Church Discipline: Women Disciplined by Men
LDS Church policy dictates that only men may call a disciplinary council, staff the council, and judge the outcome. However, both male and female members may be brought before these all-male councils at the discretion of their local, male leaders. Theoretically, the rationale for holding a council is not punitive:
Priesthood courts of the Church are not courts of retribution. They are courts of love. Reference 1
When a man requires a woman to submit to an interrogation by a group of men about sensitive personal issues such as her sex life, does she feel love or shame? Does this process meet the criteria set forth in the Thirteenth Article of Faith: “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy”? Consider this case:
I have a friend who had a one-time fling after years of celibacy. Our bishop called a church court on her and told her that all of the sins she had repented of in the past were no longer forgiven because she had messed up again. He forced her to recount, in front of him, his counselors, and the ward clerk, every sexual experience she had ever had or be excommunicated. He wanted to know all the lurid details—sexual positions, whether it was oral, anal, or vaginal, whether she had orgasms, etc. Needless to say, she felt coerced and abused by this process.
Simply telling men who staff disciplinary councils to stop asking for sordid details is not enough to address the trauma a woman may experience when brought before an all-male council. Consider another case, where the amount of disclosure erred in the opposite direction:
I was so traumatized by the experience that I couldn’t even talk to the men. I just sat in the chair facing them and sobbed. The bishop, during the court, did not disclose the reason that I was being disciplined to the men attending. Instead, he told them that I’d made some inappropriate choices and needed to be judged accordingly. As I thought about this later, I felt as though the bishop didn’t tell them the nature of my sin because it was fairly minor. So the men there seemed puzzled as to what my punishment should be because they didn’t even know what I’d done. They asked me to bear my testimony and all I could do was cry—I couldn’t speak. Finally the bishop asked me to step out so they could decide whether I would lose my membership. When I returned to the council, I was told that I was being put on probation for six months and I was given a long list of things that I had to do during that time so that I could be reinstated.
These councils may also traumatize women who are only testifying as witnesses, not accused transgressors. This experience was reported by a woman who attended her husband’s disciplinary council after he committed adultery:
What was humiliating was them asking him all kinds of questions and details that he hadn’t even told me and I was hearing it for the first time in a fishbowl with 17 men staring at me…At the end of all the questioning, the stake president asked if anyone else had any questions and one guy…said, “Can I ask a question?” Then he said, “Do you feel like you sexually satisfied your husband?” The only thing I could say was “apparently not.” Then they go pray, come back and slap his wrist, and hubby tells me they made it clear it was all my fault. I was in the primary presidency at the time and was very quickly released so that I could work on my family issues. I was so hurt. Reference 2
The lack of women’s representation in church disciplinary councils may affect the wisdom of the final decision as well as the experiences of transgressors and witnesses during the process. Diverse representation counters bias and leads to better decisions. Reference 3 With regards to government juries, the United States Supreme Court has ruled:
It is said, however, that an all-male panel drawn from the various groups within the community will be as truly representative as if women were included. The thought is that the factors which tend to influence the action of women are the same as those which influence the action of men—personality, background, economic status—and not sex. Yet it is not enough to say that women when sitting as jurors neither act nor tend to act the class. Men likewise do not act as a class. But if the shoe were on the other foot, who would claim the jury was truly representative of the community if all men were intentionally and systematically excluded from the panel? Reference 4
Church discipline does not require consensus like government juries. While church discipline councils include several players, all of whom are male, the final decision is made exclusively by one man, either the stake president or the bishop, and the other men are asked to “sustain” this man’s decision. With decisions made in such a unilateral manner, personal biases will have an even stronger impact on the decision.
Research suggests that jurors’ biases are likely to be more favorable toward someone with whom they can identify. Within the LDS Church, males share many experiences that help them identify with each other: missionary work, priesthood callings and quorum membership. There is also evidence that shifting blame for rape toward the victim is a bias that may be more prevalent among men than women. Reference 4 Reference 5 Since church discipline is exclusively administered by men, it stands to reason that the church discipline system is more biased toward men and toward victim blaming in rape cases than it would be if both sexes were represented. Reference 6
From a social worker who counseled a pregnant teenager:
We had a birth mom who went on a date with a returned missionary in her ward and he date raped her and she became pregnant. And when she went to the bishop, he was, “Oh well, a returned missionary wouldn’t do that. You must have seduced him.” And he really pressured her when she found out she was pregnant to marry her rapist. And so her and her parents went to the stake president and he reinforced what the bishop said, that he wouldn’t have done this. He’s a returned missionary. You should marry him. Reference 7
From a bishop’s counselor who staffed a disciplinary council:
This woman was old enough to be my grandmother. She sat there, trembling from the palsy of age and in emotional distress, crying as she talked about what had happened to her sixty years before…And she hadn’t transgressed. She’d been molested. She believed that she’d consented voluntarily because she didn’t fight back…The deliberation was strange. The bishop has to make the decision, and we were basically just there to support him, since the stake president had already given him his orders. It felt so wrong to me. I said, “This lady shouldn’t be punished. I want her to feel forgiven.” [The bishop] explained again what the stake president had said and asked me if I supported him. Reluctantly, I said yes. When he told her that she’d be disfellowshipped for a year, she thanked us and hugged us. Reference 8
From a sister missionary whose female convert had been disciplined after having sex with an abusive boyfriend:
I do not think that he actually physically forced her during the sex act, but given the fact that he had just slapped her around hard enough to leave multiple bruises on her body – bruises that still showed a couple of weeks later – I do not think it could be described as a consensual encounter. I think that after he hit her and calmed down he started coming on to her sexually and she did not feel that he would give her the option of refusing. Not one of these details was considered in the disciplinary court. She was not asked, and I don’t think it occurred to her to tell. Reference 9
Read the second post in the is two-part series here: http://www.the-exponent.com/five-more-lds-church-discipline-policies-that-affect-women-unequally/