I remember when I was about to turn twelve. My friend’s dad was the bishop at the time. We grew up in downtown Salt Lake City, basically in Church headquarters. I had always been rebellious, but I liked going to church for the most part; I liked the people, and I felt the sense of community and belonging. I also liked boys and I wanted to have boyfriends from a young age. I knew that I would be expected to answer questions about boys if I wanted to get a temple recommend. I had been “boyfriend and girlfriend” with a boy from school for a couple of months. At no point in our relationship as eleven year-olds did we do anything remotely sexual. I think we may have held hands. It was summer break and we were kids who relied on parents to get to our friends houses, so I barely even saw my “boyfriend”. But in the weeks leading up to my twelfth birthday, I was getting extremely stressed out about the prospect of probing questions. I broke up with the boy because I was certain the alternative was lying to my bishop and going straight to hell. I avoided the tough questions, and got my temple recommend. The interview was not inappropriate in my memory, although it was certainly awkward to be scrutinized by my friend’s dad. He asked about the Word of Wisdom and the Laws of Chastity. I don’t think he went into detail about what these were, because at twelve, I already knew somehow. So I answered yes to all the right questions and I left with a piece of paper with his signature on it. Overall, the meeting itself was pretty painless. It was the anticipation of being asked such personal questions that made me so stressed out. And it wasn’t as though the stress was gone once the interview was over. That would be the first of many. I knew how it worked from all the times we had to wait on my parents during their temple recommend interviews. I knew about the constant check ins of our worthiness, and had really just accepted this as a part of life. But I, like most of the youth I knew, dreaded bishops interviews. There was always something to feel guilty about. I went to the temple for baptisms several times over two years. We were expected to revisit our bishop once a year. When I lost my virginity as a young teenager, I made a conscious choice to not renew my temple recommend. I decided that I would no longer be temple worthy, but I did not want to answer questions about it, and certainly had no desire to begin a “repentance process”. I just got really good at excuses for skipping baptisms every time the youth went. My friend’s dad did not pressure me, or pursue me for interviews. He was a good bishop with a decent amount of intuition and compassion, and generally didn’t pester the youth. But about one year later, he was made Stake President and my dad became the bishop.
My dad called me into his office for an interview within weeks of becoming bishop. My parents had caught onto my temple skipping, and were pressuring me to go back. I have always had a good relationship with my dad, and I never doubt how much he loves me. But when I was a kid I had experienced sexual abuse by a family member, my parents hadn’t exactly handled it well. I was wary that this opportunity to ask me a battery of questions in private would leave me open to more scrutiny of these events. I cried to my friends in a classroom down the hall before somberly walking into my dad’s office. I did not want to tell him I lost my virginity. I did not want to tell him about any of my sexual experiences, good or bad. It wasn’t normal to talk about this in my home, but it was somehow supposed to be normal behind closed doors in a ward building. I was fearful in anticipation of the shame and guilt, but worst of all, I felt like if I did tell my dad the truth, then he would either tell my mom, or he would have to lie to her about me. I resented the dynamic. When the time came and he started asking questions, we only made it through a couple points before I shut it down. It was clear to me that my dad was not ready for the real answers to the tough questions when we got on the topic of the Word of Wisdom. I really didn’t want to lie to my dad, so when he asked if I was adhering to the WoW, I said no. But in his follow up, I could see his innocent mind struggling to think realistically. With sadness in his eyes, he asked me if I drank coffee. Here I was, a rebellious teenager, attempting to be honest about something most teenagers do – I had tried alcohol, but my dad’s worst thought was, have you drank coffee? If he couldn’t handle going beyond coffee in the WoW, then he certainly was not prepared to hear that I was sexually active. It would have broken him to learn details of the life I was leading at that age, and I was in no mood to share freely. So I got up and left. I never had another bishops interview again, and I never went back to the temple.
So, this may not be the kind of story you were looking for. I was never taken advantage of inside of a bishop’s office, and I was never coerced to tell explicit details to a pervy member of the bishopric. That doesn’t mean I didn’t feel a real harm from these interviews. Having my dad as my bishop through my teenage years was a nightmare that put a huge strain on our relationship. Just knowing that at any point a man in power could call me into his office to question me about sex and morality made me anxious and distrustful. And thousands of kids go through this with their dad as their bishop, creating an incentive to lie to our parents. People often say that church is where they learned to lie. That was absolutely true for me, and it wasn’t my Sunday school teachers that I was lying to. It was the leaders with control over my temple recommend. It was the men in positions of power who were permitted to inquire with impunity about the sex lives of children. I knew by the time I was twelve that I just needed to answer yes to the right questions, tell them what they want to hear, and you can spare yourself the bad questions. I was uncomfortable about these interactions before I had ever sat through an interview. The pervasive shame and guilt surrounding these interviews is toxic, to the point that even in the best case scenario children are compelled to just say whatever they think the bishop wants to hear.
I don’t think the solution is to have parents in the room, because in many cases that would make honesty even less likely. I don’t think having a female leader in the room with females is an appropriate response, because we all know that young boys face abuse, too. I know there are mechanisms in place, such as having the bishops kids meet with a first or second counselor, to alleviate some reoccurring issues. But it is my opinion that there is no right way to have these interviews. Especially with how much leeway and grey area the handbooks leave. Bishops are not trained in any way. They are not chosen based on their skills or knowledge of any particular topic. When a man becomes a bishop, he does not suddenly acquire a clinical psychology degree, or an education in health and wellness, and yet he is elevated to this higher clergy status that is expected to act as a therapist and life coach. An adult man is suddenly supposed to navigate teenage hormones and sexuality with a couple dozen kids that aren’t his own, with no background or experience or training. The church doesn’t even do a good job at defining masturbation, so why expect the untrained bishops to handle concerns uniformly? It should not be a lottery whether you get a good bishop or a creep. It should not be left up to chance or one man’s “best judgement” to decide how sensitive questions are approached. If there can not be a consistent protocol that ensures the mental and physical safety of all persons under 18, then the interviews should stop. As it stands, they are a detriment to young members, and will continue to push people out. Religion is dying, and the Church needs to evolve it’s practices if it wants to remain relevant in modern times.