General Conference was by almost all accounts, a real home run. But there was one glaring thing missing (yes, aside from the much-anticipated 2-hour block): the church’s plans to hold sexual abusers accountable, particularly when they are in leadership positions. The only reference to this was Cook’s poorly worded verbal facepalm decrying “non-consensual immorality.” I’m glad we’re talking about consent–finally–but calling rape “non-consensual immorality” is like calling murder non-consensual suicide. It’s a slap in the face to victims, making them sound like they are now immoral. While I’m sure that’s not what his intention was, and hopefully this terrible phrase will be redacted in the printed version, it demonstrates the lack of understanding and listening to victims up to this point. We haven’t, as a church, really understood what has happened to so many in our midst. That’s an institutional sin that needs to be recognized and repented.

I recently had the honor of participating in a panel interview with Doug Fabrizio of KUED along with Natasha Helfer Parker and Lindsay Hansen Park about the emerging Joseph Bishop scandal, and the church’s announcement that parents or other adults could now be allowed to sit in with their children during youth interviews, and that leaders are not to counsel victims of abuse to remain in abusive relationships. Those seem like common sense solutions, although they don’t really cut to the heart of what we do about abusers who get into positions of power in the church. Abusers are pretty good at finding people to groom and target, and we still have a dreadful history of giving women disastrous advice when they are in these situations. Several callers shared stories in which they or their mothers were told not to report their abuse or to remain with their abuser for fear that if they didn’t they wouldn’t get any financial support from their abusive father/husband.

I was invited to participate because of a post I did at By Common Consent that outlined the information in Church Handbook 1 (2010 edition) and some advice for victims of abuse to help them navigate the system the best they can. While justice is probably not possible, the simple fact is that leaders are given a copy of the handbook, and if your abuser is a church leader, he’s got information you don’t have. He can use that handbook information to help him navigate the situation and avoid accountability.

A few salient points from the interview that I wanted to highlight:

What is the purpose of church discipline? This discussion started with religion writer Lee Hale at the beginning of the interview.

  • Is the purpose to rehabilitate abusers, to allow them to repent? If so, that’s quite a rosy view of what a bishop–or anyone–is capable of achieving.
  • Is it to prevent future abuse and protect potential victims? We certainly don’t have a great track record at this one, and the handbook seems designed to make it difficult. Even if victims are (now) encouraged to go to the police and open an investigation, that simply means, according to the handbook, that any church disciplinary actions against the alleged abuser will be on hold until the outcome of the investigation and trial. There is no injunction against that person remaining in a position of power while the outcome is pending. Huge miss, easily remedied.
  • Is it to provide justice and healing for the abused or to give them a sense of closure?  If so, man, we are doing a terrible job at this one. At least we are going to quit telling them to stay in abusive relationships, but that’s a pretty low bar for improvement.
  • Is it to protect the church’s image and to prevent damaging litigation, thereby instilling more confidence in the confession process? This one seems likely in that the church has a hotline for bishops to use when they encounter an abuse charge, but the hotline is to the church’s lawyers, to ensure the bishop and church are protected from litigation! However, providing cover for abusers in our leadership ranks is a terrible strategy to avoid bad PR. Taking victims seriously is a much better PR strategy, and also happens to be the right thing to do.

How do you reform a sex offender? Natasha pointed out that even with decades as a licensed therapist and 7 years specifically as a licensed sex therapist, she is not qualified to rehabilitate a sex offender. The idea that minimally-trained church leaders can discern when a sex offender is cured is a very uninformed and naive idea. Look, I have no training other than watching all 19 seasons of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and even I know that.

Looking into the abyss. Because we prefer to remain pure and sheltered, even avoiding R-rated movies in many cases, we aren’t great at recognizing the darker aspects to people. We don’t look at these things in ourselves, and we don’t see them when they exist in others. Instead, we naively believe “Oh, good-hearted Brother S0-and-so would never do such a terrible thing!”

Women being taken seriously. Because women are not involved in many church councils, decision making bodies, and particularly in the confession and church discipline process, men in these roles are not accustomed to understanding a woman’s perspective. Sometimes this makes it easier for abusers to gaslight and marginalize their victims, claiming they are crazy, emotional, too sensitive, or just making things up. That’s how abusers stay out of hot water for their crimes. It’s a staple of how they get away with it, and we make it very easy in our church culture where listening to women is optional, a bonus if you have time and the inclination, but certainly not required.

Those dreaded local leaders. Our greatest strength is often our greatest weakness, and so it is with having an untrained clergy. We don’t do a consistently great job at discerning the abusers among us, taking appropriate actions to prevent or address abuse, or assisting victims in healing. We are too proud of our untrained clergy to ask the experts–and there are many out there. We claim we have the gold standard at dealing with and preventing abuse, but the reality is far from that. We sneer at the credentials of experts, claiming that we know more because we have the gift of discernment. Victims would be better served by humble reliance on experts than a bishop’s arrogant belief in his own intuition or ability to follow the Spirit.

The comparison to Catholicism. One caller said that this was on par or worse than the Catholic church’s scandal. I certainly think we should take this seriously, but it’s not a contest. The Catholic issue was also different in that their professional, supposedly celibate clergy, were systematically sexually abusing children and then covering it up at very high levels. It hasn’t been demonstrated that this is the case here, but that doesn’t get us off the hook either. This is a different flavor of problem, one that requires its own solutions.

Should the church apologize? This question always comes up, and I have to say, I certainly think it couldn’t hurt. Instead our time-tested approach is to throw local leaders under the bus, implying that they are rogue agents using bad judgment without the sanction of the church. That would be a whole lot more believable if it wasn’t our modus operandi. The excuse is wearing thin. At least apologize that rogue bishops are given such free rein to make bad calls.

The perfect victim. We absolutely have to quit expecting victims of sexual assault to behave like anything other than a person who is traumatized, whose life has been ruined, whose trust has been betrayed. Calling out that Joseph Bishop’s victim left her mission early and is no longer a member of the church was a low blow, definitely un-Christlike behavior. Why do we think she left her mission early and left the church? Because she was sexually assaulted by a Church-sanctioned leader and then not believed! What standard of victim behavior would satisfy us as “good enough”? Sex offenders are excellent at choosing victims, and they are excellent at discrediting them. We should expect this, but for some reason (see above), we don’t.

Victims don’t know the rules, but perpetrators do. We’ve literally given leaders the handbook, and made it secret, preventing their victims (if they are sex offenders) from knowing what is due process in the church and what is not. Leaders have told victims some pretty outrageous things because they can, either due to misunderstanding of what the handbook says, or due to not believing the victims and wanting to appease them or send them on their way. We enable this when we keep everyone but leaders in the dark about what the handbook says.

Gender roles contribute to the problem. Abuse flourishes when victims are financially dependent on their abusers. Encouraging women to stay out of the workforce makes them more vulnerable to abusers. Several callers shared stories that were from decades past in which their local leaders told them they had to stay with their abusers because they were financially dependent on them. When we preach as ideal a situation in which women cannot support themselves financially, we unwittingly and unintentionally make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship. It works out fine when a single breadwinner makes enough money and is a trustworthy, good spouse. It harms women disproportionately when a man is an abusive monster in sheep’s clothing who also happens to hold the purse strings. Women in these situations are even more vulnerable.

I wanted to do a quick follow up article to that post with the advice I would give to the church, so here goes:

  • Take ALL abuse claims seriously. This doesn’t mean “believe women,” but it does mean assume that where there’s smoke there’s fire. False accusations are very rare. The church’s revised statement also says this.
  • Immediately remove from leadership anyone accused of sexual abuse. This is kind of a no-brainer, but it would be a change. Being in a leadership role is a privilege, not a right.
  • Make a second adult present in an interview the rule and not the exception. First choice would be to scrap these interviews altogether. Worthiness is self-reported anyway. Let kids self-select out if they feel they are not worthy. By making it an exception that must be requested, it means that the most vulnerable kids–those who don’t want to rock the boat or don’t have parental support–will still be targeted and groomed. They are even easier to identify now.
  • Create a victim hotline and use it. The fact that the hotline is to help bishops and not victims is pretty damning. It’s fine to do both, but victims need to come first. How can we claim we have the gold standard without this?
  • Don’t ask sexual questions of minors–or anyone–beyond “Do you live the Law of Chastity as it has been explained to you?” Nothing is lost by eliminating this type of questioning. We don’t train bishops or members how to set appropriate boundaries for this type of discussion, and it’s a minefield. Let’s quit walking in minefields.
  • Stop telling women not to work outside the home. If they choose that, great, that’s their choice. By telling them that they are somehow derelict if they earn money, we are morally complicit if their financial supporter is abusive or threatens to impoverish them if they leave.
  • Get up to speed on the science regarding sex offender rehabilitation. We aren’t rehabilitating them; by fooling ourselves into thinking we can, we are enabling further abuse.
  • Apologize already. I don’t care if Fox News says we never apologize. Apologize for the local leaders being buffoons if you must distance yourselves from them. Whatever. But victims of abuse deserve an acknowledgment that they are heard and that we care, and that includes an apology. Mistakes were made.
  • Involve women in church disciplinary courts. Not having women in council in these matters is frankly pretty scary at this point, like sitting trial in the 1960s. No thanks. Consider them “consultative” or “witnesses” or whatever you have to, but we need to hear from women in discussing offenses against women. Change policy to include the RS president and her counselors (or YW or Primary) and ask them to weigh in.
  • Publish the Handbook 1. Make it so that everyone can see what due process is.
  • Be clear about the purpose of church discipline. Maybe we should get out of the church discipline game altogether.