Guest Post: We will not be silenced #MormonMeToo
“Mom – I’ve been thinking about it, and I’ve realized that he took my agency away from me. I’ve been working on finding my voice again and I think the next step I need to take to find my voice and take back my agency is to post about what happened to me.” These words caused me to immediately panic. My 15-year-old daughter had spent the previous four months understanding and healing from a situation where a family member had been grooming and abusing her; it had taken her three months to even fully talk about what happened. I needed to protect her and posting on social media seemed like an incredibly vulnerable move – one in which I couldn’t control how people would respond. “I’ve already written what I want to post – do you want to read it?” She handed me her phone and I was completely blown away by what I read. I immediately knew she was right – she needed to take this step and I would not be the one to silence her. A few days later she bravely posted this on her Instagram account:
“I have been reluctant to share my story for so long but I think I am finally ready. so here goes nothing: as a 15-year-old, I was groomed, manipulated, and abused by a 29-year-old family member. he first made sure that he had my trust, then tried to learn everything about me: my favorite things, my likes and dislikes, my past, my fears, and any other information he could get. he would tell me stories that were very personal. he would treat me as if I were an adult. he would tell me every day how much he loved me and how important I was in his life. he began physically desensitizing me by hugging me for progressively longer amounts of time and touching me in ways that were inappropriate for this type of relationship. he would do anything to find time to be alone with me. he insisted on having late night conversations with me. he would tell me not to tell anyone. he would repeatedly state that our relationship was special and it was “our little secret”. he manipulated me into thinking that this was normal and perfectly okay. he would make me feel terrible if I said no or didn’t do something that he wanted me to do. he put me in a situation where I felt unsafe and terribly uncomfortable. I felt trapped. I could not escape. I. was. scared. he had so much power over me that I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone what was happening. but guys, god is real and he watches out for each of his children. my Bishop told me that the angels watching over me pulled me out of the situation right as it could have become a tragedy. they rescued me. I want each of you to know that you are not alone. if any of you have gone through or are going through a similar situation, please tell someone. it is WORTH it because YOU are worth it. know that it is not your fault, no matter how many times you feel it is. know that people love you, are there for you, and will do anything to make sure you are safe and happy. I wish I could have realized these things sooner and told someone a long time ago. the church is true, god is real, and he will help you get through anything and bring an immense amount of healing to you and your family. #metoo#timesup”
Ironically, that week my husband and I were finally able to meet with the Bishop of her abuser. We had been trying to meet with him for almost two months and found him to be less than responsive. There was no response at all to an initial text asking to meet, so I followed it up with another request – this time explaining to him how we were related to the wife of the abuser and how she had given us his contact information and was fine with us requesting the meeting – still no response. Next, our Bishop called this Bishop directly and told him that unless he had the understanding that this man was a dangerous predator, that he had been lied to. He also told him that we had a side to the story that needed to be shared and that our daughter, as the victim, had the right to be heard. Still nothing. Finally, our Bishop provided him with a copy of a letter that we had written to the abuser. Something in this letter finally got him to call and set-up a meeting with my husband and I. We had such high hopes for this meeting. We knew this Bishop had been lied to by the abuser; the abuser is a master manipulator and could sell snow to an Eskimo, but this was our opportunity to make sure his church leader heard the truth. We wanted to make sure that this never happened to another child again and that meant that this man could not ever serve with children or youth. While we were also working with the police, without certain evidence there was likely nothing they could do beyond keeping the report on file to corroborate with future victims. If we couldn’t do anything legally – we were hopeful that at least we could keep children in the church safe!
I don’t know what I expected this Bishop to say, but it certainly was not what came out of his mouth. After fumbling awkwardly through several sentences the Bishop finally said to us “would it be ok if we start at the beginning?”. “Yes of course”, we answered. I was completely dumbfounded and left speechless by his next sentence. “Can we all agree that in the beginning that this was a two-way emotional affair?” After several moments of shock, I found my voice and said that we absolutely could not agree to that. “First of all, you do understand that she is only 15 right? And that when this began she was actually still 14?” He answered that yes, he knew that. “15-year-olds cannot give consent – period.” He was quiet for a minute and then asked me to explain what I meant by that. I explained that calling it both “two-way” and “an affair” implied that there was consent on both parts. And that 15-year-olds could not give consent to an adult – period. He asked, “is that what the police are telling you?”. I explained that yes they were and that the SVU detective on our case would be happy to speak with him about it. On the inside, I wanted to scream “no no one needs the police to tell them that!”
At this point, he realized that the emotional affair approach was not working out so he tried a different angle. The next thing I heard him say was “One thing that is hard in these situations is when one person is raised in a home where kissing on the cheek, hugging and holding hands is a sign of affection and comfort between family members, and another person is raised in a home where those actions are always considered romantic.” Suddenly it was pretty clear that this was how the abuser had lied and convinced this Bishop that he’d done nothing wrong. My answer “yes – that would be difficult, if that was the situation; however, that is not the situation.” Over the next hour, my husband and I explained in great detail the ways that this man had used his status as a Priesthood holder, used the Temple, scriptures and conference talks to convince our daughter that what he was doing was ok. We explained how he had manipulated situations to get her alone, systematically groomed her and ultimately forced her to endure unwanted physical contact. We explained how he not only told her not to tell anyone but also told her that if anyone found out, it would be her that they would be mad at. The Bishop listened to us as we talked, asked clarifying questions and seemed to understand. At one point he even teared up when he read a statement written by our daughter, similar to her post above. It all seemed so black and white to me. How could anyone hear these stories and not immediately recognize that a child had been abused?
As we wrapped up the meeting, he said that he felt that we were very concerned about finding out what the abusers “church punishment” was going to be and he needed to let us know that his primary responsibility was to protect the confidentiality of his ward member. I was confused – isn’t his primary responsibility to protect children? I explained that we actually were not concerned with the specifics of his “church punishment” rather our goal was to make sure that no child was ever abused by this man again. I asked him specifically if he had called the church abuse hotline and he indicated that he had not. I said, “all we are asking is that you call the church abuse hotline and work with them on this situation.” He ended the meeting by telling us that he would consider calling the hotline. Consider it? What does that mean? Why would you NOT call the hotline? Who are you protecting Bishop? Why does he hold all of the power when it comes to this hotline? Where is the number for me to call?
It has been less than three months since this meeting and during that time, the Bishop has met with the abuser and his wife several times. In these meetings, he told them that he does not consider this abuse (meaning he likely never called the abuse hotline), that the wife should stay with the abuser, and that the abuser should wait to make any kind of apology until emotions are not quite as raw. This past Sunday, he blessed his baby. It has been 7 months since the abuse was discovered, and less than 3 months since this Bishop heard the whole truth.
I am angry, I am devastated and I am incredibly discouraged; however, I want to learn from my brave daughter’s example. We will not let another man take our agency away, we will not lose our voice. I will continue to advocate for my daughter every single day and I will do everything I can to prevent this from ever happening again. Something has to change. We cannot protect abusers. We cannot ask spouses to blindly stay in marriages where they and their children are at risk. We cannot doubt victims and we absolutely cannot promote a culture where it is ok for a church leader to believe that a 15-year-old is capable of consent. The church policy on abuse states that the hotline should be called for EVERY case where there is abuse or risk of abuse. As long as church leaders feel that they are qualified to determine what is and what is not abuse, this policy does not go far enough. Bishops need to be required to call every time there is mention of abuse, not just when they think there is abuse; and they need to be held personally accountable if they chose to violate this policy. Additionally, members need access to a hotline so their access to help is not limited by the judgments of one church leader. Above all, the focus at all times should be on the safety and well-being of victims and not on protecting the confidentiality and reputation of the abusers. #MormonMeToo