“For Sam Young, the routine practice that takes place in the Mormon church is frightening.
Young asks you to imagine going into a small room with an older man, a church elder, closing the door and then being asked about the most intimate, explicit details of your sexuality.
“Now imagine what that would do to a child, behind a closed door,” he said.
Young explained that he does not have concerns with Mormonism itself or any of the church’s teachings. In fact, he remains an active member of the church – and even served as bishop for five years.
Young just has one specific complaint – centering on a certain practice, the act of interviewing children by their bishops and the fact that some of the questions raised involve masturbation and sexuality. Young, a resident of Sugar Land who owns a small business in the Galleria area, is collecting signatures for a petition to end the practice.
“I’ve lost friends, I’ve lost business, and I’ve lost some standing,” he said. “I’m not against the church. I’m against a policy. I’m standing up for the children.”
For Young, a mild-mannered man with a calm and gentle demeanor, even voicing his concerns is a challenge. In the church, he has held posts as a bishopric counselor, ward mission leader, ward young men president, stake young men president, stake public affairs director, high priest group leader and seminary teacher.
He is well aware of the risks associated with being a whistleblower – especially when it comes to questioning the practices of the church.
Still, he’s willing to take the risk – if that means protecting the church’s youngest congregants.
Simply thinking about the practice makes Young well up with anger – as much today as it did when he first discovered that the interviews brought up sexuality, less than a year ago.
Last March, Young was talking to a good friend who hadn’t been to church in a while. He asked his friend to come back. “He shared a story with me about one of his sons in an interview,” Young said.
Young said the interviews are a common practice. When he was a child, he went through them twice a year and answered questions about prayer and morality.
His friend waited outside during his son’s interview – and was surprised when the child ran out of the room a few minutes later.
“His son rushed out, very flustered, white as a sheet,” Young said. “The bishop had asked him if he masturbated or had sex with other boys.”
Young was shocked by the story. “I was a bishop, and I never asked any of those questions,” he said. “I had interviews with a bishop. I know I was never asked that.”
Young wanted to know if this was a common or isolated incident. He asked his friends on social media.
“I received a flood of responses – and it got worse,” he said. “Most people don’t want to talk about this, but gradually, they opened up. A thousand stories have been shared with me.”
It took him a while to process the information.
Last summer, he built up the courage to ask one of his daughters if she had ever been asked sexually explicit questions during an interview for the church.
She admitted that she had, “all the time,” from ages 12 to 17. After her first interview, she told her father that she had to look up “masturbation” online, since she had never heard the term before her bishop brought it up.
He decided to start a blog – and began writing letters to local church leaders.
“Finally, I realized that it wasn’t doing anything,” he said. “I decided, ‘I’m going to start a petition. I’m going to raise awareness.’ ”
At the end of October, he started collecting signatures. He also was spreading the word.
Many parents, like him, were not aware of the concepts discussed in the interviews, Young said.
Others had experienced sexually explicit interviews as children – and didn’t realize that such questions could be challenged.
“It’s been normalized,” Young said. “Well, it’s not a normal thing, not to the rest of the world.”
He said that Mormons may be the only church in the U.S. that allows a child to be taken into a closed room alone with an older man.
After three weeks, Young obtained about 1,000 signatures. “But it was slowing down,” he said. “I realized my reach is small.”
He decided to head to Salt Lake City.
In early December, he and his mother, Bertie Young, 87, stood outside of the Salt Lake Temple holding signs reading “Sexual Shaming Our Children – Stop It Now.”
There, he collected an additional 1,000 signatures – and the media began covering his cause.
The church, which has almost 16 million members worldwide, issued a statement in response:
“Personal interviews are an important part of ministering to those in a congregation. They offer an opportunity for a leader to know an individual better and to help them live the gospel of Jesus Christ. … Leaders are provided with instructions in leadership resources and are asked to review them regularly.”
The statement explained that interviews are held for a number of reasons, including calling individuals to serve, offering personal guidance and helping to repent from sin.
The statement continues: “For youth, a bishop meets with a young person at least annually to teach, express confidence and support, and listen carefully. These interviews should be characterized by great love and the guidance of the Holy Ghost. They speak together about the testimony of the young woman or young man, their religious habits (such as prayer, church attendance and personal study of the scriptures) and their obedience to God’s commandments. They may review together these teachings in the scriptures or other church resources.”
The statement explained that in the interviews, “church leaders are instructed to be sensitive to the character, circumstances and understanding of the young man or young woman. They are counseled to not be unnecessarily probing or invasive in their questions, but should allow a young person to share their experiences, struggles and feelings.”
The statement added that “a discussion of moral cleanliness is appropriate – particularly if a young man or young woman feels a need to repent.”
The church said the interviews are confidential. “When a young person is faced with serious sin or temptation, a bishop will likely encourage them to share (as appropriate) their struggles with their parents so they can pray for, teach and encourage the young man or young woman.”
If a leader becomes aware of abuse, they are asked to call the church’s 24-hour help line and gain guidance from professional counselors.
In addition, the church said parents are encouraged to be in a room adjoining the interview.
Young, however, believes parents should be present at the time of the interview – and he wants bishops to completely stop asking questions of a sexual nature.
He has now collected more than 10,000 signatures on his petition – and is hosting an online site where individuals may sign, as well as share their stories and read letters from others,protectldschildren.org.
He has joined with Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and therapist Natasha Helfer Parker, a certified sex therapist who also is Mormon.
Helfer Parker, who lives in Wichita, Kan., had her own experiences being asked about sexuality as a teen growing up in the church, but she had always considered the experience to be normal.
Her thinking changed, however, when she started studying psychology and preparing for her career.
Later, when Helfer Parker began to practice as a therapist, she felt called to take a stand.
“The amount of adolescents coming through my office with self-abuse behaviors, like cutting, anxiety symptoms or depression, that all came back to this issue of sexual shame, made me, as a Mormon therapist, feel that it was unethical to stay silent,” she said.
Helfer Parker explained that the church’s attitudes toward sexuality go against the American Pediatric Society and World Health Organization.
She said that masturbation and sexual curiosity are normal parts of childhood development.
“When you ‘sin-ify’ a normal human behavior, you have a whole group of people who are having an artificial conflict,” she said.
In addition, Helfer Parker said that the scenario of private discussions on the topic – and the power dynamic – are difficult for minors.
“You’re participating in an abusive structure,” she said. “It’s not the bishops’ fault. It’s the structure. The bishops are great people, but the system requires a breach of privacy and a breach of boundaries that’s inappropriate and harmful.”
Sexual discussions should remain the territory of trained professionals, Helfer Parker added.
Instead, children are making the connection that their sexuality can make them “unworthy” of the church, Helfer Parker said.
She said she is currently treating adults who decades later are still dealing with the ramifications.
“This has lifelong, lasting implications for people,” she said. “It’s really painful.”
Helfer Parker has been speaking out about the issue for years – and stands behind Young’s efforts to get the Church of Latter-day Saints to stop the practice.
She said ending the sexual questions in the interviews would help the church, which she holds in high regard.
“I love being a Mormon and love being a member of the church,” she said. “This is not against the church. If we’re going to move away from harmful practices, it’s going to take a directional response and an intentional response.”
Young is planning an event in March in Salt Lake City, where he hopes to get 1,000 individuals to march from City Hall to the Temple to present his petition.
He believes that allowing parents to attend interviews and stopping sexual queries would be an easy change for the church.
In fact, he’s asking bishops to make the decision now.
“The church may not make any changes for a while,” he said. “If you’re a bishop, stop right now interviewing children without parents. Stop talking about sex. That should be a family issue or a private issue. Don’t wait for the church to solve the problem. You solve it right now.””