Mormon culture influences nearly every aspect of life in Utah. But these days, many long-held values are being challenged, even by the faithful. KUER’s series “Latter-day” examines how Mormon culture is — and isn’t — changing in response.
Like many faith communities, Latter-day Saints have had to confront some painful realities about sexual abuse over the past few years. The structure of the Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints can fail victims and protect abusers. But long after abuse happens, Mormon communities can still play a major role in how an abuse survivor heals.
Amber Choruby Whiteley, a Mormon therapist who recently finished her PhD at the University of Utah, devoted her dissertation to the experiences of 26 Mormons who were abused before the age of 18.
Lee Hale: What drew you to this research?
Amber Choruby Whiteley: I myself am a sexual abuse survivor. I wasn't Mormon at the time that I had been sexually abused, but I joined the church when I was 16 and was in a congregation that helped me heal from my own sexual abuse. So I call this “me-search,” and it's based on some of my own experiences. But I also tried to go into this being open to a broad spectrum of other people’s experiences and how the Church affected their healing.
LH: The role of the bishop often comes up with stories of abuse. I hear language about “good bishops” and “bad bishops” -- that good bishops handle things well and bad bishops handle things poorly. But I think it’s a lot more complicated than that.
ACW: Totally. When I talked with my participants, they had different experiences. These survivors, many of them being in a place of blaming themselves, would go to the bishop because they felt like they needed to repent for the abuse that happened to them. Other times they would go feeling unsure about whether they should feel guilt,hoping the bishop could help them sort it out. Some bishops would adamantly say, “You have nothing to feel sorry for. Your perpetrator failed you. Let's get you the help that you need.” And other bishops would tell them that if they felt guilty, it probably meant they had sinned and there was something to be repented of. The predominant message within in the Church is still that if you are feeling like you have something to blame yourself for, go talk to your bishop. That’s the first place you go.
LH: What are some mistakes church members can make in the way they teach youth at church?
ACW: Quite often, leaders forget when they're with young men or young women that there are people who are sexual abuse survivors in the group who don't fit the typical image of someone saving themselves for marriage. And, of course, some sexual abuse survivors consider themselves to be virgins because they didn’t consent to their sexual abuse. But there are a lot of sexual abuse survivors who struggle with this. They feel like they’re not a virgin, that they haven’t kept the law of chastity and that they’re unclean. They feel like their future partner doesn’t want them and that can lead them down a shame spiral. For young women there are object lessons that almost every one of my female identified participants said they had been taught: that if you're a piece of chewed gum no one's going to want you. But if you can keep yourself unchewed and be like a piece of gum that's still in the wrapper that then your spouse is still going to want you.
LH: What does it look like when things go right?
ACW: There was one participant in particular that I interviewed at the end of my research whose mother told the leaders of the congregation to only send messages to this person about how she wasn't at fault for her sexual abuse and that she had the power of Jesus Christ’s atonement to be able to heal. That she had loving heavenly parents. She would question whether she should feel ashamed, which all survivors do, and whether she was responsible for what happened. But she constantly had reminders from her bishop, her church leaders, her young women's president and her mom about how this wasn't her fault. She would specifically have scriptural lessons from her mom about how Jesus Christ cares for her. That this benevolent higher being loved and cared for her and that she was perfect just the way she was.