Guest Post: A Call for Victim Advocacy in the Church
I have attempted several times to write this post—a story about me opposing a man called into a bishopric, the stake president (SP) believing me but not acting on the information, that man sexually harassing several women in the ward, and the SP reluctantly releasing the man after many victims came forward—but each time, I would end my attempt discouraged. I’ve read enough to know that my story is not unique. Ecclesiastical abuse in the form of protecting serial sexual harassers (or worse) at the expense of victims is sadly not a rare occurrence in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The conditions that permit such abuse are a part of the self-perpetuating system of all-male authority, and Mormon feminists have been calling for change for decades to no avail.
Writing this story is a Sisyphean task. After cheating death twice, Greek legend has it that Sisyphus was sent to Hades by Zeus himself. Sisyphus was to push a boulder uphill, only for it to fall back down before cresting the summit, requiring him to start over again and again for eternity. Why bother telling yet another story of ecclesiastical abuse? The boulder will still fall down the hill.
Call me Sisyphus, then, both because I tell my story anyway, and because Brother Davis* has a known history of seeking retribution against his accusers and I don’t want to put his victims at further risk.
For me, it started a year and half ago with an email announcing a special meeting to sustain a new bishopric. I had an odd thought: “Brother Davis is going to be called into the bishopric and you need to oppose.” The thought returned several times that week until the meeting came. I’d never opposed a calling before, but the prompting was persistent and clear.
When the new bishopric was announced and Brother Davis was indeed called, I raised my hand and opposed. Immediately following the meeting, I went to the SP to make my opposition known. The SP invited me to his office. I told him about my repeated prompting and the information I knew about Brother Davis’s character and behavior that would preclude him from such a calling. Brother Davis was actively engaged in behavior that I believed made him a potential threat to the women and teen girls in the ward, particularly in private interviews.
The SP listened intently. He told me he believed me and that he was very concerned about what I had shared. He assured me he would look into this situation. He shook my hand, led me out his office, and walked down the hall to set apart the bishopric as announced.
What followed was a master class in the hard limits of women’s voices in an institution that systematically cuts women and other marginalized groups and individuals out of decisions that impact their lives and the safety of their congregations.
It took a month, but the SP finally called me with an update. He told me he spoke to Brother Davis and was concerned with how the interview went. In short, he thought Brother Davis was lying and making odd excuses. He thanked me again for bringing the “very concerning” information to his attention.
I heard nothing more from the SP, and months went by with Brother Davis still in the bishopric. I wrote the SP a letter to follow up: I included screenshots and emphasized that I believe this man to be a threat to the ward. I heard nothing in reply.
Months later, a work change led my family out of state. Life got busy, but after several months, Brother Davis came to mind. I texted a friend to ask if he was still serving in the bishopric. The friend responded that Brother Davis had been released for sexually harassing several women in the ward. My stomach dropped. When the nausea passed, I got angry.
As the stories of the victims are not mine to tell, I can only share that Brother Davis allegedly had a long history of sexually harassing women prior to his calling and that he continued to use his position of authority in the bishopric to harass women. The SP dismissed the first two victims, claiming he needed more witnesses to act. It took seven victims coming forward together before Brother Davis was released from his calling , though it was with a vote of thanks and no additional disciplinary action. Brother Davis and his wife launched a campaign of retribution against his accusers and used his lack of Church discipline as evidence of his good character.
I called the SP and asked why he hadn’t acted on my opposing vote. The SP was defensive. He argued that they do not just “undo what was done” when new information comes forward after a calling is extended. He said that he had to consider the spiritual welfare of Brother Davis and his family and needed to minister to him. He asked me what the Savior would do. I said that that the Savior would remove the threat to the congregation, protect the flock, and then minister with loving compassion.
I wrote the Area Authority Seventy about the situation. He responded that abuse is not tolerated in the Church and he would look into the situation. I followed up with him and learned that he considered Brother Davis’s early release from the bishopric to be a form of discipline, “though more action may need to be taken at this point.” He confirmed what I knew from the General Handbook—the victims of Brother Davis would have no say in whether or not a disciplinary council would be held, and not a single woman would be included in determining the outcome of such a council. In this case, the room of all-male judges would include several close friends of Brother Davis.
We need victim advocacy in the Church, and it needs to include women as decision makers in the process. It is possible for the Church to sponsor a system that would truly advocate for victims rather than protecting Church leaders? This is a problem, but one worth tackling. The Church already sponsors a hotline for Church leaders to call to help protect the leaders and mitigate the Church’s liability in instances when crimes or abuse are confessed to a leader. Perhaps there could be a hotline that connects victims of abuse with appropriate services, including local law enforcement when abuse constitutes a crime, and that can trigger oversight and intervention in instances of ecclesiastical abuse.
The problems inherent in ecclesiastical abuse are systemic, not individual. It is the very structure, policies, and procedures of the Church that enables this abuse to take place. If a member in good standing opposes a calling, and the bishop or SP refuses to act, what recourse is there? When a leader abuses a member in some way, where can the member go except to the person who likely called the abuser to the position? No system sponsored by the Church would be perfect, but we are still falling far short of both gender parity and victim advocacy in 2020, we need to start somewhere.
Lavinia Fielding Anderson wrote about ecclesiastical abuse in the Church. She was excommunicated in 1993. Sam Young gathered thousands of stories of sexual and/or ecclesiastical abuse and led a campaign for change to protect LDS children. He was excommunicated in 2019. It certainly seems that the Church is more invested in excommunicating people who speak out publicly against abuse than they are in protecting victims.
As I said, writing this story is a Sisyphean task. So why bother? Because pushing this bolder up the hill will make my back stronger. It’s unlikely that current Church leadership will make the necessary structural changes to give women a real voice and protect victims. Leaders are not ignorant of these problems. But a new generation of leaders is rising, and perhaps, surrounded by witnesses with strong backs and loud voices, we can stop pushing the boulder up the hill and move the damn mountain instead.