Therapist believes goals of hunger strike against LDS Church policy are common sense

Natasha Helfer Parker with Sam Young (Photo: Larry D. Curtis / KUTV)

(KUTV) — A family therapist believes the current three-week hunger-strike effort to get The LDS Church to stop behind-closed-door interviews with children — particularly those involving sexual questions — is a "no-brainer."

I think it is common sense. I am shocked there hasn't been an uproar about this before Sam Young,

-- Natasha Helfer Parker said. She is a certified family therapist and a certified sex therapist who serves primarily clients who come from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Sam Young— who is engaged in the hunger strike — is an active LDS Church member and a former bishop in the Houston area. He hopes his fast, now longer than three weeks, will achieve two objectives:

  • To convince the Church to end one-on-one, behind-closed-door interviews of LDS leaders with youth;
  • To convince the Church to change policy and stop sexually explicit interviews of youth from the Church.

Helfer Parker said both steps would be a big help to the mental well being of Mormon youth and adults. She is also surprised the Church isn't more concerned about the legal ramifications of having an adult man alone in a room with a child or a woman, where anything that happens, or is said in the room, is one person's word against another's.

Last week, a judge ruled against the Church's motion for dismissal in a lawsuit alleging fraud. The suit may now go forward filed by a woman who said her Missionary Training Center President attempted to raped her in 1984. Lawsuits against that former MTC president were dismissed because of the statute of limitations.

"I think what he (Young) is asking for is incredibly useful," Helfer Parker said. "I don’t have an opinion about how he is getting it, but as far as the cause and what he standing for, I think it is common sense."

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She said those in the mental health community, particularly those who serve the LDS population, have been concerned about this long before Young started his crusade to bring attention to it.

She is a licensed clinical and family therapist. She has been in practice for 20 years and is the current president of the Mormon Mental Health Association.

Helfer Parker said the questions posed by ward and stake leaders to youth are problematic, but even if the questions were all benign, the one-on-one, behind-closed-door interviews themselves are problematic. She said there are a lot of ways such interviews are harmful including:

  • The interviews break down healthy boundaries for children and adults.
  • They aren't consensual despite being normalized in the LDS Church.
  • They create sex shaming, which creates issues for adults and children.

She has also knows many members didn't experience abuse, weren't asked invasive questions and didn't feel sexually shamed.

Even if you had a good experience, it doesn’t mean I had a good experience and your good experience doesn’t get to trump my bad experiences. Every working clinician could tell the stories. You don’t get to brush my story aside because you have a good story,

Helfer Parker said.

When KUTV first reported the hunger strike, many in the comments section did not agree with Young's cause.

"I loved all of my one on one interviews as a teen with the bishop," a woman named Susie wrote. "I felt loved and heard. My family was extremely dysfunctional and I was extremely depressed and rarely felt loved. These interviews, when done properly, can be life savers in youths' lives."

Ronald said: "When I disagreed with an LDS Church policy, I met privately with one of the Presidents of the Seventy (who was responsible for the policy) and voiced my concern. The policy was later changed. I don't believe in making my complaints public."

"Sam Young doesn't care about protecting children. His motive is to put himself in the lime light while launching personal attacks against the church and its leaders. This is all for show folks," a woman named Kimberly said.

Brent wrote: "How embarrassing to have your parents in the same room as you, when sex is being discussed. Like the maturation program over and over. Can’t we just have 2 adults? One to ask questions and one to be the moderater."

BOUNDARIES AND CONSENT

Helfer Parker said that asking children sexual questions trains them to lose their autonomy to adults in positions of power.

"Kids are not given boundaries to a bishop. Even for an adult, these are hard boundaries."

After spending decades working with largely LDS clients, she believes a majority of bishops are well intentioned -- what Young calls 'good men' -- but agreed that the practice of one-on-one interviews sets the stage for abuse.

"If you do have a predator or pedophile, grooming is creating those power differences. There are those people that make it into those positions and it automatically gives them the authority."

She said an adult's role, including parents, is to teach children how to set and follow boundaries that they take with them into adulthood to maintain healthy relationships. The interview process does the opposite.

It is why she believes the June LDS Church policy change that allows a child to request a second adult in an interview "falls so short."

" 'No' is not viewed as an appropriate response in that situation. It is our job as adults to protect children and create boundaries that even adults have trouble managing," she said.

She added it isn't realistic or effective to put that burden on a child in the situation where one person is a adult who in effect, represents God in the interview situation. The person in power can then ask any question when another adult isn't present. The questions are not presented to the children or their parents ahead of time.

In no other organizations in our county that I am aware of are minors asked any questions in regards to their sexuality without parental consent or even the minor’s consent.

SEXUAL SHAMING

In one of his daily sidewalk chats during the hunger strike, Young brought up 29 sexually invasive questions — that would be considered pornographic by some — that members have reported being asked by bishops. (Those questions are part of a video at the end of the story. WARNING: It may be upsetting and should be watched with discretion. The questions appear as text and are not spoken aloud.)

"When Sam read the questions, none of those questions were new to me. I had heard all of them and many more. Most of those questions are asked by people who are not pedophiles," Helfer Parker said. "Not only are they problematic to ask an adult but they are asked specifically to minors."

She said it is important to understand that the interviews are harming the spiritual experiences of young people, some of whom seek out help in therapy.

"People are not finding comfort and peace," she said.

At least three harmful consequences can come from sexual shaming and sexual questions, especially about behaviors that are a normal part of development, according to Helfer Parker.

  • Mental health concerns that include, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, suicidality and cutting along with shame they can't stop.
  • Sexual repression that follows adults into marriage, sexual desire disorders and "lots of issues."
  • Self-identity and self-esteem issues, over sexualization and broken sexuality.

Those results are all too true for some victims who spoke to KUTV about their own experiences and trauma. You can read interviews with victims, each reporting different kinds of harm.

Knowing the LDS Church and Mormonism as she does, Helfer Parker said she knows facing the issue and making changes will be difficult for many members.

“It is hard when your own community is harming your own children. It is hard to admit that something is awry," she said.

She would like to see the church change from an emphasis on worthiness interviews to ministering, particularly to its youth.

"The worthiness interview for a lay person, starts from the age of baptism. An 8-year-old in other religions doesn’t have to prove worthy to be baptized. People don't have to prove they are worthy to take sacrament or attend your child’s wedding," she said.

She admits the drastic change in Church policy isn't likely.

"Sexual purity has been a huge litmus test in LDS culture for a long time," she said.

However, changing policy about one-on-one interviews, not doctrine, seems an easy fix to Young and others supporting his cause.


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