Guest Post: A Call for Victim Advocacy in the Church

by Sisyphus

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.

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18 Responses

  1. Think I will stay nameless says:

    This is such a necessary idea, yet so far from the reality of what the church is that I can’t even imagine any kind of anything to advocate for abuse/harassment victims. I think the author was lucky to even have the stake President believe her. Yes, we need victim advocacy in the church, but I can’t even imagine it ever happening.

    I tried to imagine what a difference in my own life if there had been something, anything in the church advocating for what was good for me, my mother, my sister, as victims of my father’s abuse. Instead all that I ever saw was how much the church cared about him. It showed him all kinds of love while he was in the long process of being rebaptized. It ignored my mother and I when we tried to say that his “repentance” was all for show.

    When we expressed needs because of the damage of abuse, we were shamed as unforgiving and our needs ignored.

    Too few men in power in the church have any idea of the damage, emotional damage, spiritual damage of abuse, so they ignore the spiritual needs of victims, thinking it is the victim’s fault that they are not “over it”. But they do understand the need for repentance and so are willing to work with and help the abuser.

    I still feel like the victim in the story of “the Good Samaritan” only without the Good Samaritan. Robbed and left at the side of the road to die, and the priest and Levite pass by on the other side, but someone eventually stops, asks what happened, then instead of helping me, they ran after the robbers to catch them, leaving me still at the side of the road to die. That was my experience in “Christ’s church”. And people wonder why I decided that this church is really not very Christian.

  2. Em says:

    Thank you for sharing this. It’s heartbreaking and awful. And I agree, that the task of pushing for justice in Church organization is sisyphean. Maybe we should change the lyrics of the hymn to “put your shoulder to the boulder, push along…”

  3. Wendy says:

    Thank you for casting light on this very dark shadow side of the church. You didn’t need to tell this story. I imagine it took a lot of time and energy to do so.

    I think you’re right that for now your story will fall on deaf ears, but maybe someday with a critical mass of survivors coming forward and demanding change, the church will finally have its Spotlight moment and the all-male leaders will finally be forced to make the church a safer place to worship.

    Until then, there is power in telling your story and adding your voice and support to many who’ve come before with the same battle cry. It’s a dark truth that male leaders nearly always protect predators and prioritize their welfare over the pain caused to those they harm. And your stake president was complicit in the harm done by Brother Davis by enabling him when he was told Brother Davis was an unsafe, dangerous person to have such an ecclesiastical position of power.

    The mysogyny in the church system runs deep. It’s going to take a lot of time and outside pressure to root it out, vis-à-vis the racism inherent in the temple and priesthood ban.

    As a survivor myself, I know how much pressure there is to stay silent and let the church leaders invisibilize your pain. Thank you for your advocacy for the countless victims of ecclesiastical abuse whose stories will never be told.

  4. Tina says:

    Bravo! I applaud you both for talking to SP and for telling your story here. There are so many aspects of this story that make my stomach churn. A couple of those are that it took seven (!) other women for the story to be believed. That’s horrifying. Also, it is sobering to realize that the area authority thought that releasing this man was punishment. So much for viewing callings as an opportunity to serve. This area authority seems to view a bishopric calling as a position of power and losing that position as punishment. Whatever happened to the repentance process I learned in primary? The part where repentance means acknowledging wrongs and making amends with those who the person harmed?

    Do we need victim advocacy? Absolutely, yes we need it. Until then, what other options are available? You are right that there is no recourse up the chain. Is there a way that women can bring items like this to the ward council? Perhaps in a council setting the power dynamics are different and it’s less likely for one man to not believe a women in a one-on-one setting. I’m nos sure what to do but I think brainstorming ways we can start *somewhere* with victim advocacy wold be helpful. Other than that, I am grateful for the Exponent so that woman can have a place to tell their stories.

    Thank you for telling your story. I’ve been in a position where I wasn’t believed by a bishop and it left a scar. It’s helpful to know I’m not alone. Let’s move the damn mountain together.

  5. Chiaroscuro says:

    Thank you for sharing. This is such an important topic!

  6. SisterStacey says:

    Sisyphus, I couldn’t help thinking of McKenna Denson during this. It was her experience that triggered my faith crisis when it came out in 2018. I grew up in Mormon central in Idaho. My father was abusive, but it took me years to realize it until I found out about the cycle of abuse. In high school. When the abuse got too bad, my family still tried to make it work until my father left and filed for divorce several months later. I was so filled with anger because people wouldn’t believe my father guilty of such things. Then I found all the statement from leaders of the Church “not condoning” abuse. I thought for sure that if the prophet had known what had happened, that he would have done more. After the MTC scandal broke, I was reeling, but it was the second statement, when these men of God revealed that they had known about two victims of Joseph Bishop for TEN years! There’s been more revealed since then… and it does feel like a Sisyphean task. But you have one more Sisyphus with you there. <3

    • Sisyphus says:

      I’m sorry you have been through so much. And it is so heartbreaking to realise how many stories the leaders have heard without taking sufficient steps to protect victims.

  7. EmilyB says:

    Yeah this is what happened to me: I reported leader-abuser and got nowhere. Thus religion protects the brethren at all costs. I am much happier and empowered now outside Mormonism, where women are valued and empowered!

  8. melodynew says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for continuing to follow up even after you moved away. Thanks for your clear-headed analysis of the grossly negligent, male-centric leadership and the multitude of problems and sorrows this creates.

    Truth is so good to hear. Even dark truths, because whatsoever is truth is light. Illumination is worth all our sisyphean efforts. Bless you for yours.

    Sincerely,
    Sister Sisyphus of thirty years, multiple stake presidencies, bishoprics, and all seven siblings to finally get our perp father excommunicated.

  9. EmilyCC says:

    I so admire the courage and bravery, not to mention emotional labor, it costs you to write this. When you moved, you could have decided you didn’t need to continue to work and act. Thank you for continuing; it is people like you and those you mentioned who have been vilified and excommunicated who will change this culture. I just don’t understand why the cost has to be so high.

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