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.
|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%|