Issues of sexual abuse have been bubbling up for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over the last few months. And while a Mormon #MeToo movement seems to be growing, there are a few things holding it back.
Let’s do a quick inventory of what’s been happening.
First, there were the two ex-wives of former White House official Rob Porter. Both Mormon, both told their Mormon bishops that Porter was physically abusing them and were instructed to stick it out.
Next, is the building movement to get Mormon leaders to stop doing one-on-one interview with children where they sometimes are asked about sexual activity. And just last month, a conversation caught on tape.
Joseph Bishop, a former president of the Missionary Training Center in Provo, was recorded in secret by McKenna Denson. Denson said that Bishop raped her while she was a missionary in the 1980s. Bishop denies the rape but admitted to police that he asked the young missionary to partially undress. Denson is now suing the LDS Church for not taking her accusation seriously.
An obvious question follows: Is this a Mormon #MeToo movement?
To compare it to the original #MeToo movement there are some important things missing. One, there isn’t the same cascade of stories being shared. They’re out there, most just aren’t getting traction. And two, these stories haven’t been getting the same kind of results. Meaning, people in power aren’t being punished. And there haven’t been any major systemic changes.
So, what’s the barrier? It might have something to do with Mormon bishops. Even the most well-meaning bishops.
"I think there are some individuals who don’t know what else to do and think, 'Well, at least I can start with my bishop,'" said Kurt Francom, a former bishop who runs LeadingLDS, a non-profit that trains Mormon leaders. He does not speak on behalf of the LDS Church.
Francom says the idea that an abuse survivor goes straight to a bishop, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Usually, going to police is daunting and Mormons feel safer with their bishop. But, bishops are not abuse experts.
“As a bishop, you sort of hope that it’s obvious," says Francom. "The individual comes in with a black eye or bruises on their arms, the signs of physical abuse and you think, oh I definitely need to take action.”
By "take action," Francom means getting in touch with law enforcement or helping the individual connect with a therapist, which he did in many cases.
But, when sexual or emotional abuse doesn’t have those obvious signs, the bishop makes a judgment call. That’s where things can go wrong, especially when the abuse survivor and perpetrator are in the same family. That is often the case.
“You sort of think, well, I don’t want to see this family fall apart," said Francom. "I don’t want these long term consequences to happen. Maybe we can work this out.”
Here's a situation that’s common for many Mormon bishop: Someone needs food for their family or help paying the rent. So, the bishop offers some assistance, creates a plan and then sends them back home.
"But when they do that with someone who is a victim of abuse, they’re sending them back to the war," Francom said. "They’re sending them back to that place that is creating so much trauma."
The LDS Church recently updated their abuse guidelines for bishops. The instructions now clearly direct church leaders to believe abuse survivors and discourages them from asking someone to return to an abusive relationship.
But Kristin Hodson, a Mormon sex therapist, still sees some major systemic flaws, including the LDS Church abuse hotline.
The LDS Church does have a hotline, but it’s not for the abuse survivor, it’s for their bishop. The idea is that after an abuse survivor speaks with a bishop, the bishop can then call the hotline to get in contact with a church employed lawyer or therapist.
"It makes me scratch my head," Hodson said. "There’s mandatory reporting but it’s still not to an independent or state agency, it’s still within the church system."
Hodson said if the LDS Church was serious about providing resources for abuse survivors, they should have a hotline for them too.
"How powerful [would it be] for someone on the other end to be thinking about them," Hodson said. "Their whole agenda is to listen to the person on the other line."
Of course hotlines like this do exist. A quick Google search will bring up dozens. But Hodson said a lot of Mormons feel more comfortable seeking help from their church first. It’s their community.
That brings us to another potential barrier for a Mormon #MeToo movement. When a Mormon is abused by another Mormon, especially if the abuser is a church leader, Hodson said the idea of speaking out of the abuse can be seen as an attack on the church.
Hodson said the expecation is that a Mormon trusts the system as is. That if something needs to be dealt with, there are the appropriate channels.
"That’s not usually how change happens," Hodson said.
Hodson said change needs to happen. That includes cultural changes and systemic changes. And if her clientele are any evidence of the larger Mormon community, abuse is happening and it is going unnoticed.
The LDS Church declined to provide an interview for this story.