A recent news story detailed the history of domestic abuse that a high-ranking political figure, Rob Porter, also a Mormon, had been accused of by his ex wives. When one of his exes shared that Rob was choking her when he was angry, her bishop expressed concern, but ultimately did nothing. Several political allies and friends, including Orrin Hatch, immediately defended Rob against what they called “false allegations” and a “smear campaign.”

Carolyn Homer wrote an excellent OP on By Common Consent about the need for Mormon clergy to take complaints of domestic abuse seriously. Her post is well worth a read and can be found here. Many of the comments were fantastic and on point.

Commenter “retired old woman” said:

Boys are taught that as priesthood leaders they are to preside in their homes once they marry, but are they ever taught about how to make their wives happy, how to parent, how to make a home? Homes are for husbands and dads too, not just wives and moms. Why are we not teaching boys in Young Men’s classes how to excel as husbands and fathers? When I was growing up, it seemed to me that all of the Young Women lessons I sat through were about eventually being a wife and mother. I sat through these lessons week after week while all the boys my age were playing basketball.

Another commenter “ItHappenedToMe” detailed her poor experience at the hands of her leaders:

Husband beat me on vacation – I had bruises all over my back for 3 weeks. I mistakenly turned to our Mormon Bishop for help instead of law enforcement. I was told by every male leader for 4 years that “You are a woman, you are not allowed to get a divorce” “It’s ‘unfortunate’ but men have the right to use physical violence to control their family members because they are the patriarch & in control of the family” “Your job as a woman is to support your husband in whatever they do, so go home & support your husband.”

As far as Mormon handbooks, printed & written statements about “zero tolerance for abuse” that is the biggest pile of BS ever. I was specifically told by our ignorant Stake President (who is a realtor & has no professional training to advise anyone about anything) that although that is official Mormon Church policy, he as a male leader has the privilege of “personal revelation” so even though the church says it doesn’t tolerate abuse, he prayed to God & got personal revelation that my husband is “a wonderful man” who “loves you very much” and so no discipline is going to happen. And…”you just don’t understand because you’re a woman and you don’t have the Priesthood.”

So thankfully I didn’t believe their lies & BS so I did go the police the next time he hit me & I did file for divorce. He is still an active & fully-loved member in our church congregation – he’s a white male who pays 10% of his doctor’s salary to the them & there’s no way the Mormon church would ever turn him away. I on the other hand have been completely shunned. And what did I do…oh that’s right, my husband hit me & I said “this is not okay, never again.”

When an abused person turns to a bishop for help, the results are sometimes directly harmful, and often not helpful. Because we have a lay clergy, bishops do not always immediately recognize the signs of abuse, and abuse victims often sound unreliable; it is a feature of the abuse. Their confidence is shattered, they may misremember details or otherwise sound shaky.

By constrast, abusers usually feel their actions are appropriate and vindicated; often they believe themselves to be the victims! “Why did you make me do that?” the abuser will ask the abused. They see themselves forebearing until they reach a breaking point. They may state that their partner is manipulative or difficult. The reality is that they are hyper-sensitive and have a hair trigger temper that they take to extremes, lashing out at the person they see as the source of their frustration. The person who is truly at risk is the abused one, which is why complaints of abuse must be taken seriously and investigated.

A 1999 video with Dallin Oaks talks about the responsibility bishops have to deal with abuse when they become aware of it:

Elder Oaks talks about the need for bishops to use “inspiration and discernment” to identify abuse. However, many abused women report that their abuse went unaddressed by bishops when they were in distress. “Inspiration and discernment” are vague and easily misunderstood when someone has limited experience identifying abuse. The video focuses a lot on using the atonement to help people deal with abuse: both victims and perpetrators. But what does this mean in a “boots on the ground” sense? A breakaway at the 3:22 mark shows Pres. Hinckley speaking about the importance of families as central to the Plan of Salvation. While it emphasizes the accountability of abusers and that they are breaking covenants, it also potentially implies that a premium must be placed on keeping families intact, despite abuse. Elder Oaks warns, “Bishop, never minimize the seriousness of abuse,” and I’m sure he’s in earnest. At the 16:41 mark, however, the steps bishops should take puts the perpetrator’s repentance needs alongside with victim protection, implying it’s an equal concern. There is also a lot of focus in the video on consulting with the church’s legal hotline. It can leave bishops with the impression that all actions are equally important: protecting the church and themselves from liability, protecting the abuser from damnation, and protecting the lives and well-being of victims of abuse. That lack of focus and urgency leads one commenter to state:

This video sheds light on why my bishop responded to abuse by not doing anything.

Another commenter adds:

This video shows Mormons can no longer use the “well that Bishop was wrong but it doesn’t represent the whole church” excuse. Mormon leaders are trained from the very top to react this way. Only tell the authorities when required by law, pray to know if accusers are lying, protect the perpetrators as well. This kind of culture will cause things like what we saw with Rob Porter to happen again and again.

Why don’t bishops take every allegation of abuse seriously already? Presumably, they are good-hearted men who care about preventing abuse. Most of them would probably be sickened to think that a child or spouse was being hurt by a family member. There are probably as many reasons as there are people involved, but here are a few:

  • Bishops are very seldom trained in how to identify abuse unless they happen to have a career that has given them such training.
  • Bishops sincerely want to preserve marriages, not recommend divorce.
  • Bishops may see both the abused and abuser as equally culpable, particularly when the abuser explains that the abused is (as they see it) crazy, manipulative, immature, making things up, etc.
  • Advice to bishops to focus on the healing power of atonement may lead to them not involving appropriate authorities, thinking that the atonement will cover everything. This leaves the abused in the situation of having no supportive resources when their life may be in danger. Jesus loves the abused, sure, but he’s not going to help her pack her things and get a restraining order. He’s not going to help her find a domestic shelter for protection. Those are things that human beings have to do.
  • Bishops may feel they need to serve the needs of both spouses equally, but in the case of abuse, that is a conflict of interest. The abuser is endangering the abused. You cannot “counsel” it away. The priority must be preserving the life and health of the abused one, not the reputation and possible future repentance of the abuser.
  • Bishops, who are all male, may identify more with the male’s perspective. They may know him better or simply find men more credible. What they need to understand is that the abuser’s perspective is not accurate, and many abusers are charming and articulate. They wield power over their spouse who loses credibility as a result. One looks like a winner while the other looks like a loser. That’s a red flag. Marriages should look equal and have mutual respect.
  • Some bishops as a rule talk to the husband whenever it comes to matters in the family, considering him the patriarch and therefore the more responsibility party. Letting men represent the family privileges the male’s perspective and renders the woman’s experience invisible or less important. It is a perfect scenario for abusers to go undetected. They get to define the truth unchallenged.
  • Doing nothing is so much easier than dealing with an abuse allegation. There is a strong human tendency to want to downplay an allegation of abuse or assume it will get better on its own. Bishops have limited time and skills to deal with such things, and depending on what else is going on, they may wishfully hope that the allegation isn’t serious.

One commenter on Carolyn’s post mentioned the warning signs of abuse in something called the Wheel of Power & Control. Here are the symptoms of an abusive relationship that bishops can look for, some healthier alternatives, and why Mormons might have unique vulnerability in this area due to the gender roles outlined in the Proclamation and the patriarchal assumptions that exist in the culture of the church:

EMOTIONAL ABUSE: Putting her down. Making her feel bad about herself. Calling her names. Making her think she’s crazy. Playing mind games. Humiliating her. Making her feel guilty.

What it might look like: The abused one may act nervous, bite fingernails, not make eye contact, speak too softly, be unable to clearly articulate her feelings or fears. She may express feelings of inadequacy or guilt that are not matched by her spouse’s feelings of guilt or inadequacy. Her spouse may indicate that she bears the majority of blame in the relationship or in parenting failures or not correct her when she makes such statements.

Healthy Alternative: RESPECT. Listening to each other non-judgmentally. Being emotionally affirming and understanding. Valuing each others’ opinions.

Mormon call out: Some Mormons feel guilty about their shortcomings. Some are scrupulous. A healthy marriage is one in which neither spouse is trying to make the other feel guilty or embarrassed for shortcomings.

ISOLATION: Controlling what she does, whom she sees and talks to, what she reads, and where she goes. Limiting her outside involvement. Using jealousy to justify actions.

What it might look like: The abuser may be paranoid about interactions the spouse has outside the relationship or may portray his spouse as being flirtatious or unfaithful, too reliant on other confidantes, or lacking focus on him and the family and what he sees as her responsibilities in the home.

Healthy Alternative: TRUST AND SUPPORT. Supporting her goals in life. Respecting her right to her own feelings, friends, activities, and opinions.

Mormon call out: Even if a woman is a SAHM, that doesn’t mean her contact with the outside world should be controlled or limited by her spouse.

MINIMIZING, DENYING, AND BLAMING: Making light of the abuse and not taking her concerns about it seriously. Saying the abuse didn’t happen. Shifting responsibility for abusive behavior. Saying she caused it.

What it might look like: He believes he is the victim or the aggrieved party, that she is manipulative, difficult, doesn’t “respect his authority” or is inferior in some way.

Healthy Alternative: HONESTY AND ACCOUNTABILITY. Accepting responsibility for self. Acknowledging past use of violence.  Admitting being wrong. Communicating openly and truthfully.

Mormon call out: “Honoring his priesthood” is something the husband should be admonished to do, not the wife.

USING CHILDREN: Making her feel guilty about the children. Using the children to relay messages. Using visitation to harass her. Threatening to take the children away.

What it might look like: He talks about the children as if they are a weapon he can use to control her or portrays her as a bad mother.

Healthy Alternative:  RESPONSIBLE PARENTING. Sharing parental responsibilities. Being a positive, nonviolent role model for the children.

Mormon call out: BOTH parents bear the responsibility for the care of and rearing of the children. When a husband expects his wife to bear sole or the majority responsibility for the care of the children and then he attempts to control how she does things or criticize her methods without participating, he’s on the Wheel of Power & Control.

ECONOMIC ABUSE: Preventing her from getting or keeping a job. Making her ask for money. Giving her an allowance. Taking her money. Not letting her know about or have access to family income.

What it might look like: She does not know how much money they have or she mentions having to ask him for money. He belittles her financial responsibility or justifies why he “has to” control her access to money.

Healthy Alternative: ECONOMIC PARTNERSHIP. Making money decisions together. Making sure both partners benefit from financial arrangements.

Mormon call out: Money should be shared fairly and equally within a marriage, not hidden or withheld, even if the wife is not earning in the workplace. A wife should never be prohibited from deciding to earn money.

MALE PRIVILEGE: Treating her like a servant: making all the big decisions, acting like the “master of the castle,” being the one to define men’s and women’s roles.

What it might look like: He talks over her and has strong opinions about what she should be doing and how she should do it. He is critical of her contributions to the family, her domestic or parenting skills, or what he sees as her wifely duties. He makes it clear that he is the sole decision maker in the family.

Healthy Alternative: SHARED RESPONSIBILITY. Mutually agreeing on a fair distribution of work. Making family decisions together.

Mormon call out: Gender roles should not be used as a weapon against one’s spouse or a way to limit the other person or to get out of unpleasant tasks. The person who does the majority of a specific task should have the majority say in how it is done. Work division should be mutually beneficial and agreed upon, not dictated by either spouse. Both spouses should be involved in decision making in the marriage.

COERCION AND THREATS: Making and/or carrying out threats to do something to hurt her. Threatening to leave her, commit suicide, or report her to welfare. Making her drop charges. Making her do illegal things.

What it might look like: She mentions that he has hurt her or threatened to hurt her. She is afraid he may harm himself or the children. She talks about being coerced to do things that are wrong. He talks about things she has done that are wrong as a way to blackmail her into doing what he wants.

Healthy Alternative: NEGOTIATION AND FAIRNESS. Seeking mutually satisfying resolutions to conflict. Accepting changes. Being willing to compromise.

Mormon call out: There is no veto power in a marriage. There is no “presiding” in an equal marriage. Marriage is two people discussing and deciding together. Nobody overrules the other one. Neither spouse should encourage the other in wrongdoing or use past mistakes as a way to coerce the other.

INTIMIDATION: Making her afraid by using looks, actions, and gestures. Smashing things. Destroying her property. Abusing pets. Displaying weapons.

What it might look like: She won’t make eye contact. She winces when he talks. He seems confident and self-assured, but she looks afraid or lacking in confidence. Weapons or damage to property are mentioned.

Healthy Alternative: NON-THREATENING BEHAVIOR. Talking and acting so that she feels safe and comfortable expressing herself and doing things.

Mormon call out: Women are full people, just like men, with brains, ideas, and opinions, not just feelings. If you think otherwise, you have no business being married to one. The second amendment is never the right to threaten your wife or family with a gun. Breaking things or threatening violence to others or self is a precursor to committing violent acts.

There are far too many examples of women whose bishops have dismissed their claims of abuse due to ignorance or unwillingness to believe that the man they think so highly of is capable of hurting his spouse or children. Hopefully, this latest scandal will result in improvements in bishop training and how we as a church handle abuse allegations.

  • What training do you think bishops should receive to identify abuse?
  • What role do you see a bishop’s discernment and intuition playing in identifying abuse?
  • Are these guidelines helpful? What are other gaps?