How Should Our Community Handle Wrong Decisions Made By Our Church?

Posted by on November 2, 2013 in Belief, Mormon Life | 33 comments

Trigger Warning: Child Abuse and Sexual Abuse.

Everyone who reads or writes for this blog has a connection to Mormonism on some level. For some it is an interest, for others it is their religious practice. And for others it is the cultural background. Some fit all these categories. On some level, we are all part of the Mormon community. So how do we as a community deal with an issue like this one that was in the news this week?

The church is being sued for covering up sexual abuse of children by a church member. This deals with cover-ups on multiple levels. First, local leaders did not protect children in their area from a sexual predator in their ward, even though they knew about his behavior. But this case goes beyond local leaders. In the indictment, the church as an organization is accused of covering up the abuse, of encouraging and in some cases threatening, members to stay silent and not report the abuse. It says

“The Church has not accepted responsibility for what it did and, equally importantly, for what it failed to do, despite being confronted with Micheal Jensen’s [the abuser] abuse on several occasions, the obvious harm caused, and its own protective and enabling hand in the events. Instead, it has continued its cover-up, sending emissaries from Salt Lake City, Utah to Martinsburg, West Virginia, who instructed fact witnesses not to talk with counsel for the Plaintiffs. Through Church leaders, it has tried to intimidate Plaintiffs from pursuing this action, and has directed fellow church members to prevail upon Plaintiffs to abandon their claims lest they run afoul of Church teachings regarding forgiveness. The Church, resultantly, not only made Michael Jensen’s conduct possible in  the first instance, but it also has multiplied the harm to its victims, with its campaign to ostracize them from their faith community and deter them from pursuing justices for their families.”

The most disturbing part of this for me is the accusations against the church. Yes, there are individual members who do terrible things. There are even individual church leaders who make horrible mistakes. There is no excuse for the actions of the individuals involved in this case. But for the church as an institution to decide to cover up the abuse of children is utterly unconscionable. It is an organization deciding to intimidate witnesses, to try to prevent a criminal from being prosecuted. I cannot conceive of a single good reason for this to happen, for the church to make such a choice.

How do we, as a Mormon community deal with this information? How do handle our relationship with the church? My decisions has been to end the relationship. I have sent a letter to have my name removed from the records of the church. My choice is not to be associated with an organization that makes these kind of choices. But that is my decision. How do you deal with this information?

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33 Comments

  1. This is one example of how frustrating I find the channels of communication to be. It stands in contrast to how I feel about communicating with the US government. I find both institutions to be problematic, yet important to me. Yesterday I wrote a letter to my congressional representative about an issue that bothers me. If he does not personally read it (which he may, or may not) it will at the very least get to his staffers who will respond to me, probably with a mostly form letter, and I imagine it will get filed away or tabulated in some sense. Another constituent is upset about drone strikes. If enough constituents write in, it may produce some action.

    In contrast, I have no way to register my displeasure over this abuse. The approved channel is to play telephone by telling my bishop, who tells my stake president, who tells the area authority, who tells someone else, who tells an apostle. Or not. What would be the point of approaching my bishop about this? I know perfectly well that he would agree that child abuse is horrible, and he would probably be upset about the cover up or perhaps he would doubt that the church really was covering it up. Either way he is not responsible either for the heinous acts or for the cover up. He has absolutely no authority over that and no way of making the slightest difference, other than to be sure it doesn’t happen in my ward. I like to think he’d do that anyway. I’d like to write a letter to the twelve. I’d like it so that if enough people were mad, they’d make sure they never had this policy again and publicly apologized for the error. But it doesn’t work that way, and it is frustrating to feel powerless.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Em. This is a perfect comparison. Governments are large organizations that can at least pretend to want to hear from us. The Church, at the general level, makes abundantly clear that they have no interest in hearing from us.

  2. EM, “channels” don’t even work linearly anymore. Stake presidents are being taught not to pass along members’ concerns to higher-ups under most circumstances. They’re being taught to “face the right way” — to communicate only the messages from higher leaders to rank-and-file members, not convey the rank-and-file’s concerns to Salt Lake. It is a terrible situation that invites and fosters miscommunication, ineffective leadership, and abuse.

  3. The allegations in the complaint (not “indictment”) have not been proven. I am skeptical, because, in cases of which I have knowledge in the last 20 years, if anything, the reaction of the institutional church (meaning SLC when it finds out) to abuse of children has been swift and harsh toward the perpetrator[s].

  4. BTW, the formal policy of the church is for the member who suspects the abuse to contact law enforcement, and then the ecclesiastical channels.

    “When abuse is suspected, the Church directs its members to first contact the legal authorities and then their local bishop for counseling and support. The Church cooperates fully with law enforcement in investigating incidents of child abuse and bringing perpetrators to justice.”

    http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/the-evil-of-child-abuse

    • Just because that is what is supposed to happen doesn’t mean that is what actually happens. I know of several instances where abuse was covered up by the church. So are you refusing to believe this because you’ve never seen it happen? Things exist outside of your personal experience.

    • And on LDS.org under Abuse, it says this. “Victims of abuse should seek help immediately, normally from their bishop or branch president. His first responsibility is to help those who have been abused and to protect those who may be vulnerable to future abuse.” Note that there is no mention of going to the authorities.

    • Yes, but when church leaders are the first to learn of abuse, they are to call a hotline for counsel on how to proceed according to the laws in their area. In some states, there is no legal imperative for ecclesiastical leaders to contact the authorities. Thus, the cover-ups.

  5. Tone is hard to convey online, so please take what I am saying with knowledge that I say it with kindness and respect, and acknowledgement that I don’t know you personally. It appears like a knee jerk reaction to have your records removed after reading a single news article. I read another article here http://m.heraldmailmedia.com/news/tri_state/west_virginia/mormon-church-denies-lawsuit-s-claims-of-sex-abuse-coverup/article_609acc52-41c4-11e3-9c5a-001a4bcf6878.html?mode=jqm that claims the opposite happened. I am NOT saying I think it was all made up. I think there is potential for abuse by our members just as there is in any other organization in this world. The course of action I will take is to watch and see what happens with this case. What will come up in sworn testimony in a court of law? Perhaps I show ignorance in this, but if there is a coverup conspiracy won’t this be seen in the forthcoming court proceedings? So I will watch and wait and not rely on the media to get accurate information. I have seen time and time again how information can be presented to suit the ideals of the presenter (both conservatively and liberally) and I just don’t trust most media outlets anymore. They seem to be more interested in what will become the most popular story, versus unbiased presentation of facts.

    I admit that I don’t keep straight all of the fine authors on this blog and I could be wrong and this is a “straw that broke the camel’s back” event and not a knee jerk reaction. Regardless, if you have made it a matter of prayer and you feel right about your decision, I respect and honor that. I just wanted to give my opinion on why I will retain my membership and my interest in seeing what will come of this lawsuit.

    • In other cases like this, and there have been several, the church settled out of court. So you likely won’t get the chance to hear testimony or the church’s side of things because they refuse to give it. So what will you do if you don’t get to see this pan out?

      This is indeed a straw that broke the camel’s back issue, and regardless of how kind you think you are being, you are not qualified to judge my choice. You are free to express your opinion, but judging the validity of my decision is judgemental and in direct violation of this blog’s comment policy.

      • You’re right. I’m sorry.

  6. I know from personal experience that the Church tends to cover-up instances of sexual abuse, especially when the perpetrators are bishops and stake presidents. Victims of sexual abuse should document their abuse and report it to the police. In most instances, the Church protects ecclesiastical leaders who perpetrate abuse unless the abuser is legally prosecuted and convicted.

    • I totally agree Katie, in my experience this has been so. Coverup has even gone as high as the top in one particular instance that involved a family member. I don;t have much faith in priesthood leaders; they tend to protect their own.

  7. When I was 16, my step-father of less than 1 year (my father passed away when I was twelve) sexually molested my 12 year old little sister. He was very well-respected in the area, and his brother was our bishop at the time. The action from the church was swift and consistent: they immediately believed what had happened, and heavily encouraged us to report it. The repentance process could not be fulfilled until the law was fulfilled. After a year through the courts, he went to prison. What I”m trying to say is that this is NOT what happens all the time, this has not been my experience, and we’re not likely hearing the whole story. I’m sorry you feel you need to remove your records, but you need to know this is not how it always works out, and these thing can be very complicated, even when things don’t seem to be complicated.

    • If the church protects an abuser over a victim even one time, they are not doing their job. They are not practicing what they preach. I never said that the church always protects abusers. But I don’t think they should ever protect the abuser.

  8. I am familiar with a case of abuse by a bishop which had occurred several years prior, and the victim had a friend who reported it to one of the Twelve. The apostle told the friend that they had heard similar allegations, but none of the victims went to the legal authorities, and that the Church felt it could not act on a he said/she said situation. I found it ironic, though that a couple of years later, there was an article in the Ensign about spousal abuse, and this bishop was the man in the photographs illustrating the story. I’m not saying it was intentional on the Church’s part, but it was ironic.

  9. YES I believe the church leaders DID cover this up. One of my granddaughters was molested by this young man, who babysat for my son and DIL. Apparently the perp babysat extensively thru this stake. I recently sent this article to my son because they lived in the area for years, then moved. He told me it was all true and that several of the leaders involved were also had business dealings together, which greatly complicated matters. I was very angry when I read/heard about this. NO CHILD should ever be made to suffer from molestation. Many church members do look to their male leaders for counsel in these situations and do not think to report to the police initially. When I finally spoke up about my X’s sexual abuse of me (for 29 years) we were both told to not speak of it. He was finally disciplined (slap on the hand) and we later divorced. TO this day few in my ward know what really happened because we were told to be silent, which I deeply regret now. I believe in speaking up and out about abuse of any kind, especially when it involves children. For the dozen or so of those whose parents are involved in the lawsuit, there are dozens more who have moved away (my son) or did not want their children to go thru the process. I suspect it will be settled out of court with a gag order on all the victims.

    • Thank you for sharing your story, and I’m so sorry you and your family have been so negatively impacted by abuse and cover-ups. These kinds of things should not happen.

    • Sherry, I am so sorry that your grand daughter was hurt by this same individuals and the leaders here in the Stake. Please contact our attorneys so they can show the information that you shared. It is time for us all to stand for what God would do and covering up abuse is not what God would do.

  10. I think the church is the vehicle for the development of the Gospel in our lives. I think it is critical to decide first and foremost if it is true and if we believe the principles of the Gospel come from Christ. That way you can more logically separate the actions of members from the principles taught in the Gospel. If the actions of the members have been so horrific then there should be appropriate consequences. If the church actually did support the alleged perpetrators then there should be appropriate consequences. That doesn’t take away from the principles taught in the church that such alleged actions are most simply wrong and evil. If the Gospel was full of true principles, which I think it is, you have to ask why people in general do not follow those principles on all occasions.

    Besides all that, this story you are using as evidence to support your opinion is quite lopsided. Can you see that?

    • If the church does not live the principles it teaches, why should it be followed?

    • Because it’s composed of imperfect people that make mistakes- sometimes terrible ones. There is no place in the church that teaches to protect abusers and we both know that. If you want to pick specific people and circumstances that’s your prerogative. It seems to me you are trying to use these events to justify your personal beliefs.

      And I would like you to address my comment, and others, regarding these lopsided allegations. Where is the equality in not allowing these individuals to defend themselves?

      • There is a difference between individuals doing bad things and a corporation choosing to protect those who abuse. Individuals cannot be expected to do everything perfectly. But if a church claims to be led by God, they must act accordingly. Protecting an abuser is not acting how Christ would. The church can teach whatever they wish, but if they don’t live up to their teachings, what good does it do? Words don’t mean anything if they aren’t followed by actions. Christ spoke of those who drew near to Him with their lips but were not close to Him in their hearts. This seems like a prime example of that.

        You claim I am ignoring the bias in this. Have you read Sherry’s comments or stories from others like her? Have you educated yourself on the fact that this is not an isolated incident? Bias does not mean that the information is inherently false. You are using the idea of bias to protect yourself from having to critically examine your church and your faith. What you accuse me of doing is in fact exactly what you are doing. You are making a judgement based on this one article. I am not. I have studied this issue out. This is not the first case. It is just the last one that I will accept as a member of the church.

      • Please- Yes I did read her comments and other stories like it. I also know of many events of abuse in the church.

        I know what bias is. I also know the meaning of ‘allegation’. Your position is full of assumptions about the church. I’m asking you to prove the “alleged” cover up came from the highest reaches of church leadership and and the such leadership is inherently corrupt and acts consistently with the behavior you have described.

        The allegations are lopsided. That’s a fact! They are written that way for a reason. At least give people the decency to be innocent until proven guilty. Hopefully we can agree on that.

      • It isn’t fun to be talked down to is it? Maybe in the future you won’t assume everyone who disagrees with you is uneducated, as you did with me.

        Yes, these are allegations. Allegations that have been brought against the church many times. The church never defends itself. It chooses instead to settle out of court. So if the church will not present its side, we are left with the only side that was wiling to talk. Refusing to defends oneself strikes me as strange. So while it is possible the church did not cover anything up, it is just as possible that the did. Add to that possibility similar cases brought against the church in the past, personal stories from victims who back up the claim and the church’s refusal to defend itself, I am left with a strong suspicion that at least once the church has covered up abuse. And if they’ve don tit once, I don’t want to be a member of their organization.

    • I never thought you were uneducated. I thought you were biased. I think we mainly differ on our expectations of people and how that relates to the church as an organization. My view is that demanding perfection out of millions of people is irrational. I believe you can separate the evil actions of the individuals and find value in the moral principles that are found in the church as a whole. If a bishop, relief society president, stake president, parent, friends, or anyone covers up abuse let them receive the full consequences due according to the law- but not before it’s even proven they did anything wrong.

      • You are just as biased. This is more than one leader; it is the organization of the church covering up abuse. And if the church is going to claim to be God’s only true church, they have set themselves up to be held to a higher standard.

      • What is my bias? Because I support the legal system? Or because I don’t think the church has an agenda to cover up abuse? Or because I don’t believe a whole organization should be responsible for individual actions?

        Prove your opinion, please. Lets see some concrete evidence that at the top level of the church organization there are individuals working together to cover up abuse. Why are these alleged criminals not in prison anyway? You want to make these issues so personal and I understand the emotion generated with the topic but let see some facts. You shouldn’t just say abuse is so terrible (which everyone agrees with) and then try to attach it to an organization you don’t like.

        You might convince other people but the evidence is lacking. With your logic you could practically convict every organization in the country of covering up abuse because of what some individuals did. I stand by my very first post- if they are found guilty let them receive the consequences no matter how far up into the leadership of the church that goes.

      • I’m curious why you stopped defending yourself? Is it possible that it’s not always productive?

  11. I find it sad that you would chose to leave the church after reading a single article alleging that the church has covered up abuse. This article is clearly one sided and based on allegations that have not been proven. The nature of lawsuits is to overstate claims in hopes of getting a settlement out of court. I find some of the claims to be questionable such as the suggestion that “the church” recommended this man as a baby-sitter to other children.

    From experience with the Church Office of General Counsel (Church’s legal department), I know how seriously they take sexual abuse as they work to ensure victim’s safety and eliminate liability.

    The truth is that unfortunately, there are evil people that commit heinous acts in and out of the church. Church’s create an opportunity for abuse because there is a high level of trust. However, especially in recent years the church has spoken out very strongly against sexual abuse and taken all reasonable steps to prevent such abuse from occurring. I am not sure what more one could expect?

    • This is not the first instance I am aware of. It is the last one I will hear about without taking action. I find it sad that people rush to defend abuse instead of the victims.

  12. Years ago, I was closely connected to a woman who investigated whether she could sue the church for wrongdoing regarding the sexual abuse she endured as a child. Leaders who were aware of what happened to her covered it up. Her case fell flat when her attorney (through legal aid in her state) was informed by the church’s legal department that the church didn’t take responsibility for the actions of its lay leaders.

    Later, when the perpetrator was discovered as a Primary worker (under the “watchful eye” of his wife who didn’t think much of the abuse allegations despite evidence to the contrary), his bishop was contacted by a family member who expressed concern over his access to children. The response was that he had a temple recommend, thus his calling remained in effect. Others went to their bishops for support in voicing their concerns to his bishop but were turned away since it was considered a “family matter”.

    The statutes were up as far as legal recourse between victim and perpetrator, and the church refused to answer to the actions of its unpaid leaders as well as take measures to protect children from future harm.

    I’ve already left, over many issues, but, as a mother of three, this was among the greatest. The church requires more of its members than the members are permitted to require of their church.

  13. In order to serve in Primary Young Men/Young Women’s/Nursery here in the UK members have to go through a screening process to prove they have no convictions or allegations made against them before they are allowed to work with the children young people.It’s a criminal records check.
    I have known of cases of abuse & they were all handled in different ways. The oldest ones were mainly handled “in-house” which was a common thing years ago- courts were very reluctant to believe the testimony of young children & it was felt that it would further traumatise victims to go to court or even have a police investigation.Did this mean that abusers got away with it you bet-did it mean that victims suffered more anguish-yes.
    It seems that the more recent cases I am aware of have been handled differently.The legal authorities have been involved from the beginning & the Church has expected the victims to seek not only protection but justice.
    I would never protect an abuser would never expect the Church to cover up abuse but neither would I want them to throw folk to the wolves.Even abusers deserve a fair trial after all sometimes people are unfairly accused.
    As to the Church not defending itself I don’t understand but I’m sure there are valid reasons for this which I assume are to do with limiting legal liability & also keeping out of a system where possible.

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