one-on-one interviews between youth and lay leaders where sexual questions sometimes arise.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints changed its policy this week to now allow children to bring a parent or adult with them to the interviews, but protesters said that doesn’t go far enough to keep children safe.
The policy change followed recent revelations that a former prominent missionary leader was accused of sexually assaulting two women in the 1980s. The ex-leader denies the allegations.
Protesters carried signs such as “Mormon children we have your back” and “No more closed doors,” saying the so-called “worthiness” meetings can lead to unhealthy shaming of youth. Some cried as they recalled being asked detailed questions about their sexual activity or being punished after admitting to masturbation.
“This is my church, and it has many good things, but it has one thing that has to be eliminated,” said campaign organizer Sam Young, a Latter-day Saint from Houston, urging an end to one-on-one interviews and all sexually explicit questions.
Church officials say the interviews allow bishops to get to know youth better and determine their religious habits and obedience to God. They usually happen twice a year starting at age 12. Questions cover topics such as school, sports, hobbies, education goals and family issues, but sometimes delve into sexual behavior because of the church’s strict teachings on abstinence before marriage.
The protesters said they delivered 55,000 signatures on petitions and 15 copies of a book with people’s stories of inappropriate encounters during the interviews to a church representative from the public relations office.
The event came a day before a twice-annual church conference that will be the first since new church president Russell M. Nelson assumed the post in January.
The march had been planned for months by Young, who launched the public campaign last year after he said private attempts to get church leaders’ attention failed.
Allan Mount, a 36-year-old Latter-day Saint father of four from Murray, Utah, said he’s a loyal member of the religion who plans to teach his kids the importance of chastity. But he said the line of questioning that too often happens in the meetings isn’t necessary.
“There’s too much shame attached it,” said Mount. “You can have a healthy understanding of how you should responsibly act sexually without there being shame involved.”
Robin Day, 40, traveled to the march from Arkansas. At one point, he broke down in tears as he relived not being allowed to pray in church or visit the temple when he admitted to his bishop as a teen that he masturbated. He eventually left the church.
“I was told I was lying to God if I don’t confess,” Day said.
LDS Church spokeswoman Irene Caso said in a statement Friday that the religion “condemns any inappropriate behavior or abuse regardless of where or when it occurs” and that church leaders are given instructions for youth interviews.
The statement also seemed to be open to change: “As with any practice in the Church, we continually look for ways to improve and adjust by following the Savior in meeting the needs of our members.”
Scott Gordon, president of FairMormon, a volunteer organization that supports the church, said he agrees that bishops shouldn’t be asking inappropriate sexual questions but disagrees with Young’s demand to require that parents be in every interview and a ban on questions about a teen’s sexual activities.
“What they’re asking is a step too far,” Gordon said. “It’s making the assumption that bishops are sexual predators. They’re not.”