For whatever reason, an article that was published by the Church in 2010 titled Effectiveness of Church Approach to Preventing Child Abuse reemerged on the LDS newsroom on February 1, making many believe this was a new release. The Church is stating this was a technical glitch and not purposeful from their end. Regardless, the reemergence of this article has caused for much needed dialogue on this topic – specifically from victims of child abuse themselves. And many are reporting deep distress as a result of reading it (issues I will address in more detail in a future post). I wanted to make a space on this blog for these reactions and stories to be shared safely, which are often kept in spaces of secrecy, shame and even dismissal – exactly the opposite of what needs to happen for healing and growth. These stories can be difficult and painful to read – and I would encourage those of you healing from your own trauma to proceed with caution – giving yourselves permission to not read at all, or stop when feeling triggered. I will share 2-4 stories at at time (some may have been edited as far as length). I will try and make room for as many of the stories I’m receiving as I can.
I recognize that for many, the church has played a healthy, supportive and affirming role in the healing of childhood trauma. At the same time, I recognize that for many it has not. And this is a space for those stories.
Some of the stories will relate instances of direct ecclesiastical abuse. Others will relate how reported abuse was mishandled. Most will address systemic dynamics within our culture that play a role in current messages, assumptions, traditions and beliefs that further retraumatize victims instead of playing the healing role our church should and can be.
Some of the stories are recent. Others are from long ago, prior to some of the positive efforts the Church has made like the hot-line development in 1995 reported in the article. Regardless, all these stories occurred within our community – and they all deserve to be heard.
Comments will be heavily moderated.
As a teenager I was sexually assaulted, but I didn’t recognize it as such because in the moment I froze. I didn’t tell him to stop, nor did I fight him off. That’s not to say that my wishes weren’t clear. I had tried to back away. He cornered me. I pulled a chair in front of me to keep him from closing in. He moved the chair. I tried to duck out of his arms. He pulled me closer.
It wasn’t a horrific experience or anything. Mostly some unwanted groping and grinding. To be honest, the only reason it caused any lasting trauma at all was because of the church. I had recently read “The Miracle of Forgiveness” and its infamous line about being better to die defending your virtue than live having lost it without struggling haunted me. “God would rather have me dead,” I thought. I knew that in order to repent I had to confess my “sins” to my bishop, but the very idea mortified me. To complicate matters even further, I began attending BYU soon after and I was terrified that my confession would get me kicked out of school.
My fears weren’t entirely unjustified either. When I finally did work up the nerve to meet with my bishop, he completely glossed over the part where I indicated that I hadn’t wanted it, hadn’t enjoyed it and confirmed that my lack of response constituted serious sin from which I needed to repent. Fortunately, my ecclesiastical endorsement was not revoked, although I know others in similar situations who weren’t as lucky.
I’m sure you’ll receive much more horrific stories than mine, but I do feel my experience highlights several weak points of the church when it comes to dealing with abuse and sexual assault. First, I’d prefer that middle-aged men not discuss such intimate matters with young girls at all, but if they are going to they need proper training so that they can identify and handle such matters appropriately. Second, we need to re-think the messages that we give to youth about sex and start incorporating discussions about consent and bodily autonomy rather than shame. Third, BYU’s handling of honor code makes the campus an extremely unsafe place for victims of rape or sexual assault to come forward. If they blame themselves and are unable to fully articulate what happened, they risk expulsion. If they are simply not believed, they risk expulsion. Or if they are determined to have broken any other rules in the events leading up to the assault (say inviting her boyfriend into her bedroom), they will be blamed and risk expulsion.
I was around 9 years old and was good friends with a girl my age who was an only child. Her mother was divorced. I loved going over to their apartment because it was just her and her mother – such a change from my house full of nine siblings. But she liked hanging out with my family, too, and often came over to our house.
There was a church member who one day offered to take my friend and I and some of my siblings to the movies. I’ll call him Brother H. I have no idea what reason he gave my parents for wanting to take us or why they accepted. We didn’t get to go to the movies often, so we were very excited for the treat. Somehow I ended up sitting next to Brother H. at the movie (I’m sure that was by design). He put his hand on my crotch during part of the movie. He didn’t do much other than put his hand there, but still I was very uncomfortable about it.
Fast-forward to a day when I was minding the LDS bookstore my father owned (it was really just a little shack.) Yes, I was a child alone (age 10) selling books. But I was selling Mormon books – to Mormons. And Mormons would never hurt children, it’s only non-Mormons that do those sorts of things. So leaving a child to watch the LDS bookstore by herself as church members dropped by seemed perfectly normal to my parents. The shack was on an access road that led to the church and members would come in occasionally on their way to or from meetings.
I don’t remember what my first reaction was when Brother H. came through the door. I imagine I was guarded at best. But somehow he managed to start hugging me. While he hugged me from behind, he began moving his hands up until he reached my bare chest. I was in shock and just wanted it to end. I kept thinking “why don’t I have a bra on?”
After he left I was so mad at myself that I hadn’t worn that bra. Now I see this childish thought for what it was – tragic. I thought it was my fault. But I didn’t even OWN a bra. I didn’t hardly have breasts yet! Why would I have a bra on? But I blamed myself. That’s the way I thought…then, and for many many years afterwards.
I didn’t tell anyone about either incident, or even ask my friend if Brother H. had put his hand on her crotch at the movies, too (I found out later that he had.) I just went on with my life feeling very confused and ashamed about the whole thing. Some time later my mother took me aside and asked me if Brother H. had ever “done anything” to me. Apparently he’d done things to other girls in the ward, some of them worse than what he’d done to me, and parents were now starting to look into it.
I told my mother what had happened. She didn’t make me feel bad about it, but she also didn’t make me feel better about it. As a matter of fact, no one ever said anything else to me about it again. It was as if it had never happened. I never knew what things had been done to other girls in the ward, or which girls things had been done to. And I never knew what happened with Brother H. I don’t even remember if he was still in the ward after that. It’s all kind of a blank.
Decades later I brought up the incident to my mother and asked her what had ever happened to Brother H. Conversations with my mother about the church are tricky, and now don’t remember what she said the church did back then – if anything. But I do remember her saying that his actions were definitely not reported to the police. She said, “that’s just how they did things back then.” Apparently it’s STILL how they do things. The Mormon church should be ashamed! I wonder now what other little girls crossed Brother H.’s path and how much worse it was for them than for me. How much of this could have been prevented? WHY would the church not report a known pedophile such as this to the police? It boggles the mind. They’ve been getting away with this kind of thing for far too long. As a teacher, I’m a mandated reporter. Bishops and other church leaders should be too!
I’m not sure how these things are explained currently in the LDS church as I left many years ago, but for me growing up as a Mormon girl in Southern California I was deeply affected by witnessing the abuses of priesthood power and the seemingly unabashed acceptance that a woman’s body could be used as a measure of her worthiness for getting or staying married.
There is a well known story in my family about how my uncle had at first refused to marry my aunt, whom he had been dating for a while at BYU, because he said that he would never marry a fat girl. My aunt then starved herself and ran miles and miles over one Christmas holiday in order to lose 30 pounds, for which she won my uncle for her husband. This story never even drew a mild frown from my grandmother or his sisters. Meaning, no one ever said “and that’s wrong.”
When I was in YW one of my leaders began walking for hours and hours around our city. She walked all the time. She even became known for it in the community outside of the church. When I asked her about it in front of our class one Sunday, she said that her husband, who sat on the stand next to our Bishop each Sacrament meeting, had told her when they married that if she ever got over a certain weight he would divorce her. A year after she had delivered their first baby, but hadn’t lost the baby weight yet, he began to make good on that promise until she asked for six months to try to lose the weight. He agreed. She did. But it consumed her. For all the horror spat out through the corridors of our church over fears of a decaying society due to increasing divorce rates, no one in our ward, where this couple’s situation was discussed fairly openly, seemed worried that this man was threatening divorce.
Growing up one of our family’s best friends was a family whose Dad physically and emotionally beat his wife in front of all of us. He was in the Bishopric, or Bishop of a ward during all that time. When I asked my Mom about it once she said, through a grimace that it was awful and that she had always counted herself blessed to have married a man who wasn’t abusive. As if it was just the luck of the draw, and that there was no way out if you drew short.
Once when I was about ten, I overheard a conversation, told as a jovial anecdote to a large group of couples, where one of the men in the ward was said to have flushed his wife’s head in the toilet on their wedding night because she was being disobedient to him. They later divorced and everyone felt deeply sympathetic to the husband. But, the wife, who had initiated the end of the marriage, received a colder reception in the ward. Audibly people claimed that they couldn’t imagine why she would divorce the sweet and dear ward clerk. I never heard anyone bring up that “funny” wedding night anecdote for reexamination.
In my late teens, when I was questioning the validity of the church and having many conversations with my parents and YW’s leaders, I asked all of these women, at different times and in different ways, why the men in these circumstances I have mentioned above, were able to be so cruel to their wives while holding the Priesthood. Each of my leaders, as well as my mother said, with relief in their voices that when those men were acting in cruel ways, than in those moments they no longer had the Priesthood. They said the power of God that is held within the Priesthood simply vanishes the minute they misuse it. And the Priesthood does not return to them until they have repented.
I asked, “But how will the woman know when the Priesthood is there, present and accounted for inside the man, so that she might be obedient to it? How will she be able to tell when she is being presided over with Priesthood authority, or when she is just being abused?” No one had an answer.
I feel that the way in which this great and divine power: The Priesthood, which is considered God’s conduit for communication with His children on Earth, is an invisible and unavailable one for women, has, in my life experiences, ultimately had a most profoundly problematic effect on women.
And further, the message I received, both implicitly and explicitly, while I was a young woman in the church that my body was for my husband and it mattered how it looked, has had far reaching trauma still with me today.
The LDS church that I grew up in made it clear in a multitude of ways that I was biologically of less worth to God than my brothers, my father and my future husband would be. Unfortunately for me I could not articulate this idea to myself until years and years later. And until I was able to name the painful view of a woman’s inferior worth that is permeated through LDS doctrine and culture, as cruel, unjust and false I simply internalized it. And I suffered.
If you would like to share your story please contact me at natashaparker.org.
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