Guest Post: HOW? TELL US HOW
This week, I read a sweet story from Dr. Susan Reynolds about her experience at mass following the news of the grand jury report indicating that at least 1,000 children had been sexually abused by priests in Pennsylvania over a 70-year period.
Dr. Reynolds wrote that the priest conducting the mass addressed the congregation and talked about how religious leaders have disempowered lay people, and that this crisis is pervasive and systemic in nature. At the end of his talk, the priest called upon Catholic lay people to be a part of radical reform to help solve this problem. When he finished, a dad bravely stood up in the congregation of people and plead with the priest, “HOW? TELL US HOW.” The man was sweating and his voice shook as he spoke. He said his son was going to take his first communion soon and wanted to know what he should tell him. It was so lovely and brave and soft that he asked this.
Right now in my faith, I feel like this dad asking and pleading with my own spiritual leaders “HOW? TELL US HOW.”
Over the last six months, as the McKenna Denson story has come to light and is now in litigation, I have spent so much time thinking and crying about how something like this could happen. I have literally cried with a dear friend in the middle of the night at IHOP about this. We have cried for Ms. Denson, and for all women in our Church. I have also been angry and distressed that there has been no real recourse or accountability from our Church about this issue and other important issues that profoundly affect the well-being and safety of people in our faith (e.g., Protect LDS Children Movement, issues with breastfeeding in our Church buildings, extremely elevated LGBTQ+ suicide rates).
When Judge Dale Kimball ruled regarding the claims Ms. Denson had asserted against the Church and Joseph Bishop, we were given more specific information about the Church’s argument that the claims against them be dismissed. In essence, the Church’s lawyers argued that 1. the statute of limitations had passed for the claims, 2. the Church wasn’t accountable for her sexual assault because they did not literally assault her, and 3. the Church could not have committed fraud against Ms. Denson because she knew Joseph Bishop was a unsafe and a predator when he raped her.
For an organization that so often chooses to associate its name and work with Jesus Christ, I found this argument to be disgusting and tragic. How dare they try to avoid legal and spiritual accountability by deferring responsibility to Joseph Bishop or by putting the blame on Ms. Denson and saying they couldn’t have mislead her or done wrong because she knew Joseph Bishop was unsafe and a predator when he raped her? Beyond this tragic and male-centered legal decision, I feel so much sadness for the Church’s active choice to not engage with the profound concerns and pain of its people. People bravely speak up every day and ask the Church for its help, as Ms. Denson has been doing for over thirty years.
These responses are indicative of a systemic problem within our own faith of placing the care, comfort, and needs of men over the care, comfort, and needs of women and other vulnerable populations (e.g., children, LGBTQ+ people). These responses are void of integrity, care, and accountability, and they re-traumatize those who have been harmed by men in our Church who use sexism, patriarchy, and spiritual control as weapons to subjugate others. These responses communicate loudly the Church’s priorities. I could (and do) just cry thinking about how tragic that is.
No matter what faith we belong to, we all deserve spiritual leaders – local and institutional – who protect us, care for our well-being, and provide feedback-driven support and care based on common sense principles of compassion and mental health. Because of this, there are so many questions and concerns that need to be attended to.
When and how will our Church that so often invokes Jesus Christ’s name take accountability or listen or make right like Jesus Christ would? When and how will real changes be made to protect women and other vulnerable populations in the church? When and how will the Church institution acknowledge its role in the maintenance of a patriarchal structure that has and continues to profoundly affect the well-being and safety of women and other vulnerable people?
When we do harm in Heavenly Father’s name or in the name of being holy or good, we traumatize others. I could (and do) just cry for all the ways institutions and people of faith hurt those they are supposed to protect. As a Church, individual lay members need honest, accountable, real answers about what has happened and is happening. In the words of Dr. Reynolds:
“People don’t need finessed press releases. They want to name their betrayal out loud in public, in sacred space, before the tabernacle, before God and one another. They want to be listened to without condescension. They don’t want easy answers. They want contrition.”
People need the space to call out what has been done to them, and to have these wrongs be heard by those who caused this pain and have the ability to make it right. They need to be directly responded to, not with a statement that defers responsibility or is about something else, relayed by an educated, affluent, white, male Church spokesperson. They need a real, complex response that takes accountability and seeks to make tangible change informed by feedback from both professionals and lay members.
It is divine and necessary to speak the truth and to protect in word and action the safety and well-being of others. All of us deserve that safety and care in intimate spaces, especially in faith. No matter what happens, I want to keep asking:
“HOW? TELL US HOW.”
LMA is PhD-holding boss lady that teaches child development to university students. She cares deeply about issues that affect women inside and outside of our Church.