Guest Post: My Mission President Sexually Harassed Me #MormonMeToo
By Emily B.
My mission president sexually harassed me, although I was too innocent to call it that at the time. He targeted several other sister missionaries as well. During personal interviews he would tell us about things he researched about sex, making it sound like he was teaching us. He was lewd. Even though he tried to make it sound like he was just reminiscing about the past when he told me about the sexual activities of an old friend, for example, I knew that it was wrong. He tried to make his dirty talk look like a typical chastity interview. He was sly about it. He would mix gospel doctrine with sex talk in a way that made it sound like he was just being clinical or professional, and he’d add missionary work counsel that just happened to be about sex. But it was always too much sex, more than was normal in the bishop’s interviews of our younger days. It was always way, way too much sex talk to be an accident or chattiness.
It made me uncomfortable at first, then I learned to lean on the other sister missionaries for help. Friendly companions who believed me would help me get out of interviews early or would go into an interview with me. My companions and I tried things like linking arms and saying, “Gosh, president, there is so much unity in our companionship and we love each other so much that we want to have all of our interviews together!” That moment of physically protecting each other–of standing with our arms literally linked together–was so important to me. Those memories all came back to me when I read about Hollywood actresses helping each other survive Harvey Weinstein. But we weren’t actresses, we were full-time representatives of Christ. Unfortunately, not even the law of witnesses stopped him from talking dirty to Christ’s female ambassadors. He just kept commenting about our bodies or talking about sexual stuff in our interviews anyway. It frightened us into deeper silence to see how he didn’t even fear a witness in the room. Like he knew he was invincible.
My mission president didn’t verbally assault all of the sister missionaries with his awful sex talk. He had a “type” that he preferred to target. Those who were not harassed were manipulated through special treatment. The mission president granted them favors, like allowing one sister to leave the country for a trip, or giving permission to not go tracting when those sisters were feeling homesick, or telling sisters they could call home when they wanted. He earned their loyalty and they would never believe the sisters who experienced harassment. The sisters who were harassed came up with a shorthand term for those who were loyal to the mission president. Just as fangirls of Justin Bieber are sometimes called “Beliebers,” we had a name for those who would protect the mission president at all costs, even if it meant turning their backs on fellow sister missionaries.
Why didn’t we speak up or do something more to protect ourselves? Looking back, I am devastated by the question of why I didn’t stand up for myself. Why did I stay frozen in my chair every month? Why enter the room with him in the first place? Why not tell my parents when I wrote them?
We had been conditioned to be seated and stay seated for male leadership from the time we were primary children. I was in a new place adjusting to a new culture while the man the church assigned to protect and guide was instead somebody who made me feel gross and violated. We were told that our mission president was called by God. We had to sustain him to go to the temple.He had all the keys to get me anywhere, literally and figuratively. To this day I can’t imagine a scenario where I could have gotten help, had people believe me, and been able to finish my mission.
I have so many regrets that I didn’t do more to help other sisters. There are sisters I could have helped or warned or rescued from him. I didn’t act because of ignorance and the commandment to sustain leaders. I worry that what might have happened to women who followed me is my fault for not doing more. I should have done more. But what more could I have done?
There was one moment when it seemed like somebody with power might actually help us. An area authority spoke at our zone conference and he scolded our mission president in front of the entire mission for breaking rules. The sisters who had been harassed tried not to get too excited, but we were hopeful about what had happened. Was this it, were we being saved? Would this area authority tell the brethren in Salt Lake City about the fallen mission president and we would get a new one? Would this area authority interview us and use powers of discernment to say he knew all along and we could reveal everything that had been going on? Unfortunately no, that never happened. Instead, the area authority met with some office elders, but never any sisters. He brought his wife with him to our mission, but she didn’t meet with any sisters, either.
Today, that visiting area authority is an apostle. I sustain him, but I always watch his conference talks with a longing heart because I can imagine how he might have saved us from those filthy interviews. If only he had looked a little closer! If only somebody had talked to the sisters! If that future apostle or his wife had just talked to the sister missionaries, those years of sexual harassment might have been stopped. I wouldn’t have to carry these years of pain and this guilt for the sisters I didn’t save.
A few years ago, I did try to report what happened to me to a member of my local bishopric. He didn’t believe me and insisted that his mission president was one of the greatest men he ever knew, and that therefore my mission president must have been beyond reproach. He dismissed what I said so quickly I know it was never reported up the chain. I definitely won’t be reporting it again.
The three things I feared the most and that kept me from standing up to my abuser were fear for my church membership, the possibility of my mission ending early, and worry about whether I would be believed. The Church newsroom’s March 20 press release in response to the Joseph Bishop scandal used all three of my greatest fears to discredit the victim. They cast doubt on her statement, despite the recording of his confession. They pointed out that she is a “former” member of the church and that she was only “briefly” a missionary. It is evil to use an abuse victim’s greatest fears as a weapon against her and as a deterrent from future reporting of sexual assault and harassment.
I hope that in the future, the church will be more respectful of those who have endured this pain, apologize publicly when harm has been done, respect victims’ privacy, and take bigger steps to prevent it from happening again. As it stands, the Church’s response succeeded–I am too afraid to post this story under my own name or to name my mission president. He is still active in the church, still interacting with young women, still a threat. I hold the Church responsible for that because they have created a culture where women are silenced.
I want other sister missionary-survivors to know that they are not alone and that I wish I could have saved them. Abuse victims deserve to be believed, protected, helped, and supported. Just as the sisters in my mission literally linked arms and helped each other out each month when we went into that interview room, we sisters churchwide should be linking arms with the Joseph Bishop’s victim because she is all of us. We sisters should all serve, lift, and support each victim of abuse the way actresses in Hollywood united in the fight against Harvey Weinstein. Hollywood women shouldn’t be known as more supportive and nurturing females than our own Relief Society! Just as the sister missionaries in my mission helped each other survive my mission president’s filthy verbal assaults, today’s sisters should step up and support each other when reports of abuse are heard. We should be especially diligent in reaching out when the men among us use the media to attack our wounded sisters.