Priesthood Leaders and Abuse of Power

Priesthood Leaders and Abuse of Power March 21, 2018

In order to attend and participate in temple ceremonies, male and female church members (12 and older) meet privately with a male leader every 1-2 years and answer sensitive questions.

The interview between an anonymous woman and Joseph Bishop, a former MTC president, is difficult to listen to. Last night I read the entire transcript and listened to the most pertinent portions of the recording. In all literalness (and I’m a writing teacher, so I mean it when I say “literal”), it left me feeling sick to my stomach.

What Happened:

If you haven’t already listened, here’s the gist: the interviewer initially presents herself as a reporter who is covering the inspiring lives of Church leaders. For the first forty minutes she holds cheerful, friendly conversation with Bishop, who vacillates between the appearance of modesty (at one point he says he doesn’t want anyone to feel bad that they haven’t had the same spiritual experiences he has) and name-dropping every apostle and prophet he’s ever worked with in his lifetime. After about 40 minutes, the interviewer describes her work as a consultant in court cases where individuals have committed crimes in part because of addictions or while under the influence of prescribed medication.

Having laid a backdrop that might make it easier for someone guilty of sexual misconduct to admit it (by saying it’s an addiction and partly beyond their control), she then accuses Bishop of having attempted to rape her while she was a young and vulnerable missionary under his stewardship at the MTC. While Bishop never admits to the attempted rape, he also doesn’t deny it, merely repeating that he doesn’t recall it. He does, however, admit to having “an addiction” and admits that he molested at least one female missionary while MTC president and committed some other form of misconduct (it sounds like abuse, but I’m being as impartial as I can in this summary) much earlier as a bishop. While he claims not to recall attempting to rape the interviewer, the details he does recall about their interactions are disturbing in and of themselves. He admits to sharing explicit details about his sexual life and stories that would have been entirely inappropriate for a man in his position of authority to say to a woman in that position.

Why This Recording Matters:

To me, one of the most disturbing moments is when he says that the day he took her down to the basement – which is where she alleges he attempted to rape her and only failed due to erectile dysfunction – they spoke about the fact that she had breast implants. The interviewer denies having had breast implants, especially at the young age of 21, but says that she was flat-chested at that age and so wore padded bras, which may have been where he came to the false conclusion. What that comment demonstrates is that this older man was fixated on her sexually. That he falsely remembered her volunteering information about a breast augmentation surgery also suggests that, like many assaulters, he convinced himself that the sexual interest went two ways, making it easier to dismiss his behavior as “an addiction,” as he did throughout the interview.

More than once, Bishop acknowledges that a man with his history and personal struggles should never have been placed in the position of discussing sexual matters with vulnerable young women.

Aside from the fact that this recording was triggering for me as a survivor of abuse, my initial reaction was one of relief. You see, I’ve never encountered anything like that from local church leaders. When I attended student wards at BYU, most bishops were strict about meeting with women in rooms with windows. One bishop halted an interview with me partway through to track down a man who was supposed to be sitting outside the room, within view of the window. As I understood it, most of these bishops made the decision in order to protect themselves from false accusations. Looking back, though, I also wonder how many women were protected by the culture that bishops created when they made it normal to make interviews visible. Was there ever a potential abuser who felt pressured into a similar show of transparency and thus never had a chance to abuse anyone?

What I’m getting at here is that the policies the Church encourages local leaders to follow can increase or decrease the likelihood that someone abuses their power. And the #MormonMeToo movement makes it clear that the Church needs to revisit the institutional policies that have facilitated far too many instances of ecclesiastical abuse.

Priesthood Leaders Hold Immense Power

While I’ve never been abused by a church leader, I know what it’s like to have local leaders whose behavior shakes your trust. For me, it came in the form of stake leaders who seemed far too eager to discipline people allegedly guilty of apostasy. These leaders created an environment hostile to unorthodox thoughts, where something as simple as a person asking a complicated question about the history of the Priesthood/ Temple Ban once led to the entire bishopric sitting in on Gospel Doctrine the next week, while the teacher chastised the room for the questions that had come up the week before. That culture seemed to come from the stake presidency, who were so stringent in stamping out perceived apostasy that they made a policy that anyone affiliated with the group Ordain Women was participating in apostasy and had to either remove their profile or lose their temple recommend.

Even though I was not and never have been part of Ordain Women, I was open about my friendship with women on its board, and over time it seemed clear that I was on the radar of local leaders as a result of those friendships. So I spent my last two years in that stake biting my tongue, terrified that I’d face church discipline if I ever stepped out of line. It’s not something I’d ever experienced before in a ward or stake, and it’s something I hope to never experience again.

But it’s an experience that helped me realize just how much power local leaders hold over those under their stewardship.

Accounts that friends have shared about other wards and stakes have confirmed that fact even more. A bishop can wrongly take away someone’s temple recommend without holding any sort of council, and that member will be barred from their friends’ and family members’ temple weddings. Local leaders can refuse to offer financial assistance to a family in need out of sheer pettiness, forcing children to go to bed hungry.  Bishops can add incriminating notes to the portion of a member’s records that only leaders can view and thus poison future leaders against that member when they move somewhere new.

And while these abuses of power are relatively rare, when they do occur, members are forced to pursue resolution through the same hierarchy that empowers their abuser. While there are certainly accounts where a stake president took the side of the member over the bishop (I’ve heard some of those accounts firsthand), the fact of the matter is, the stake president will usually have a stronger relationship with the bishop and is likely to automatically put more trust in his account.

By way of example, as someone who moves frequently, I’ve never even met my current stake president. Fortunately, my bishop is a lovely man. But if I were less fortunate and had an abusive bishop, whose account would the stake president be more likely to trust? The word of a woman he’s never met, or the word of a priesthood leader he personally called to that position in the first place?

Boundary Violations in Personal Worthiness Interviews

On top of this hierarchy that makes it difficult for victims to report ecclesiastical abuse, we Mormons have a bizarre double standard when it comes to the so-called “Billy Graham Rule.”

On the one hand, Mormon culture and even Church policy goes to great lengths to discourage married men from ever spending time alone with another woman, even in the most casual of circumstances. There are talks from General Authorities that discourage married men from carpooling alone with a woman, lest they create the mere appearance of evil. The handbook used by leaders also spells out that callings which have no inherent connection to priesthood ordination must be treated like priesthood callings, for the clear reason of avoiding mixed-gender presidencies. For instance, when I was in college I was called to serve as the secretary in my ward’s Sunday School presidency. Eventually word got around that some bishops were calling women to Sunday School presidencies, and The Handbook was updated to make each of those positions a priesthood calling, not just the Sunday School president himself.

Even more recently, the Church updated policies for missionaries teaching an opposite sex investigator. At one point my husband and I both had to be present so that three female missionaries could teach one male investigator. There were five of us and one of him. And if I’m not home when female missionaries show up for a dinner appointment, they have to wait outside instead of joining my husband in the apartment for a few minutes.

So why, when we go to such extreme lengths to put up protective barriers between men and women at church, including in the most innocent of circumstances, do we still put 12-year-old girls alone in a room with a middle-aged man, while he discusses her level of sexual activity? Some wards are good about making sure there’s a window in the door and that someone is sitting outside at all times, such as the wards I encountered in college. But not all wards. And even if someone is watching from the outside, that doesn’t change the invasive nature of these questions.

Even as adults, every two years a Mormon woman must meet with a male priesthood leader and answer not just a question about her sexual activity (which uses relatively vague language, so long as she doesn’t have anything to confess). She must also answer a question about her underwear habits. And not just once, but twice – she has to first meet with her bishop and then with her stake president.  Like I said, I’ve always been lucky in my leaders when it comes to those interviews. While I’ve heard horror stories of leaders going off-script and asking graphic questions, I’ve never experienced that sort of thing myself. If anything, I’ve sometimes detected that the leader himself was uncomfortable having to ask whether I wear my underwear both day and night, even if “temple garment” is the word he uses.

While I’ve been extremely fortunate in my leaders, and most priesthood leaders would never dream of abusing a member’s trust during one of those interviews, the very fact that Church policy requires women and girls to go through this process with a male leader normalizes an unhealthy blurring of boundaries.

In the rare scenario where a priesthood holder intentionally violates boundaries or sexually abuses someone, the leader has had many opportunities to groom the victim, especially if the victim is a child who hasn’t been through one of these interviews before and is thus unaware that a leader is, in fact, going off script. Keep in mind that even in the official interview script the leader asks whether the member sustains their local leaders, which further adds to a scenario where a member may feel pressured to go along. Especially since objecting to the line of questioning could mean losing a temple recommend, an outcome with severe social and spiritual consequences.

Parents, of course, have the option of sitting in on the interview with their children, but having a parent present isn’t something we treat as routine, which means that it can draw negative attention to the child when they do. I imagine some children would even object to having a parent present for that reason, or simply because it would add to their embarrassment as the bishop asks about their sexual activity. Plus, having parents present isn’t policy, which means that we’re leaving gaping holes in that protective umbrella if we just leave it up to individual families.

So while predators like Joseph Bishop are by no means the rule, the system and policies that protected and promoted him enabled decades of abuse. It’s not enough to address abuse on a case-by-case basis, though that is a necessary step. We also need systematic changes and new policies that actively prevent abuse in the first place.

At the very least, we can expect better than a Church PR department that responds to a predator’s recorded confession by blaming the victim and maintaining that it’s unclear whether he did any of the things he has already confessed on tape.




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