Are Latter Day Saints more likely to abuse kids? Analysis of Boy Scouts of America records suggests 'no'

On 19 April 2023, The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) announced they had cleared the final hurdle before emerging from Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. The US 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals approved their plan for compensating victims of sexual abuse. That plan included an agreement with their insurers, all the local councils, and some of their sponsoring organisations to create a $2.4b settlement trust to compensate victims. This is the largest sexual abuse compensation fund ever. 

The reality of even one case of abuse is tragic, let alone many times. Any abuse is too much, and every part of this is sad including when it took place within Latter-day Saint units.  

All parties who contribute to this fund will be relieved of liability. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in response to Latter-day Saint abuse, will contribute $250 million, or 10.41 percent of the fund.

Critics claim this is unfair because the BSA was made up of 20-30 percent of Latter-day Saint affiliated troops, depending on the decade. Leading to questions about the prevalence of Latter-day Saint abuse. “Shouldn’t the church contribute 20-30 percent of the fund?” or “They’re getting off for pennies on the dollar!”

Well, not so fast. There are 82,000 claims against the BSA; some of those are court cases, and others are people who can make a claim against the settlement fund without going to court. Every single one represents a heartbreaking story where the trust of a child was broken. 

Reckoning

There is no publicly available way to access all of those claims right now; perhaps someday, when the settlement process is over, there will be. However, the Boy Scouts have kept records of abuse happening in their ranks for almost 80 years in a system officially called “The Ineligible Volunteer Files,” but colloquially referred to as the P-Files. P for perversion. A database of these files was created by the LA Times and can be viewed online. The oldest file goes back to 1947, and there are 5400 of them. 

What do these records tell us about Latter-day Saint abuse in affiliated troops? If they represent 20-30 percent of BSA troops, are they responsible for that same proportion of abuse cases as critics claim? 

I decided to investigate. I called up Stephen Cranney, a PhD statistical analyst, to consult on a plan of how to best answer this question. We decided to analyse 10 percent of the files based on random sampling (540 files). Then I went to work reading and coding these files, a process that took over 40 hours. 

Each file contains the name of the adult leader, some basic information about him (there are a handful of women in the database, but it’s 99 percent men), a summary of the abuse that is alleged, any relevant correspondence or legal documents, newspaper clippings, victim statements, photographs, and more. So, with some digging, it is possible to determine the percentage of abusers who came from a specific region, or a certain decade, or from troops sponsored by particular groups, including Latter-day Saint abuse.

About half of the files list the man’s religion, and almost all of them list the sponsoring agency. If a specific religion was listed, they were sorted based on those identifying cases of Latter-day Saint abuse. If religion was not listed, but the troop’s sponsoring agency was listed, they were placed into the same categories. Files that listed neither religion nor sponsoring agency (25 total in my sample) were thrown out since it was impossible to confirm if they were affiliated with any church. We then replaced those with 25 randomly drawn files that did contain the needed information. 

The results were fascinating. Really fascinating. 

Safeguards

While Latter-day Saint church-affiliated troops made up 20-30 percent of all BSA troops, the proportion of Latter-day Saint abuse cases was far lower — 5.16 percent, to be exact.

But could we really trust what we were seeing?

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In statistics, there is a way to determine if what you’re seeing in your data is really caused by the effect you think you see — or if it could be a fluke. In theory, I could have pulled files that happened to align with one result, while the true result is something quite different.

The binomial probability test determines how likely it is that any result is a fluke of chance. The smaller the number, the better. That probability test yielded the following number: 0.000000000000000000188915 meaning that there is a ten quintillionth of a chance that the lower rates of Latter-day Saint abuse happened by fluke.

I reviewed 540 cases in total. But if you were to take a sampling of 100 case files, you will find 5 cases not 30 that are affiliated with the Church. Another way to say the same thing is: You find about a quarter of the abuse that you’d statistically expect to find in Latter-day Saint troops. 

Why do we see such lower rates of Latter-day Saint abuse? There are many potential reasons for this, which I’ve reviewed in a separate piece. But I have one main theory: It’s the system of callings in the Church of Jesus Christ. In other organisations, if you want access to children, you can volunteer and be given it very quickly. In our system, you have to wait until you’re called. And this has a throttling effect creating lower rates of abuse. 

Any amount of abuse is too much. And the members and leaders of our church must stay vigilant in order to protect children. This finding shouldn’t cause any of us to put our guard down against Latter-day Saint abuse. But what it can do is give you some peace of mind when you hear critics say that the Church is ducking its responsibility here. By paying 10 percent of the fund, we’re actually covering double our responsibility.

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Jennifer Roach is a licensed mental health counsellor and lives in Seattle, WA, USA. She joined The Church of Jesus Christ three years ago after spending a lifetime in Protestant Churches.

Image Credit: Pexels

 

 

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