President Trump’s former staff secretary Rob Porter has been all over the news since he resigned from the White House last week. Porter, a Mormon, left his position after his two ex-wives accused him of being physically abusive. It has since been revealed that both of these women confided in their Mormon bishops about the abuse and were encouraged to remain in their relationships.
Local therapist Dr. Julie De Azevedo Hanks specializes in women’s emotional health and relationships. She’s also Mormon and says, unfortunately, the experiences of Colbie Holderness and Jennie Willoughby, Rob Porter’s ex-wives, aren’t unique.
“I have heard stories of Mormon women being counseled to stay with their spouse even when there is abuse present," Hanks says.
Hanks says women in these situations of physical or emotional abuse are often told the wrong thing.
“What women need to be hearing is that they’re believed," says Hanks. She says the abuse is often minimized and it's a question of who's narrative a church leader gives more weight to.
Hanks says these women have gender dynamics working against them. Bishops are men, so it’s likely that they're familiar with the husband, possibly close friends. It’s also likely that the husband will deny the accusation.
“Women also may minimize the abuse when they’re reporting it," Hanks says. "Usually it’s worse than what they’re saying.”
In the account of Rob Porter’s first ex-wife Colbie Holderness, she told a number of bishops that Porter was “being physical.” The photo she shared of a black eye indicates that the reality was likely much harsher.
“Women are also testing the water so they need permission and someone to question how bad it is," says Hanks. "Because we’re not talking about marriage problems we’re talking about a crime.”
While Hanks wants the LDS Church to make good on their zero-tolerance stance on abuse and provide more intensive training for bishops, she also thinks that responding to battery, a very serious crime, isn’t the responsibility of a bishop. They aren’t qualified. She uses her own husband as an example who was called as a bishop just months ago.
“He is a spiritual guide and not an expert in anything else," Hanks says. "Too often bishops think that everything is a spiritual problem when it’s not. They’re not the therapist, they’re not the marriage counselor, they’re not the physician.”
Hanks implores her Mormon clients to not give away their personal power. She says a bishop's local authority can be respected at the same time that an individual's personal authority is adhered to.
As an active Mormon, Hanks admits she was embarrassed that these bishops knew what they knew and didn’t do more. To all the other women who have been in their shoes she says it’s okay to be angry.
“That anger is justified. People have been wronged, people have been under-supported in the system and that needs to stop. I am so excited that these conversations are happening because what it does is raise awareness, and it’s good if it scares people too."
Hanks says a great outcome from all of this would be for bishops to simply counsel less and refer to the experts more when they hear accounts of abuse.