the Right Voice – N. Eldon Tanner 3015 95 3%
2006 Apr “I Will Remember Your Sins No More” – Boyd K. Packer 2299 44 2%
1984 Oct The Pattern of Our Parentage – Boyd K. Packer 2617 48 2%
2003 Oct The Shepherds of Israel – Gordon B. Hinckley 2132 39 2%
1979 Apr Fortify Your Homes Against Evil – Spencer W. Kimball 2930 53 2%
1995 Oct Stand Strong against the Wiles of the World – Gordon B. Hinckley 3435 52 2%
1978 Apr The Primary Enriches the Lives of Children – David B. Haight 2126 31 1%

19 comments

  1. I’m curious as to what the 30+ talks they counted are, but I guess they’re not giving out that list. It seems like much of what we hear from PA or GAs are either an abuse of language or an abuse of our trust.




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  2. You always come through, Ziff. When I read the newsroom article, those claims stood out to me as obviously exaggerated, even false. Thanks for putting in the legwork to show that they are. Less easily quantifiable, but just as eye-popping is this claim: “Preventing and responding to child abuse is the subject of a regular lesson taught during Sunday meetings.” Say what? What church have they been attending?




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  3. I think your analysis is pretty spot-on, especially in how few of these talks are specifically about child abuse, but I just wanted to point out a few your search missed ( I searched on ‘molestation’ and molest’)
    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1983/10/what-manner-of-men-ought-we-to-be?lang=eng

    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1984/10/personal-morality?lang=eng

    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2002/04/children?lang=eng

    (in a list of evils of the day):
    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1987/10/a-doorway-called-love?lang=eng
    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1994/10/deep-roots?lang=eng
    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1992/04/our-moral-environment?lang=eng
    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1993/10/the-search-for-happiness?lang=eng
    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1983/10/the-mystery-of-life?lang=eng

    And a few more I found searching for “millstone” (I figured anyone quoting that scripture would be referring to not hurting children. Not all of them were about child abuse, though – one was a reference to the ‘growing evil of kidnapping’, not child abuse, and a few were referring to not teaching a child the gospel):
    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1978/10/behold-your-little-ones?lang=eng
    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1991/04/teach-the-children?lang=eng

    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1984/10/learning-our-fathers-will?lang=eng




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  4. Glad to see that it wasn’t that my memory of conference talks was failing, but that the numbers were mis-reported.

    Sad to see that the numbers had to be mis-reported, though, because actually identifying, stopping and preventing child abuse of all kinds has got to be at least as important as whether or not girls wear two sets of earrings or families are being threatened or widows were visited and cared for half a century ago.

    “Gold standard” is looking a bit tarnished.




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  5. Sigh. I’m not sure that I want to hear more talks on child abuse if they are going to involve blaming the victims.

    Thanks for the analysis.




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  6. Extremely well done. FWIW, I came up with basically the same numbers when limiting the search to the regular expressions [Cc]hild(ren)? and [aA]bus(e|ive) occurring within 10 words of each other.
    I noticed in Oct 1985, Hinckley claimed “As you know, we have recently issued a booklet on child abuse…” but I couldn’t find it anywhere. Any idea what he was talking about?

    For a welcome contrast to the victim-blaming rhetoric, I recommend Chieko Okazaki’s frank “Healing from Sexual Abuse”, which ironically you need to go to either FMH or The Exponent to get http://www.the-exponent.com/chieko-okazakis-healing-from-sexual-abuse/




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  7. So, the Church’s numbers were technicsly accurate but you still find reason to criticize it…

    What comparison point do you have for saying that 30+ talks in this period is small or pathetic. What churches are making large sermons to millions of members that touch on these topics more frequently? For that matter, what public institutions period are speaking of this topic with greater frequency?




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  8. I had not heard 30 talks primarily about child abuse either, but there are at least 30 that do condemn child abuse in some part of the talk. Notable is the strong condemnation from all of the church presidents from President Kimball to President Monson.
    I would also note that the talks at the top of the list come from primarily senior apostles/1st presidency members. Looking at those, it seems to be a consistent, albeit not really frequent, message from most of the senior leaders. It will be a long time before those who have given the talks near the top of the list are all gone from the 1st presidency.




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  9. No, Daniel, the Church’s numbers weren’t “technically accurate.” They were misleading and therefore deceptive. But nice try at institutional defense. And comparing the LDS Church to other institutions, that’s just irrelevant. We’re not talking about the Catholics or the Rotary Club here. We’re talking about claims the LDS Church made on its website.




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  10. I was so hoping we’d get to see your analysis of that claim, considering I don’t remember ever hearing about dealing with or preventing child abuse in church in my adult life. (Other than when it’s included in a list of sins, as you mentioned)

    I’m actually surprised we’ve had 5 talks worth. I wonder if it will come up in April considering all the flak they’ve gotten…




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  11. Jack, I’m certain the OP doesn’t need to hear more talks on it, but considering the continuing prevalence of child abuse, I would suggest that some members of the church need more frequent reminders of the horror and seriousness of this sin.




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  12. Jack (12)

    “Sermons” on child abuse and treating that complex subject need far more than a statement of how bad it is. In fact, that is probably the *least* helpful thing you can say about child abuse that still might qualify as helpful. That is an insanely low bar. Is a sermon about honesty accomplished by saying “honesty is good, lying is bad”? The best sermon on abuse we have – Chieko Okazaki. Go read her and then try and find a single apostle’s talk that comes any where near the depth and tratement of the subject.

    To take an issue seriously or sermonizing requires an exploration of the subject. Here are list of things serious talks could (and should) cover about child abuse (if not all in the same talk):

    1) How to recognize possible signs of child abuse – physical, sexual, emotional
    2) Responsibilities of different parties that come across abuse – super complex topic here
    3) Consequences of child abuse for the abuser, abused and the families it rips apart
    4) Support of survivors of abuse – short term and long term
    5) You are not responsible for abuse perpetrated on you. Super important and has to be said again and again to help many survivors over come the trauma
    6) Warnings against paths that lead to abuse – things that may not technically qualify but are on that path.
    7) Putting families/communities back together that have been torn apart by abuse (and most often that doesn’t include trusting the abuser)

    The list goes on. “Child abuse is bad” is such a laughably low, low bar. And sure maybe not each of the topics at the depth that should be available needs to be covered in conference. But as the overall discussion that has arisen since the re-release of the newsroom piece has pointed out our church is WOEFULLY inadequate in everything from training for leaders, to in depth materials, to common sense policy and program safeguards.




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  13. The wording “the Church’s worldwide conferences” could include the Relief Society and Young Women broadcasts as well. I wonder if the sisters have spoken about this topic in a meaningful way?




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  14. Did anyone listen to John Dehlin’s podcast with Eric Long (an attorney who both defends and prosecutes institutions involved in mishandling sexual abuse cases- including our own)? I normally don’t recommend JD because the podcast is quite bitter right now (imagine that), but every parent and leader, everyone who works with children should listen to those two episodes. Long talked a lot about victimology. We in the church don’t understand the perspectives of victims. Unless one has professional experience in this area you shouldn’t try to hack away at it. Leave it to the pros.You can do more damage than good. For example, the list above is good, but (according to Long) most victims of child abuse don’t consider themselves victims, they consider themselves guilty participants. Predators involve the child in the act of abuse in such a way to make the child believe that he/she is sharing decision-making and responsibility for the actions. (He called it ‘shared responsibility’). The child is being manipulated to stay quiet and submit by being tricked into thinking that THEY were the bad ones who chose to do this really bad thing or are in this really bad circumstance. Children don’t perceive themselves as victims, they try to hide what happened or is happening to them because they feel guilt and shame. Long recommended that the church should create lessons about shared responsibility as well as lessons on ‘my body myself’- giving children complete ownership of their bodies and teaching about bad touch/good touch.

    I really wanted to give a lesson on shared responsibility, but think it would be best done by a professional. Getting into the emotional and spiritual elements of some of the deepest scars one can incur in this lifetime without background knowledge would be like setting a bull loose in a china shop.




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  15. You might have found some extra talks (I don’t know) by expanding the searching for
    Chast*[ity, e] OR virtu*[e, ous] OR virgin*[s, ity] OR righteous*[ness] OR sex*[ual, uality] OR procreat*[ive,ion] AND (victim*[s] OR abuse*)

    Sometimes there are talks about the importance of chastity where the speaker will throw out a ONE SENTENCE caveat saying that victims of abuse are not responsible or that this doesn’t apply to victims of abuse.

    Of course, I don’t know how you should count Elaine Dalton’s 2013 Conference Talk ‘Daughters of Our HF’. It’s about abuse- blaming victims for losing their virginity. She cited Moroni 9:9 out of context – stating that the Lamanite daughters had foolishly chosen to lose “that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue” [translation, their virginity]. In reality, the chapter describes VICTIMS of capture- daughters and women- who were raped and cannibalized in a lamenting commentary about society. No one thought that Sister Dalton meant to frame victims of abuse as responsible for , but it happened.




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  16. ChristianA,
    Thanks for bringing up Chieko Okazaki’s talk on healing from abuse. It was quietly censored from church sites, just taken down- it disappeared without a trace. Why? I don’t know why, but I wonder if there wasn’t an intention to create a unified message (as seen in the press release) that ‘all is well in Zion, yea Zion prospereth’.

    Not victim-centered, not preventative, and not educational.




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  17. The analysis clearly shows a large error and misrepresentation. My personal assumption is that whoever wrote the article believed that “all is well in Zion” and had no personal experience with abuse, especially in a church setting. They probably did the same search for “child abuse” or a similar term and thought more than 30 was a good estimate based on the number of results the search found. I’m sure they would be incredibly embarrassed to see how thoroughly they were wrong and that the church does not address this issue with the gravity or education it deserves.

    I do wish the church would address this issue in general conference as some Bishops handle these issues incorrectly. I’m sure we could create an entire board of personal experiences (although many of those personal experiences lead to people leaving the church and never finding this website).

    I also appreciate the earlier comment that education and a professional background are necessary to avoid comments like Elder Scott’s victim blaming. The lay bishops of the church don’t have that professional background and could hugely benefit from conference talks, additional training, and even just awareness. Not to mention the victims who would benefit from a well informed talk.




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