A friend shared this talk, Healing the Tragic Scars of Abuse by Elder Richard G. Scott, in a FB group I’m a part of and was confused by it. I wondered what you thought. This is a group that supports survivors of childhood abuse. I believe there are many who have experienced abuse who find this talk and several of its points hurtful and confusing. Many of their stories revolve around reaching out to church leaders as children and youth and receiving similar counsel as is found in this article: sometimes shaming, but often times a lack of any type of response or help. This article is old (1992), but I can speak from experience that as recent as 2000-2003 that bishops and church leaders ignored me when I reached out to get away from an abusive father. I believe the church still does not know how to talk about, handle, or help those who are experiencing abuse. I would love to see change happen with this issue in the church and better training for our leaders.
It’s distressing to me as a Latter-day Saint mental health provider that I would have to have a post on this site that requires the title: No Repentance Needed for Abuse Survivors.
This is the second time this week alone that this article has been brought to my attention — as it often has since its delivery. And the stories that have come across my desk where abuse survivors were put through some type of inappropriate repentance process is continually shocking and heartbreaking. This is an aspect of our culture that needs to be swiftly and firmly addressed. Ecclesiastical training needs to be prioritized and directed by mental health professionals with trauma expertise who are also able to check their own LDS bias and be culturally competent.
It is not part of our Mormon creed that everything an apostle or prophet says is inspired doctrine: Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. Unfortunately, our church as an organization does not have a tradition of walking back or repenting from hurtful or inaccurate statements made by its leaders. Due to the respect we have for priesthood authority, there is a stronger impetus towards seeing their statements as inspired than not. And it is easy to see how members can be left confused at times regarding certain statements that then become what I call “faux doctrinal folklore.” And the existence of this folklore can be extremely damaging and have life-long repercussions for many in our midst.
The following paragraph should NOT be considered prophetic or from God.
“The victim must do all in his or her power to stop the abuse. Most often, the victim is innocent because of being disabled by fear or the power or authority of the offender. At some point in time, however, the Lord may prompt a victim to recognize a degree of responsibility for abuse. Your priesthood leader will help assess your responsibility so that, if needed, it can be addressed. Otherwise the seeds of guilt will remain and sprout into bitter fruit. Yet no matter what degree of responsibility, from absolutely none to increasing consent, the healing power of the atonement of Jesus Christ can provide a complete cure.”
The complexities that go into how people respond differently to abusive situations (from fighting, to fleeing to freezing as well as considering age and developmental factors) are well-researched and known to be diverse. The propensity to self-blame, unfortunately, is strong and common — and much of what we try to undo through therapy services. And this statement by Elder Scott is extremely harmful towards that end. So I don’t care if you feel like you stayed longer in an abusive situation than you should have, if you feel like you enjoyed aspects of a relationship that also included abuse, if you feel like you were complicit in abuse because you froze and didn’t know how to stop it, if you were in the wrong place, if you were wearing the wrong outfit, if you were trying to protect others in your family system, if you feel like you weren’t direct enough in stating your level of consent, if you…., if you…., if you…., if you……YOU ARE NOT, IN ANY WAY, RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ABUSE THAT HAPPENED!
YOU ARE NOT, IN ANY WAY, RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ABUSE THAT HAPPENED!
YOU ARE NOT, IN ANY WAY, RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ABUSE THAT HAPPENED!
And if you feel that the “Lord is prompting you, as a victim, to recognize responsibility” — I can tell you that that is what we call a cognitive distortion. “Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves.” Shame on any statement coming from the pulpit that would exacerbate harmful cognitive distortions for those most suffering in our pews!
In fact Elder Scott himself, in the same speech states: I solemnly testify that when another’s acts of violence, perversion, or incest hurt you terribly… you are not responsible and you must not feel guilty.
This is the note this talk should have started and ended on.
Suggestions for ecclesiastical and auxiliary leaders:
- Do not assume that sins that are being confessed (especially sexual) come from a place where the confessor had full consent. A victim may not be in a place where they themselves understand exactly what happened, or may be taking responsibility that is not accurate or appropriate.
- Network and collaborate with several mental health professionals in your local area that you have met with personally, feel comfortable with and that have expertise in working with trauma that you can refer to or consult with.
- Do not re-traumatize abuse victims with a disciplinary or repentance process that would place any onus of the abuse onto the victim. Even if the victim acted in a way that goes against LDS standards (i.e. was drinking at a party, was sexually involved with the perpetrator at some level of consent, etc.) this is not the time to be focusing on those things and will not help the healing process. Healing and support need to be the #1 priority.
- Do not ask details of the abuse. What a person was wearing or doing prior to the abuse is not pertinent. What the abuse exactly entailed is not necessary for you to know that this person needs help. The victim may not be prepared to talk about the intricate details of what has happened to begin with. This is where a referral to a professional is pertinent.
- Remember that in most states in the USA, you are considered a mandated reporter. Cases where there may be child abuse need to be taken seriously. It is not your job to assess whether or not the abuse is actually taking place. A mandated reporter will report possible abuse to the correct authorities – and the assessments will then be done by trained professionals. I know the church has a hotline for bishops and stake presidents for these situations as well – but this resource does not absolve you from calling the authorities first and foremost.
- Do not make “forgiveness” of the abuser a precursor for “worthiness.” Forgiveness is a complex and ongoing process – not a box we check off. I am continually dismayed by how many people tell me that “forgiving their abuser” was part of their repentance process, and a precursor to getting a temple recommend, receiving a calling, etc. This is absolutely inappropriate.
- Offer love, concern and support. Being believed and validated by those a person confides in is incredibly healing in these situations. Follow up. Act. Make sure this person has the resources in mental health referrals, finances, etc. to get the help they need.
- In your ecclesiastical role, focus on the beautiful doctrinal teachings that have to do with the comfort, peace and healing balms that the gospel readily offers.
Natasha Helfer Parker, LCMFT, CST can be reached at natashaparker.org. She authors the Mormon Therapist Blog, hosts the Mormon Mental Health and Mormon Sex Info Podcasts, writes a regular column for Sunstone Magazine and is the current president of the Mormon Mental Health Association. She has 20 years of experience working with primarily an LDS/Mormon clientele.