Moral Judgement and the Problem of Protecting the Church’s ‘Good Name’

Moral Judgement and the Problem of Protecting the Church’s ‘Good Name’ August 18, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 2.14.21 PMSadly, the church is the religious home of  both victims and perpetrators of crimes and abuses.

I don’t expect to never see these kinds of abuses in the church.  Mormons are just as prone as anyone else to lapses in self-control and moral reasoning.  But what concerns me most is the sometimes unhealthy ways in which Mormon communities  manage the consequences for victims who share the same religious space as their offenders.  What concerns me is that often the first reaction to abuses that occur within the walls of Mormonism is, “How can we protect the good name of the church?”  rather than “How can we protect the victim?”


Let me explain what I mean with a few examples:


I know  of  a young person who was groomed and sexually abused by a youth leader.  At the criminal hearing the perpetrator was flanked by a large group of church members who wanted to support the offender (“Without judgment”,  they said).   All the while the victim and their family had to witness first-hand what looked like fawning  court-room support for the perpetrator while they took their lonely seats on the empty side of the court room.


Several years ago a former area authority seventy  in New Zealand was prosecuted for fraud.  He extracted $1.2 million mostly from church members after being conned in an elaborate Nigerian scam.  His fraud included extorting $200,000 out of an 82 year old widow, who at the  sentencing  ‘sat alone in the back of the court.’  No statement was issued from the LDS church in New Zealand explaining the imprisonment of a former national church leader and how victims might receive support from the church that gave him status enough to sell his religious trustworthiness in exchange for money.


A former stake president was imprisoned for sexual abuse.  I became aware that a number of people I knew were visiting him.  When I asked them if on their visits they had discussed his crimes and did they make known how reprehensible they found them,  no one answered that they had because they were there to fellowship with him and  ‘they didn’t want to judge.’    So they listened  as he  happily recounted this singular opportunity imprisonment offered him to preach to his fellow inmates the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.   When it came to any knowledge about the victim and what was being done by the church for her most drew a blank.  Her story of abuse became less important than his triumphant spiritual creativity in prison.


In 2008 the Sunday Star Time in New Zealand reported:


The Church of Latter-day Saints knew its Sunday School teacher Raphael Caccioppoli had a history of sexual offending against boys but didn’t tell police because it did not think it legally had to.  Neither did the Mormon hierarchy tell the parents of the children he was left to supervise on his own.  Instead, it excommunicated the Justice Ministry judicial officer following a church court hearing in June last year.  Police become aware of his offending only after a tip-off from one of his associates in September.


The above is a small sample of New Zealand Mormon criminal proceedings  (which will draw few accolades from the locals for my frankness), but they demonstrate how these bad habits in Mormon moral reasoning seem to sneak across international boundaries.  Anyone with a Mormon ear to the ground has heard of these cases in the US but it might surprise that few countries are immune to what has become a well-known Mormon cultural penchant for backing the wrong horse.


Donna Kelly, a Utah County prosecutor at the Attorney General’s office sees numerous ecclesiastical leaders appearing in court for the perpetrators of sex abuses.    Yet if you asked  her if she recalls a single instance where Mormon leaders appeared for the victim, she’d reply, “Zero.”


Obviously this unwillingness to ‘judge’ (which is usually cited as the reason for the inflated support of the offenders that we habitually see in Mormon circles) is a bit disingenuous.  Mormons can certainly shun, exclude and kick out alongside the best of them.   But how Mormons do it and who they do it too is a bit more difficult to grasp.


Without diminishing the experience of victims of violence I’ve noticed an interesting correspondence between the way victims of crimes, and doubters are treated in the church.  Let me explain:


A couple of years ago I received an email from a much chagrined man who stated plainly to me how saddened he was by the historical excommunication of the late Ron Reece from an Auckland ward in the 1980’s.  Reece had, according to this high priest stalwart, made the claim that Joseph Smith was a polygamist.   Reece’s High Priest group was stunned and affronted at the time.    They duly reported his apostate offending to the Stake President and because Reece wouldn’t back down  about these supposedly spurious historical claims he was excommunicated.  I received this email from his fellow high priest after the church essays emerged affirming Reece’s claims with a forlorn,  ‘I feel sick at what we did?’


I recall when I first started blogging I was confronted by a church leader who told me in no uncertain terms that I had transgressed the unwritten law of Mormonism:


“You don’t air the church’s dirty laundry in public. “


Nobody denies there’s plenty of grubby messes in the washing pile but to say that all is NOT well in Zion in front of a crowd, to point out the Emperor’s lack of clothing,  is traitorous.


And here’s the connection between the way that victims of violence and those occupying the church margins with questions and doubt are treated:


In many respects victims of offences by fellow Mormons expose the cultural rot in the system in visceral and  painful ways.   Those abused by someone in the church  sometimes receive poor pastoral care, are shunned or suspected and  I think it’s because they puncture the delicate fabric of Mormon feeling that the church is perfection or that Mormons are by virtue of the organisational status beyond reproach.    The crimes committed against victims  in the church community unravel  the heady narrative held by many that the church is as it should be and that it is governed by a cadre of revelatory and trustworthy men who are in direct communication with Jesus.     So rather than surround the victim with care it seems to me that many Mormons feel it  more intuitive to wrap their support around the perpetrator – because if you can make the offender good again with your kindness and forgiveness, you can make the church good again.  If you can say,


“Sure you were a Stake President, and yes you sexually abused these children but the power of my forgiveness makes everything right again.  I don’t need to question a system that put you in that position in the first place.  My religious world remains intact, unwounded by the possibility that our systems and our culture might be spiritually defective, endangering the lives of the victims of your crimes.”


In any event offenders can be pretty good at convincing their leaders that they love the church even while they are molesting children or robbing the widow blind.


Racial and cultural minorities, LGBTQ folk, doubters, leave takers and  whistle-blowers are not in the same boat but they are in the same body of water.  Their very existence or their outspoken problematization of their church experience reveals its faults and its shortcomings. Yet they too rupture the veil of certainty that so many rely on to make sense of their lives.  So like victims of crimes they become a nuisance to the integrity of the system  rather than a cause for better spiritual and pastoral care, better theology and ultimately a better Christianity.


I write this post with not a little irritation that the Mormonism that currently presents is encumbered by an unfathomable immaturity in its organisational culture that draws a hard line in the sand, rejecting anything and anyone who might disrupt the ‘good’ members’ intractable confidence that the church is perfect and without accountability for any misdeed that occurs within its dominion.  It has few checks in its systems that arrests its constant reproduction of the spiritually juvenile,  organisationally infantile and obdurate cultural rule that all Mormons must protect the Church’s good name whether deserved or not.   This is a dangerous nonsense and leads me to ask:


“What is a good name?”  A good name is earned; it’s not coerced and bullied out of its adherents.  I have no spiritual or moral obligation to support a name  that identifies an institution that does not as a matter of habit and institutionalized practice  support victims first and foremost.  There is no good name to be claimed where earnest seekers of truth are pushed out of the church for growing into more complex expressions of their divine nature.   I will do what I can to ensure the church deserves a good name but I won’t protect the natural justice that should follow an organisation and its adherents where its behaviour is questionable.


My faith demands that I speak up in favour of a healthy, healing expansive spiritual system.  If Mormonism is not walking up to this fundamental contract of Christian discipleship then it needs correction, and that correction and improvement will never come while the church writ large is protecting its ossified and institutional fragility with its frenetic care for the wrong people and the wrong ideas.

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