Guest Post: HOW? TELL US HOW

by LMA

August 2018

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:


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.

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8 Responses

  1. Thank you. As I have studied church policy, I have also noticed an emphasis on protecting men in power, instead of the vulnerable people they are supposed to serve. I think that is a natural result of the church policymaking process, which is conducted privately with only people in power involved, virtually all of whom are male. The result is biased toward protecting men in power because they are the only voices heard. Here are my suggestions for better protect the vulnerable in Church policy:

    • Tim says:

      I frame it slightly different, but I think it gets to the same point. My perception is that the church emphasizes protecting the church, not necessarily or directly the men in power; but, that includes protecting the hierarchical structure. And here in manifests the flaw. The focus has become the institution and not the people. This directly contradicts the Christian charge to leave the 99 to save the 1. Too often the individual is sacrificed at the altar of saving the institution. The church even publicly declares that one of the purposes of disciplinary councils is to safeguard the good name of the church. Lawyers and the PR department exist to protect the church.

  2. Lily says:

    I’ll tell you how. We need to raise strong women that are taught to speak up and fight back. Unfortunately, this largely depends on the luck of the draw and who you end up with for parents.

  3. Tim says:

    Let all our daughters and sons know they have rights, they have worth, they have power, independent of any authority figure or structure. The line that really hit me hard in this post is “religious leaders have disempowered lay people”. I commit to take that power back. For example, I have made it clear to my bishop and stake president that they are not to interview my minor children without my consent, that in most cases I will be present, and under no circumstances are they to ask any sexual questions. Furthermore, I also let me children know.

  4. Maymay says:

    “It is divine and necessary to speak the truth and to protect in word and action the safety and well-being of others.” <–Thank you so much for this.

    You ask how? I will tell you how, coming from someone who has experienced abuse in several forms from priesthood holders: I am writing a pseudonymous memoir, which I plan to have a lawyer broker for publication in order to protect my identity from the horrible attacks on her reputation that McKenna Denson has experienced from the church's henchmen. I tried reporting quietly, anonymously, but nothing was done to change the status quo or protect other girls/women from what happened to me, so I'm telling my stories in greater detail in print.

    I'd love to see other women, other victims, find ways to get their truth out there anonymously, too. I know there are myriad stories out there–I've heard them in so many places from so many women, but they won't report for fear of losing membership privileges if leaders don't believe them. Those of us who are devout should be able to both report our experiences anonymously *and* continue to stay sealed/married to our partners and sealed to our families–not have those family bonds and our everyday relationships severed by power-drunk men–just because we have decided to finally come forward and tell our truths.

  5. Mary says:

    There was a Sex In The City episode where the women were discussing men they were dating and how interested they were. They happened to have a male friend at the table and he gave his two cents’ worth: “he’s not that into you”. He continued that if the man were interested, he would call, he would be present, there would be no doubt in anyone’s mind where he stood.

    Consider the church one giant man. The conclusion should be simple and clear: he’s nor that into us. If he was, he’d be doing what was necessary to make sure we were safe and content. He’s not. He won’t. We’re to bend to his will: a sign of narcissism. I consider myself lucky. I no longer believe. For me, the “how” is a simple and clear vote with my feet.

  6. Lizzie says:

    I feel like this post is timely, given what came out today regarding the disciplinary council for Sam Young. I will admit that his work has contributed to my present faith crisis. Reflecting on the (relatively minor) impact that my youth worthiness interviews had on my sexuality and then marriage has been eye opening. After I read about Sam Young today, I reviewed the church’s recent policy change with regards to youth worthiness interviews. I wanted to find it sufficient, to believe that maybe it has made a difference. I found nothing in this vague policy that would have changed my experience as a youth. Too much of it still depends on the judgment of a local priesthood leader. Too much of it still depends on the presumption of his righteousness. And it ends with the idea that everything should be done “to avoid misunderstanding.” There is still a presumption that, should the priesthood leader be accused of wrongdoing, the other person must be mistaken. When I read it, I feel afraid for the future. I feel sad for all the people who have experienced worse than I. And desperately wish things were different.

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