Rob Porter’s bishops urged his wives not to leave him. My grandfather, a Mormon bishop, wished he had encouraged divorce.
The Bloggernacle has been abuzz the past couple of days with talk about Rob Porter, the White House Staff Secretary and Mormon who recently resigned over allegations that he abused both of his ex-wives. During the furor over Porter’s actions, and the Trump White House’s initial willingness to turn a blind eye to them, one thing in particular struck me: a picture of Colbie Holderness, Porter’s ex-wife, with a black eye.
The picture was horrifying, to say the least. It seemed to encapsulate the swamp of misogyny and chauvinism that has beset the White House, from our President, who has been credibly accused of raping his first wife and assaulting countless other women, to Steven Bannon, his former Chief Strategist who was charged with battering one of his former wives before intimidating her into not testifying against him.
But beyond the moral wasteland that surrounds and permeates the Oval Office, the picture reminded me of something else: a story told by my now-deceased grandfather about his time as a Mormon bishop – and his regret that he didn’t encourage a woman to leave her abusive husband.
My “Grandpa Ashcroft” served as a Mormon bishop in Glendale, Arizona, in the mid-90s. A life-long construction worker, he was a part-time lay clergyman for a ward (congregation) of around 200 Mormons (hundreds more were on the roles but never attended services). Looking back years later, I’ve always found it funny that Grandpa was a bishop, as he wasn’t your typical straight-laced Latter-Day Saint. Whereas many Mormons used to think (and many still do) that drinking caffeinated beverages violates the Word of Wisdom (the faith’s health code), Grandpa insisted that he be allowed to keep drinking his favorite soda, Dr. Pepper, when he was asked to be bishop. Although the LDS Church has vigorously opposed the legalization of gambling, Grandpa and Grandma Ashcroft were avid players of the Arizona Lottery, buying a ticket every week when they lived in Glendale (they rationalized that they would tithe on any sum that they won). And while Mormons generally try to avoid eating out or shopping on Sundays, Grandpa thought nothing of running down to KFC to buy a bucket of chicken for Sunday dinner.
Putting aside Grandpa’s idiosyncratic practice of Mormonism, by all accounts he was a successful bishop. He engendered the love of children in his congregation by passing out candy to those who told him of good deeds they had done during the week. An avid outdoorsman, he prioritized his ward’s Boy Scouts program, pushing young men to complete the requirements to receive their Eagle Scout awards. And in an area like Glendale, with its working class population often vulnerable to sudden shifts in the economy, he effectively managed the Mormon Church’s generous welfare program, helping needy families get the food, job training, and housing that they needed.
But for all his success as a bishop, Grandpa didn’t end his term of service without regrets. And the greatest of those had to do with a victim of domestic violence.
The woman (clergy-penitent confidentiality meant he couldn’t tell us her name) had approached him with a heart-breaking story. Her husband had been subjecting her to appalling torrents of physical abuse, and she wanted to know what she should do.
My grandfather knew what he wanted to tell her – “divorce him now!” – but he didn’t think he could say it. At the time (I’m not sure if it’s still the case), Mormon bishops were explicitly instructed to avoid advising congregants to divorce. As much as he wanted to, Grandpa couldn’t bring himself to tell the poor woman what he really thought she should do with her degenerate husband. Rather, he tried to comfort her and advised her to keep visiting with him.
The next time he saw her she was black and blue.
Bruises covered every exposed inch of skin on her body. She obviously had been beaten within an inch of her life. As he looked at her, Grandpa could feel shame and regret overwhelming him – why hadn’t he told her to leave him? As he would later tell my father when recounting the story, “It tore me up inside.”
Now, as the Rob Porter scandal has emerged, we have learned that his wives’ bishops supposedly counseled against divorce. While many have faulted them for appearing so uncaring in the face of such suffering, I can’t help but wonder if they, like my grandfather, felt that they couldn’t encourage the women to leave the creep.
And I can’t help but wonder if they, like my grandfather, will carry their regret to the grave.