Domestic Violence and Mormonism

Domestic violence is disturbingly prevalent in the world at large. Worldwide, most estimates suggest 1 in 5 women has been abused by a man. When you add in violence perpetrated against men, children, and the elderly, it’s a sobering thought. And in some communities, domestic violence is more common than not. “Domestic Violence Against Women: A Systemic Review of Prevalence Studies,” a 2009 article from the Journal of Family Violence, compiled data from 134 studies, and their results were grim. They found that in some regions of the US, as many as 70% of women experience domestic violence (Alhabib, Nur & Jones). It’s little wonder that the same study describes domestic violence as an epidemic, an assessment supported by the researchers’ finding that the prevalence of domestic violence has increased over time.

For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it’s just as disturbing to admit that domestic violence is alive and well, and in our midst. While I can’t provide specific statistics on the prevalence of domestic violence within the church (and I wouldn’t be so foolish as to guess), I can share some of the evidence I’ve encountered through firsthand and secondhand individual accounts. When I was growing up, my mother told me the story of a woman she had been good friends with years before. This woman married an older man, and shortly after the wedding he began abusing her. When she went to her bishop for counsel, his advice was, “Maybe he wouldn’t hit you if you were a better wife.” My mother’s friend eventually left her husband, but she also left the church.

In another instance, a friend of mine was sexually abused by three separate individuals while she was growing up – all of the individuals were living with her family at the time, and two were related to her. When she told her mother, her mother at first couldn’t believe her. None of the perpetrators faced church discipline, and she described to me the horror of watching one of her abusers administer sacrament. When I attended the Clothesline Project (dedicated to fighting the cult of silence surrounding abuse) at Utah Valley University in 2005, I found similar sentiments expressed by survivors: I’ve been abused, and he still holds a temple recommend.

While I’d like to think that the many accounts I’ve heard are anomalies, the consistency with which I continue to hear these accounts leaves me doubtful. For instance, one semester I asked students in a Creative Writing class at Brigham Young University to write out their autobiographies. At least 30% of the students had experienced abuse as a child. When I told my mentor, he nodded and indicated that the prevalence of abuse was not unusual for this assignment.

The Church is clear in its anti-abuse stance, but we still face systemic problems. In addition to local leaders who generally lack the training to help victims, ward communities can be volatile toward victims whose perpetrators are well-liked. As Whoopi Goldberg made us all aware in her desperate defense of a rapist, nobody wants to see abuse in their friends. Years ago, a woman from the ward where I grew up, whose husband had served as bishop in the past, sought a divorce and revealed that he had abused her for years. Many accused her of lying, certain their friend and former bishop would never do something so atrocious. In other cases, victims who are unable to acquire a restraining order find themselves stuck attending the same congregation as their abuser – and given that the only way to attend a new congregation is by moving or by receiving permission from a leader such as a bishop or stake president, some victims may leave The Church simply because it is too dangerous (emotionally, if not physically) to be in an abuser’s presence.

But The Church, and even Mormon culture, can be just as powerful in supporting victims and survivors. Structurally, the church is set up to prevent and eradicate abuse – though that eradication depends largely on the repentance of the abuser. No abuser who has not fully repented, through the proper channels, is worthy to hold the Priesthood, serve in church callings, or participate in temple ordinances. And while local leaders may at times fail to understand abuse, they have a hotline that they are instructed to call for advice on such matters.

Furthermore, when Mormon communities choose to support victims, that support provides emotional shelter that is necessary to healing. When I was first recovering from my own exposure to abuse, everything from Priesthood Blessings to supportive friends and visiting teachers played an important role – particularly in light of how many abusers deliberately alienate their victims. Fighting that alienation through community is essential to helping a victim feel strong enough to seek help. And while many in LDS communities are ignorant about abuse, even that ignorance is changing. For instance, lesson 12 in the current Sunday School manual includes material for discussing abuse. Local leaders can help even more by inviting guest speakers with expertise on the topic. And even when it comes to leaving an abuser, as difficult as it may be for a stay-at-home mother to transition back into the workforce, Latter-day Saints have access to a welfare system that can ease the process.

And all of these benefits relate to the organization. When we consider the benefit the Atonement of Jesus Christ plays in helping victims heal – and requiring and helping abusers repent – it becomes clear that Latter-day Saints have immense resources for combatting abuse.

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  • Saskia

    I found this a very interesting post. As a survivor of abuse myself (though in a non-Mormon environment) I struggled a lot with the perceived religiosity of my abuser (he was in seminary to become a Protestant minister. It might sound bitter, but luckily for all those he might have shepherded, he was asked to leave shortly before I left him. Not because of what he did to me, but because he couldn’t master Hebrew. The irony). It’s one of the reasons going to church is hard for me, and I’m glad to hear that the LDS church does have resources. Here’s to a future in which they’re fully used! (Or better yet, no more in need.)

  • Bill Morris

    A well thought out and presented article. However, I still do not understand how we live in one of he least abusive, toward women, religions in the world and we still continue to concentrate on the few to the detriment of the many and the uninformed, while giving a pass to the systematically abusive other religions of the world. If we strengthened Christianity, which is predominately respectful towards all people, including women, instead of protecting religions that murder and mutilate people, especially women, that disagree with them, wouldn’t we provide stronger havens for all abused people?

    • Depressed Mormon Mommy

      I’m not sure where you are getting your statistics about Christianity having less cases of domestic violence, from the CDC’s 2011 survey I don’t believe any specific religion had a correlation with domestic violence, Bill? And that isn’t even including heavily Christian nations outside of the US. Perhaps a source citation would be helpful.
      And regardless of that, even one case of domestic violence is too many (and we have far far far more than that). To take it to the true heart of the matter, Christ continually preached about “The One” and offending not his Little Ones. Also, I don’t think anyone who is worried about domestic violence is “giving a pass” to other violent cultures.
      “If we strengthened Christianity, which is predominantly respectful towards all people, including women, instead of protecting religions that murder and mutilate people…” I’m not sure what your point was here, but it didn’t seem like you were really being respectful towards all people. And I’m not sure how you think this will provide stronger haven for all abused people. Education, articles like this, making people aware of the “few” is what typically creates stronger havens for the abused. Because people can’t help with a problem until they know it exists.

    • Servanne Illien

      You hit it right on the nail …. in true christian family there should neither be neglect, abuse or cheating … just love respect caring and taking care, dialogue and true partnership

  • Christopher Smith

    Thank you for sharing, Emily. I was deeply disturbed, though not particularly surprised, to read about the reactions of those who blamed the victims and defended the abusers. Because of its moral aspect and its provision of a constructive outlet for men to raise their self-esteem, the Church probably prevents more abuse than it enables. But on the other hand, the patriarchal authority structure and strong emphasis on obedience probably do enable many abusers and contribute to victim-blaming. There needs to be a deliberate effort to raise awareness and sensitivity to this issue. This blog post is a start.

  • dvworker

    Thanks for your article. I work in family violence prevention for another faith community, and we too face the issue of how our clergy handles abuse. The key is more people speaking out and demanding change. I wonder if this is an issue that Relief Society could champion?

  • christine

    Where does a woman go for help with marital abuse when she can’t get help from her local leaders? I tried to explain more, but got a message saying it seemed a bit spammy. It wasn’t spam–I am desperately seeking help and I run into walls where ever i turn. I am starting to understand why some people feel negatively about the Priesthood in the church. I use too many words to try and explain, and it’s spam–I go to my leaders—-and they don’t take me seriously. I feel like I don’t matter. My mother would never believe me that my step-father was abusive until my sisters spoke up after 20 years. The church says we can go to our leaders for help–but when they don’t help—who do we go to?

  • margiemu

    I was in a severly abusive marriage for 25 years. I tried to get help from Bishops, but it was really hard. Partly because it’s incredibly difficult to go in to a man who has authority over you and talk about what’s going on when you are being abused and cut down and blamed for evertying by another man. It took me years to work up the courage to even say something. And when I finally did start talking to my Bishop, and eventually Stake President, they tried to be helpful but I don’t think they really understood abuse, and so their councel wasn’t really very helful, and in fact sometimes contriubted to the problem. I didn’t really get concrete help until I read a book called “Why does he Do That” by Lundy Bancroft, which helped clarify for me what was going on, and mostly when I finally went to the local Domestic Violence program, and talked with and advocate there and started getting help from a councelor who actually understood they cycle of abuse, and the dynamics that happen in an abusive relationship. I ended up filing for divorce, and in conjuction with that, filing a Demostic Violence Protection Order. My leaders have been supportive of that move (I think), but they never really helped me to get there, if hat makes sense. It seemed to me that they were still trying to convince me that I could make the marriag work if I tried hard enough up until I filed for divorce.