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One Mental Health Expert Wants To Remind Mormons That Bishops Are Not Therapists

Julie Hanks, a local therapist, tells her clients that bishops are spiritual guides and experts in nothing else.

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 ColbieHolderness 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.

Credit Julie de Azevedo Hanks
Hanks specializes in women's emotional health and runs Wasatch Family Therapy near Salt Lake City.

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 ColbieHolderness, 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.”


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. — Dr. Julie De Azevedo Hanks

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.


Lee Hale began listening to KUER while he was teaching English at a Middle School in West Jordan (his one hour commute made for plenty of listening time). Inspired by what he heard he applied for the Kroc Fellowship at NPR headquarters in DC and to his surprise, he got it. Since then he has reported on topics ranging from TSA PreCheck to micro apartments in overcrowded cities to the various ways zoo animals stay cool in the summer heat. But, his primary focus has always been education and he returns to Utah to cover the same schools he was teaching in not long ago. Lee is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is also fascinated with the way religion intersects with the culture and communities of the Beehive State. He hopes to tell stories that accurately reflect the beliefs that Utahns hold dear.
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