#MormonMeToo: A Year in Review
On October 15, 2017 actress Alyssa Milano sent out the call to raise awareness of sexual assault and harassment. Though the phrase “Me Too” originated in 2006 with activist Tarana Burke, this time it took off on social media. It was shared in 12 million Facebook posts within 24 hours. Many women spoke out about instances of abuse they had endured, ranging from great to small. It highlighted how widespread sexual assault and harassment are and their dehumanizing effect.
The intent of this article is to review some of the #MeToo stories within the LDS church and highlight some of the challenges facing the Mormon community. It is not comprehensive coverage, but hopefully provides a glimpse of what the Church has – and has not – done to address the issue of sexual violence.
On October 31st, 2017, Sam Young, a former bishop and active member, started a petition to stop one-on-one interviews with minors, and particularly end sexually-explicit questions. He had learned from his now-grown daughter that she had been asked about masturbation “all the time” as a youth, by her bishop, behind closed doors. His petition, which has now garnered more than 22,000 signatures, included a list of potential consequences, such as suicidal ideation, inappropriate shame and guilt, impaired sexual relations after marriage, normalizing children to sexual questions by adult men (grooming), and sexual abuse.
On December 11th, the church issued a statement in response to the petition. The church pointed to the importance of personal interviews as part of ministering to members and said leaders are counseled “to not be unnecessarily probing or invasive in the questions.” The church also pointed out that, “When a Church leader meets with a child, youth or woman, they are encouraged to ask a parent or another adult to be in an adjoining room, foyer or hall, and to avoid circumstances that may be misunderstood.”
What I found lacking in the church’s response was any validation that abuse happens in the church nor a promise to examine the appropriateness of interviews and how they might be made safer. It was only a couple of months before that a Mapleton, UT bishop had pleaded guilty to abusing boys in his ward.
In the sentencing of that case, Judge Thomas Low, called the bishop “a predator whose genuinely ‘good works’ in the community became a cloak for the crimes he was committing.”
One difficult aspect of abuse is recognizing that good people can do bad things. This was articulated by a woman who was abused by her father. “There is an emphasis in the [Mormon] community to focus on ‘the good’, to affirm the innate goodness of the human spirit.” In the article the woman also pointed to the parallel with powerful men in Hollywood and men in the church. “It’s men in power taking advantage of their positions of authority,” she said. “In the LDS church or any patriarchal religious community, it’s even more condensed and insulated, and there’s a lot of pressure to forgive and to not rock the boat.”
Tara Tulley, another abuse survivor and current therapist, also pointed out the ways the church blames victims. “Our [Mormon] culture objectifies women’s bodies. You’re told that if you’re wearing something immodest, you are walking pornography. It’s your responsibility to control how men see you,” Tulley said. “If you’ve been abused, you’re often told you need to forgive. That’s putting the responsibility on the victim.”
When the Rob Porter story broke in February 2018, other hurdles for victims in the church were made apparent. The domestic violence of White House senior aide and LDS member was revealed by the FBI during background checks. Porter’s two ex-wives described the abuse and the lack of help they received when going to their bishops.
Carolyn at By Common Consent did a wonderful post on the tendency for women to not be believed and the pitfall of untrained clergy. She says that some bishops handle situations of abuse well, “But many, many, many Bishops do not. They’re not adequately trained to handle it. Bless their serviceful hearts, but they have no experience in mental health, in domestic violence, in counseling. Hopefully, the Bishops’ own marriages are happy – but that means they have absolutely no frame of reference for toxic relationships. And the Handbook flat-out tells Bishops that they are never supposed to advocate for divorce. And so the Bishops parrot all of their religiously-driven, well-meaning, culturally-mired, utterly-destructive instincts.”
A month later, another major story of abuse broke. This time, a MTC mission president from the 80’s was accused of raping a sister missionary during his time there. The victim, McKenna Denson, had recently confronted him and taped his confession, which tape was then leaked to the press. Denson reported Bishop’s assault to church leaders, but was not believed. In the church’s initial statement, it described Denson as a “former church member, who served briefly as a missionary.” I felt it was an attempt to undermine the victim’s credibility and highlights the tendency to only believe the “perfect” victim – which of course there are none.
The Exponent Community quickly responded with an open letter to President Nelson pleading to do more to support victims and protect the vulnerable. The Exponent also put out the call to the Exponent and LDS communities to begin discussions and share suggestions related to the #MormonMeToo moment. Dozens of posts went up in ensuing months as the site became a safe place to share sensitive stories.
Shortly after Denson’s story came out, the church reiterated its stance against abuse. It also updated its guidelines to allow for the option for another adult to be present in the interview. Tresa Brown Edmunds, a Mormon writer and activist pointed out one problem with the policy change – the information only went out to men. “The way they released it shows that they are not opening this process outside of the current male hierarchy.” She went on to note that “the only way women, teens or children would know their right to have another person in the interview is if they have a bishop who makes it clear… and who cares and is sensitive.”
A few days later, Sam Young and hundreds of others marched on church headquarters to protest the continued practice of one-on-one sexually-explicit youth interviews, seeking a 10-word change in policy from the church’s general authorities: “No one on one interviews, no sexually explicit questions ever.” Young delivered books containing the stories of thousands of Mormon survivors of sexual abuse or Mormons who were harmed in one way or another by the interview process. A church spokeswoman met the group and declared, “We share a common concern for the safety and well-being of youth.”
Then at General Conference, just months after Rob Porter, mere weeks after McKenna Denson, and only days after Sam Young’s march, Elder Quentin Cook used the term “non-consensual immorality” when referring to the #MeToo movement. LDS sex-therapist Natasha Helfer Parker, briefly outlined why this language is problematic and encouraged church leaders to speak with trauma-informed therapists to help word things that would be healing for victims to hear. No other talk addressed abuse.
In April, Denson filed a civil lawsuit against the church, asserting the church did not respond properly to her allegations. The Huffington Post reported, “Denson said she told local Mormon leaders about the assault numerous times over the years, but that the church failed to take action against the leader. Instead, she says, Bishop was allowed to continue holding leadership positions that placed him in charge of hundreds of Mormon youth.”
On June 28th another woman came forward declaring the church failed to act to address sexual abuse. Kristy Johnson filed a lawsuit against her father for sexual abuse she endured starting at age six. While she did not file charges against the church, Johnson points out that church leaders failed to report the abuse to police.
The end of June also saw the church update guidelines for youth interviews. Jana Riess at Religion News Service highlighted the changes. She also referred to training that illuminated what can happen if we fail to put protections in place. “Our refusal to enact protections puts youth at risk in other contexts outside of church… Your actions condition the community to accept these behaviors as part of ministry and that also opens the door to predators.”
Exponent and Feminist Mormon Housewives bloggers also remarked on the downside of worthiness interviews:
“Even ‘best case scenario’ worthiness interviews border on (unintended) sexual abuse. This level of anxiety and fear around sexuality is toxic. And it is a direct result of a system that undermines and inhibits normal healthy sexuality and adult moral development. That is abusive and unacceptable.”
“I learned to sublimate my God-given instincts that protect me from danger to the authority of the church. I was made weaker and more vulnerable to abuse and harm as a result.”
“Having another adult present does not eliminate the inappropriateness of minors and women being questioned about their sexuality by a man.
…And most egregiously, the policy puts the onus on the minor child or adult woman to be informed about the policy and to invite another adult into the room.”
On July 29th, Protect LDS Children organizer, Sam Young, began a 21 day hunger strike to continue to bring attention to the danger of youth interviews and call for change. Two months later in September, he was excommunicated from the church.
In August, a BYU-Idaho student had her ecclesiastical endorsement revoked after her perpetrator reported her drinking to their bishop. The victim had reported the sexual assault to the Title IX office, where she was assured amnesty, yet the school still suspended her after the bishop pulled her endorsement. This only increases the silencing of victims as they fear punishment if they report assault. In 2016 the Salt Lake Tribune reported that students were being investigated for honor code violations when they reported sexual assault. This resulted in an advisory counsel and policy changes, including amnesty for victims. However, even with the new policy in place a survey revealed students still feared punishment. “More than 90 percent of respondents still believed that if they were assaulted, they would be investigated for Honor Code compliance — and 45 percent thought their ecclesiastical endorsements would be questioned.”
The BYU campus climate survey showed that many victims first turned to a family member or friend to disclose abuse, and to church leaders for formal support. Kurt Francom, a former bishop, agrees that Mormons often feel more comfortable seeking help from the church first. He said going to the police can feel daunting. “As a bishop, you sort of hope that it’s obvious. The individual comes in with a black eye or bruises on their arms, the signs of physical abuse and you think, oh I definitely need to take action.” But when the abuse is sexual or emotional and harder for untrained clergy to spot or understand, it’s easy for abuse to go unaddressed.
On September 27th the high cost of speaking out was revealed once again in the hearing of Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Dr. Blasey Ford testified that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when she was 15 and described being too afraid and ashamed to tell anyone. A new hashtag #WhyIDidntReport exploded on social media. In the end, the four LDS senators confirmed Kavanaugh. The night of the hearing, McKenna Denson held a rally against sexual violence in downtown Salt Lake. Denson said she will continue to speak out and hopes that by doing so she will help others.
On October 3rd a lawsuit was filed against Brenda and Richard Miles, alleging sexual abuse and cover-up by the LDS church. Brenda is the daughter of President Russell M. Nelson. The Miles family denies the allegations and the church released a statement calling the allegations of coverup or interference “baseless and offensive.” One of the plaintiffs hopes that the time is right for victims to be believed. “Victims need to be listened and heard and have a voice. I think now there’s a chance some members of the Mormon community will believe us.”
An interview with the mother of the children reiterates the obstacles for victims in the church. “She reported the abuse to police who didn’t pursue it very far. She also said LDS Church leaders did nothing, but Elder Neal A. Maxwell gave them a priesthood blessing instructing them to ‘forgive and forget.'”
Reverend Desmond Tutu moves the idea of forgiveness way beyond forgetting. He declares that naming the hurt and voicing the pain are key elements of forgiveness.
“Forgiveness does not relieve someone of responsibility for what they have done. Forgiveness does not erase accountability. It is not about turning a blind eye or even turning the other cheek. It is not about letting someone off the hook or saying it is okay to do something monstrous. Forgiveness is simply about understanding that every one of us is both inherently good and inherently flawed. Within every hopeless situation and every seemingly hopeless person lies the possibility of transformation.”
I pray for the day to see the church transformed to a community that supports victims and protects the vulnerable. Until then I will not turn a blind eye. I will not forget. I will not be silent.
This is the second in a three-part series. Part one reviewed the history of violence against women and part three will offer suggestions for action.