Rochester Church of Latter-day Saints member speaks out on church’s abuse issues

Rochester Post Bulletin [Rochester MN]

December 13, 2022

By Mark Wasson

Michael Benjamin said his testimony led local LDS Church leaders to “attempt to silence me from being vocal about the sex abuse case that the local leaders were involved in.”

Michael Benjamin has been involved with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints most of his life.

Baptized at age 8, he has served in several callings, or leadership assignments, over the years, including branch president, elders quorum president, Sunday school president, ward mission leader, Sunday school teacher, counselor in the bishopric, and stake young men’s counselor.

The LDS church has influenced almost every aspect of his life, from how he spent his time, where he could marry, how to raise his children, where he went to college — Brigham Young University — and what foods and drinks he could or could not consume.

“It has helped shape the values I have including service, love, kindness, compassion, hard work, loyalty, honesty, charity, dedication and gratitude,” Benjamin wrote in an email to the Post Bulletin. “Ultimately, the LDS Church is at the core of who I am and has made me the person that I am today.”

A two-year proselytizing mission in Guayaquil, Ecuador, was a humbling, challenging, character building experience for him and helped direct him towards his career as a social worker.

In November 2019, LDS church leaders stripped him of his positions within the church after Benjamin began to speak out against various church policies and scandals, including a 2015 church policy that excluded children of same-sex partners from getting baptized, and a rape scandal at the Kasson LDS church branch that concluded with former LDS leader Michael Adam Davis, 38, being sentenced to 30 years in prison. Benjamin’s testimony during the trial helped secure a conviction against Davis.

“In my opinion, being released from my assignments was an attempt by my Church leaders to silence me,” Benjamin wrote.

You’ve been vocal about the abuses within LDS church. What made you start speaking out?

As a clinical social worker, adolescent therapist and former child protection worker, I am passionate about protecting children. On a daily basis, I work with adolescents who have been abused, and I have personally seen the effects of abuse during my 22 years as a therapist.

I started speaking out when I realized that Davis was a registered sex offender from Utah and, despite this, he was put in a position of authority in our local congregation. This fact raised two concerns:

The LDS Church teaches that church leaders have the “gift of discernment,” “inspiration,” and “revelation” from God when they make leadership callings. Local church leaders called Michael Adam Davis to be elders quorum president in the Kasson Branch despite Davis being a registered sex offender and having two felony sex abuse convictions in Utah. If these leaders are truly God’s servants (and were called themselves by inspiration), then they should have discerned that Davis was a sex offender before putting him into a leadership position.

And the LDS Church has policies about annotating a person’s membership record when they are convicted of a crime, especially child sex abuse. Therefore, either the church leaders in Utah failed to annotate Davis’ membership record or the church leaders in Minnesota ignored the annotation. Either way, the LDS Church and its leaders were negligent and should be held responsible for the abuse that happened.

I became more vocal in November 2020 when I learned that two local high-ranking church leaders submitted affidavits to the Dodge County Court in defense of Davis. One of these leaders is a prominent doctor at Mayo Clinic. These affidavits contained the same wording as well as, in my opinion, several inaccuracies. I later learned that the affidavits were written by LDS Church attorneys in Utah. In my opinion, this was an attempt by the LDS Church to cover-up the abuse and protect the church’s reputation.

I have tried to get answers and share my concerns with church leaders: from local leaders to top leaders in Salt Lake City, Utah. My concerns about the church leaders’ negligence and involvement in this case have fallen on deaf ears.

In July 2021, when I tried to notify local members about one of the leaders teaching a youth Sunday school class, my church membership account access and privileges were removed without anyone notifying me. Once again, in my opinion, this was an attempt to silence me from being vocal about the sex abuse case that the local leaders were involved in. In February 2022, I filed a civil court case against the local Church leaders in order to regain access to my church membership account. The case was settled in May 2022 with a “joint stipulation of dismissal without prejudice” and I was given access to my church membership account again.

Bottom line, I have been vocal about this case in order to create a safer place for children within the LDS Church. Many consider me speaking out as “anti-Mormon” or “anti-LDS,” but I am actually “pro-LDS” and “pro-children” because the church has been my life and I want it to be a safe place for children and youth.

Do you think the LDS church has a scandal waiting much like the Catholic Church’s abuse scandal?

Yes, definitely. I think the LDS Church will have a “Spotlight” moment very soon just as the Catholic Church did in the early 2000s with the Boston Globe. It is already happening as we have seen with the recent LDS Church sex abuse case in Arizona reported on by Mike Rezendes of the Associated Press. More and more cases of the LDS Church not reporting abuse or covering up abuse are coming out every week.

What type of changes do you think the LDS church needs to make, and has the church been receptive to any changes regarding the abuse of children?

There are five simple changes that the LDS Church can make in order to create a safer place for children within its congregations:

  1. Complete criminal background checks on all members serving in any leadership or volunteer position. This simple act could have prevented the abuse case in Kasson.
  2. Follow state-mandated reporter laws. Currently, LDS Church leaders (bishops) are not required to call child protection or law enforcement. Instead, they are instructed to call a special leader abuse hotline, which is answered by LDS Church attorneys.
  3. End one-on-one worthiness interviews. Children and youth are regularly interviewed by adult male church leaders in private during which very personal and explicit sexual questions are sometimes asked. These one-on-one interviews lay the foundation for children and youth to be desensitized to being alone with adult males and talking about private matters.
  4. Discontinue the special leader abuse hotline. LDS Church leaders should be required to call child protection and/or law enforcement whenever there is suspicion of abuse. We should leave it to these experts to investigate cases of abuse.  It is very likely that the local leaders called this special help line instead of law enforcement as evidenced by LDS Church attorneys getting involved in the Kasson case.
  5. Provide more training to church leaders. All of the leaders within the LDS Church are volunteer lay people who have other full-time jobs. They receive very minimal training about how to handle abuse cases. The LDS Church has sufficient assets to fully fund training, abuse prevention programs, and victim services among other things.

The LDS Church has not been receptive to any of these changes. In fact, members who have advocated for these changes have been excommunicated from the Church (i.e. Sam Young with Protect Every Child ).

If someone in the LDS church is facing abuse or is being discouraged from speaking out about it, what are some places they can go for help?

Unfortunately, there are no resources or places within the church that someone could go for help. As I have experienced, people are silenced when they try to speak out. If someone is facing abuse, I would recommend contacting law enforcement, child protection, victim services or an attorney. There is also a grassroots organization called Protect Every Child that offers support, advocacy and resources.

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about the LDS church?

Like many other changes that have occurred in the LDS Church, I believe that it will take a large grassroots effort for the church to change its policies and practices in order to protect children and keep them safe. I hope that more people, church members, community members, and other religious organizations will stand up and speak out about changes that can be made within the LDS Church. There is a line from the Spotlight movie that says, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” We all have a responsibility to speak up against abuse, hold leaders responsible for their actions, and call out systemic issues within an organization. However, most church members are afraid to speak out due to the consequences like the ones that happened to me: removal from callings, loss of membership privileges and even disciplinary action. Church members are taught to obey their leaders and not question them or their authority. This can create a very unhealthy system.

This article has been edited for clarity and space.

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