Why a former Mormon bishop was excommunicated for criticizing sexually explicit youth interviews

Sam Young speaks Sunday, September 16, in Salt Lake City after reading aloud the church's verdict letter on his excommunication.

(CNN)On a Wednesday evening around 7, as the late summer sun settled low on Houston's flat horizon, two men shifted uncomfortably at Sam Young's door.

They were there to deliver the news, sealed in a thin white envelope and tucked into a coat pocket, of Young's potential excommunication from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Young invited his friends, two administrators from his local Mormon congregation, into his living room. After short pleasantries, they notified Young that a council of Mormon men would decide September 12 whether his public criticism of the church, including a 23-day hunger strike, had rendered him an apostate.
    Sunday, a decision arrived: Young was officially excommunicated.
    Young, who posted a copy of the excommunication edict on his blog, said he will appeal the order.
    In an interview with CNN, Young said he feels "supremely disappointed" in the loss of his membership, "in the church itself and in the leadership." He also feels "sadness for the victims who the church was rejecting by this verdict."
    "You are entitled to your opinion or position," the edict said. "But you cannot remain a member in good standing while attacking the Church and its leaders and trying to get others to follow you."
    As a 65-year-old grandfather, Young has spent his life following Mormon cultural prescription. Born in rural Utah, he served as a church missionary in Guatemala and El Salvador, married in a church temple, and raised six Mormon daughters.
    Yet recently, after discovering his daughters' experiences with bishops as Mormon youth, he has become an unlikely activist in the #MeToo era.
    Young is protesting what he feels is a "physically, emotionally, and spiritually" abusive practice within the church: "worthiness interviews," in which members are asked a series of questions about their adherence to church rules, specifically its sexual code of conduct, alone in their bishop's office. These interviews are requisite for all teenagers, for worship in the church's temples, and for baptism into the faith of 16 million members.
    This lifelong commitment renders Young's advocacy a complicated, nuanced form of criticism -- one embedded with apology. As a bishop in the early 1990s, Young said, he regrets inviting 12- to 18-year-olds into his small, sparse office in a Mormon meetinghouse in Houston and asking them church-mandated questions about their abstinence from premarital sex.
    "It was wrong, so wrong." Young said. "I regret I ever asked."
    While all bishops are required to ask whether members "obey the law of chastity," abstaining from all premarital sexual activity, Young says more than 3,000 people, including four of his daughters, have said their bishops probed for the explicit details of their sexual conduct as children.
    The church now offers the opportunity for youth to be interviewed with an accompanying adult. But it has yet to condemn the practice of asking sexually explicit questions in interviews. Nor has it acknowledged the alleged trauma and, in some instances, predation that has resulted from them.
    The church calls the practice of bishops' interviews a "sacred responsibility" and offers the opportunity for mentorship; critics argue it is traumatizing and creates opportunities for grooming and emotional or sexual abuse.
    In the excommunication edict, the president of Young's district in Houston said, "This action was not taken because of your opinion or position on protecting children."
    "The Church has a strong desire to protect children and, as you know, issued updated guidelines for interviewing youth earlier this year. Teaching standards of morality to youth and helping them follow those standards -- including in interviews with priesthood leaders -- is an important responsibility of parents and of the Church.
    "The issue is not that you have concerns -- or even that you disagree with the Church's guidelines, rather it is your persistent, aggressive effort to persuade others to your point of view by repeatedly and deliberately attacking and publicly opposing the Church and its leaders," the church's excommunication edict says.
    Young's advocacy is resonant in an era of #MeToo consciousness-raising and outrage regarding sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.
    More than 800 people have spoken about the trauma, pain, abuse or discomfort they felt during in these interviews on the website of Young's organization, Protect LDS Children. More than 21,000 people have signed a petition, often leaving their own stories in the comments, demanding the end to "sexually explicit interviews of Mormon youth."
    However, engaging in a dialogue on this topic will require the church acknowledge the messy nuance of sexuality itself, relinquish the rigidity with which it has been discussed in the past, and draw new boundaries for what can acceptably be policed and discussed within the faith.

    'A searching interview'

    For most of July, Sam Young subsisted only on an electrolyte mix of water, one teaspoon of salt, and one tablespoon of honey.
    His 23-day hunger strike advocated for a clear, 10-word policy change within the church: "No one-on-one interviews. No sexually explicit questions, ever."
    For the first two weeks, he invited senior church leaders to meet with him where he was protesting outside church headquarters in Salt Lake City. He said he would end his strike if a leader would be willing to denounce just one of the dozens of explicit questions that have allegedly been asked in interviews.
    "The British Government paid attention to Gandhi," he said, noting he had fasted for two days longer than the Indian revolutionary. "But I've heard from no one."
    Church spokesman Eric Hawkins told CNN, "We share a common concern for the safety and well-being of youth. We condemn any inappropriate behavior or abuse regardless of where or when it occurs. Local Church leaders are provided with instructions regarding youth interviews and are expected to review and follow them."
    As volunteer clergy with no pastoral or clinical training aside from direction they receive in church manuals, bishops today are formally instructed to ask standardized questions to ascertain a member's adherence to and belief in church teachings. Over time, the questions have evolved.
    By 1971, bishops were asked to conduct "a searching interview" to determine "worthiness" for temple worship, ascertaining whether a member "is morally clean -- free from adultery, fornication, homosexuality."
    However, one factor has remained constant: Mormon bishops are considered conduits for God's forgiveness. To fully repent of transgression requires admitting sin to a bishop, rendering the confessional stakes high.
    Mica McGriggs, a postdoctoral fellow in intersectional trauma at Columbia University who is Mormon, argues that "when you have a white patriarchal hierarchy as the setup of the organization," youth, particularly young women, feel there "is no alternative, no choice" to say no to a bishop who probes beyond the church's prescribed questions.
    McGriggs argues that it is "negligent" for the church to allow bishops to undertake an explicit line of questioning to determine the nature of sexual activity.
    McGriggs says she believes the majority of bishops are well-intentioned. But she said their lack of professional training makes their efforts to offer pastoral care potentially dangerous. That's particularly so in situations of childhood abuse or sexual assault in which sexual questioning is likely to result in re-traumatizing, victim-blaming and internalized shame.
    "This is setting people up to really struggle with their mental health, from depression to anxiety and even full-blown PTSD," she said.
    The church did not respond to a request for comment on the potential connection between the interviews and mental health. Instead, Hawkins referenced a statement from earlier this summer in which the church's president and prophet, Russell M. Nelson, affirmed the need for interviews.
    "Bishops have a sacred responsibility to lead, teach, and inspire youth," Nelson said in a statement to all bishops. "Effective personal interviews are one important way they do this. These interviews provide opportunities to help youth become disciples of the Savior, repent of transgressions, and live the gospel of Jesus Christ."
    In June, the church released "new guidelines" for interviewing young Mormons, including a list of 13 questions that could be used. One of the recommended questions asks young Mormons whether they "live the law of chastity." Another asks about "any sins or misdeeds in your life that should have be