Abused by The Church

I had a strong desire to write about sexual abuse after listening to Sam Harris’ introduction to one of his episodes. I had been following and participating with the Protect LDS Children movement started by Sam Young. In the recent past, I had a conversation with someone close to me about the Netflix series The Keepers. It covers the story of a peculiar murder and sexual abuse case surrounding a catholic priest administrator that was abusing nuns and children at a Catholic school. I was asked, “do you think abuse like this happens in our church (Mormon church)?” I remember automatically thinking and saying, “no, to that extent no. Well it has to happen at some level, but I imagine not very often.” My brain did not want to go down that path. I would think, how would we know how deep it went? It’s the true church right? How much could really be going on? There are NDAs, hush money, coverups I’m sure. It’s too hard to put your finger on it. Now I think of the helpless victims that are experiencing unspeakable horrors (amidst the watchful eye of a omnibenevolent Father in Heaven mind you), many in a religious context. Then I listened to Sam’s podcast.1

He begins by introducing the news2 of a “Catholic clergy sex abuse bomb” that went off in Pennsylvania in May 2018. He says, “The Catholic church is a machine one of which whose primary functions has been to make sure children get raped and the world doesn’t find out about it. This really is not an exaggeration.” He references an article3 he wrote in 2010 about another Catholic sex abuse case of which he reads:

I confess that, as a critic of religion, I have paid too little attention to the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Frankly, it always felt unsportsmanlike to shoot so large and languorous a fish in so tiny a barrel. This scandal was one of the most spectacular “own goals” in the history of religion, and there seemed to be no need to deride faith at its most vulnerable and self-abased. Even in retrospect, it is easy to understand the impulse to avert one’s eyes: Just imagine a pious mother and father sending their beloved child to the Church of a Thousand Hands for spiritual instruction, only to have him raped and terrified into silence by threats of hell. And then imagine this occurring to tens of thousands of children in our own time—and to children beyond reckoning for over a thousand years. The spectacle of faith so utterly misplaced, and so fully betrayed, is simply too depressing to think about.

But there was always more to this phenomenon that should have compelled my attention. Consider the ludicrous ideology that made it possible: The Catholic Church has spent two millennia demonizing human sexuality to a degree unmatched by any other institution, declaring the most basic, healthy, mature, and consensual behaviors taboo. Indeed, this organization still opposes the use of contraception… As a consequence of this hallowed and incorrigible stupidity, the Church has condemned generations of decent people to shame and hypocrisy—or to Neolithic fecundity, poverty, and death by AIDS. Add to this inhumanity the artifice of cloistered celibacy, and you now have an institution—one of the wealthiest on earth—that preferentially attracts pederasts, pedophiles, and sexual sadists into its ranks, promotes them to positions of authority, and grants them privileged access to children. Finally, consider that vast numbers of children will be born out of wedlock, and their unwed mothers vilified, wherever Church teaching holds sway—leading boys and girls by the thousands to be abandoned to Church-run orphanages only to be raped and terrorized by the clergy. Here, in this ghoulish machinery set to whirling through the ages by the opposing winds of shame and sadism, we mortals can finally glimpse how strangely perfect are the ways of the Lord.

Sam comes back to the podcast:

Let’s be clear on what’s happening here. This isn’t just the law of large numbers. There is something special about the Catholic church, there is a specific machinery here, based on dogmatism and faith in ideas. Every detail matters. Belief in hell and sin and celibacy and the shame of sexuality and out of wedlock birth. There are scandals in other religions, but no-one has perfected this horror show like the Catholic church. This church spends millions of dollars to keep hidden the abuse and moves convicted priests to other parishes hiding them from their accusers only to introduce them to other congregations later. They pay millions of dollars in hush money to victims. When they do end up in court, they do everything they can to shame and discredit the children or the adult who were gets when the abuse happened.

This is insane.

What if there was a fortune 500 company who was raping and abusing children for its entire existence and systematically concealing it, what would have we done to that company? Now imagine what hasn’t been done to the Catholic church.

This literally is too depressing to think about. However, these children are powerless to obtain help for themselves. Who are their saviors? There are hundreds of thousands of children and teenagers that are being abused. It happens more than we know, 2 out of every 3 victims do not report to the police.4 Victims come from all walks of life. I will focus this writing on the institutions that use faith and dogma to both protect the abusers and magnify the shame and contribute to the silence of its victims. This happens in every religion, but most especially in the Catholic church as outlined above. This fact, from my perspective, has kept the spotlight off of the Mormon church. My common thought in the past was because the Mormon church was the “true church” and its structure is fundamentally different, abuse would be profoundly minimized. But I was wrong. This is not a game of large numbers, where some small percentage of people will be abused no matter what and the blame can be placed squarely on the abusers and not the religion. This is not always the case. Unfortunately sexual abuse can oftentimes be directly caused by religion.

HOW DOES RELIGIOUS TEACHING CONTRIBUTE TO ABUSE?

The very people that are in place to protect the victims many times end up protecting the abuser and perpetuating the pain of the abused. You can find this in the Mormon church where there is a temporal system instituted by its leaders that are “called of God”, and are “special witnesses of Jesus Christ” that not only contributes to sexual abuse but perpetuates it. This system is carried out by the appointed lawyers of the church which have a fiduciary duty to act to protect the assets of its client and act in its best interest and not their own, especially at the expense of the well being of abuse victims. In fact, if they decide to not act in the best interest of the church (by definition NOT the abuse victim) they could be sued for breach of fiduciary duty. Lawyers are not representing abuse victims, they are representing the “good name of the Church.” This alone should disturb you.

From a spiritual perspective, religion creates a worldview that acts as a filter on everything someone experiences. This religious worldview is past on to children, indoctrinating them to the teachings of religion. This nature of reality narrative is fundamentally based on a dichotomy between good and evil. There is a heaven and a hell. There is a god and there is a devil. They are always watching you, listening to your thoughts, influencing your thoughts, ever present. Sin is a result of your actions tempered with the temptations of Satan. Satan is the ultimate evil, he tempts mankind “that he may lead their souls to destruction.”5 As such, many religions subjugate children through fear of sin and Satan. Psychologist Jill Mytton describes this as “crushing the child’s chance to form a personal morality and belief system; it makes them utterly reliant on their religion and/or parents, and they never learn to reflect critically on information they receive.”6

In my case, it is clear to me, my parents, along with countless other Mormon parents, paternalize the Mormon church and infantilize themselves. They shift the responsibility of raising their children to the church and chose to subjugate themselves to this ever watchful and always present divine father because, in their minds, it was “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth”7 and obeying its commandments was paramount. According to Mormon teaching, obedience is the first law of heaven. Elder Bruce R. McConkie said:

Obe­di­ence is the first law of heav­en, the cor­ner­stone upon which all right­eous­ness and progres­sion rest. It con­sists in compli­ance with divine law, in confor­mity to the mind and will of Deity, in complete sub­jec­tion to God and his commands.8

This expectation of complete obedience is described as the cornerstone of progression. This teaching creates a type of unhealthy attachment to exact obedience over emotional intimacy with yourself and with your children. What is important is obedience and not the emotional needs of your child. This creates a dysfunctional relationship with children, parents, and the church. In my case, I came to understand that I could gain the love and respect of my mom and dad mainly through obedience to the Mormon church. Put another way psychologist Lindsay Gibson says “emotionally immature parents don’t know how to validate their child’s feelings and instincts. Without this validation, children learn to give in to what others seem sure about.”9 One thing my parents seemed sure about was their absolute commitment the Mormon church. The church controlled my feelings and instincts. Imagine the reaction to sexual abuse in a family like this. Are the child’s feelings and instincts going to be validated? Where are they going to go for help? The answer for both the parent and the child is “the church”. To an abused child the parent might respond, “I’m so sorry to hear that, let’s make an appointment with the bishop.” Is this healthy?

When you guiding star is divine compliance, you teach your kids there are divine consequences for disobedience. From an early age Mormon children are taught that breaking the law of sexual purity, or the law of chastity, is one of the most serious sins, one that is next to murder. This unhealthy relationship with sexuality is both taught to the developing minds of children and acted out by parents and members of the church.  To add to the unhealthy dogma, those that commit such sins must go talk to the local bishop about it in a closed door, one on one interview, in order to receive forgiveness from Jesus for sin so grievously. These teachings contribute to the silence of abuse victims even without the threats made to them by an abuser.

How do pedophiles get access to children? According to a 2003 National Institute of Justice report, 3 out of 4 adolescents who have been sexually assaulted were victimized by someone they knew well.10 In many cases, the commonality the abuser shares as a close family member, a relative, or a neighbor of victim is they all share the same religious beliefs. This shared belief frames how perpetrators find victims and how its adherents react to abusers and victims, especially within Mormonism. Matt Long is a special victims unit prosecutor in Phoenix Arizona. He describes in a podcast11 5 points of victimology that sexual predators use. Matt is Mormon and relates his experience with working on many cases involving Mormons:

Selection

Abusers can use their position in the church as leverage to gain access to potential victims. If they are a bishop or a youth leader they know who the vulnerable people are. They don’t even need to be a leader. If someone is an active member of the church you garner an implicit trust that you would not have if you were just some dude living on you same street. These members have presumed access to members of the ward simply for being a ward member. If they are in a leadership role, especially as a bishop, they have specific information on children that might be the most vulnerable. They know who come from single mother homes, who are poor, quiet, and who are in need of assistance. This information is essential to the perpetrator.

Engagement

The abuser then attempts to gain the trust of the child and the circle of influence around that child. As I mentioned in the selection process, religion gives the abuser instant credibility. These abusers can be active members, have an important calling, be a respected priesthood holder, be the missionaries, a scout leader, etc. When they move into a new ward they have an instant family and credibility in order to engage the potential victim and the victim’s family. Matt says, “This happens easier, quicker, and more completely than someone outside of the group.” Imagine a predator that newly moved into the neighborhood who is a member called to be a primary teacher who, having their own children of the same age, begins the engagement phase. Imagine that primary teacher inviting your child to come hang out at his house with their children. In many cases, the idea that they are an active member of the church clouds your level of trust. This is absolutely the minority of cases, but this is exactly how engagement happens more easily in a religious setting.

Grooming

This involves breaking down physical barriers of the potential victim. This process most often starts with inappropriate conversations or situations. The victim may tell a vulgar joke or touch the victim inappropriately and then look for a reaction and a comfort level. They might be the “cool” dad that shows rated R movies with inappropriate sexual scenes. The potential victim may feel uncomfortable but be unsure on how to react because of the perceived power and popular position of the abuser. Victims might perceive these unfamiliar situations as being part of a secret, mature, position in a friendly relationship. Then the abuser takes greater liberties like back rubs, putting their arm around the potential victim, making them feel special, or exclusive inappropriate conversations. The perpetrator is constantly gauging the reaction until they are ready to commit the assault.

Commit the Assault

Keeping Victim Quiet

Often the fact that the victim is a child is enough to keep the child quiet. The trauma of the abuse and the thought that people might not believe them, keeps many victims quiet. Beside threats of violence to them, friends or family, many abusers use religion as a way to keep victims quiet. In the podcast, Matt said many times “the abusers would use the temple as a way to keep the kids quiet. “You need to be worthy for the temple.” they would say.” Reminding victims that abuse they received was related to an act that is considered by God to be as serious a sin next to murder suffocates the literal and metaphorical cries for help of victims. It magnifies the guilt, shame, disgust, and horror victims feel. This potentially extends the abuse allowing it continue to them and to other victims.

These feelings of guilt and shame come from the trauma of the abuse, but are often made worse by the teachings of the Mormon church and its leaders. For example, in the prophet Spencer W Kimball’s book The Miracle of Forgiveness he says The loss of chastity is “far-reaching, once given or taken or stolen it can never be regained. … It is better to die in defending one’s virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle.”12 This rhetoric contributes to the shame of the victim and outrageously implies some level of guilt on the victim. This has to stop.

TAKEAWAYS

In recent months there appears to be a Mormon spotlight movement happening. There have been multiple reports of coverups of abuse cases, where the church sides with the abuser and not the abuse victim. The Protect LDS Children movement has garnered a ton of support. This movement calls for the ending of one on one bishops interviews and the end of asking sexually explicit questions by bishops to teenagers and children sometimes as young as 8 years old. This movement along with a constant stream of leaks containing abuse should and deserves to put the spotlight on the church in a number of ways.

One change is realizing there is not such thing as the gift of discernment despite what is taught in church. Elder Gene R Cook said in a conference talk “After enumerating various spiritual gifts, the Lord provides this counsel concerning your bishop or any other presiding priesthood leader: “And unto the bishop of the church, and unto such as God shall appoint and ordain to watch over the church and to be elders unto the church, are to have it given unto them to discern all those gifts lest there shall be any among you professing and yet be not of God.” (D&C 46:27.) It is abundantly clear that presiding priesthood leaders are given the gift of discernment.”13 Sorry Gene, but it’s abundantly clear that they do not. If it were so, time and time again, pedophiles and sadists are called, by God, through his discerning servants to inflict suffering upon countless victims.

Second, there is something fundamentally wrong with the current direction given to church leaders that respond to sexual abuse. In their handbook of instructions they are told to call a 1-800 number that goes to the church’s lawyers who look at what the legal reporting requirements are in each state, and then provide those details to the bishop. Most states have protections for clergy that receive confessions of sexual abuse. They are not required to report abuse to law enforcement. This alone perpetuates abuse, and is reprehensible. In most cases the extent of the abuse is not fully confessed. Without proper training, some bishops may think the abuse isn’t “that bad” and that the atonement of Jesus is available to all that are humble enough to repent. From this perspective, these bishops do not report the abuser or reach out to the victim, contributing to the likely continued abuse. The church should be in the business of protecting, saving, and providing sanctuary and support to victims, not protecting themselves and abusers. Is this how Jesus would run his church?

Here is a list of recent abuse that the church has either played a role, has perpetuated the abuse, or has continued silencing and placing guilt on the victims of abuse:

  • 09/2018 – 11 pages of a document from October 2012 summarizing legal cases at Kirton McConkie, the Mormon church’s legal team. Example summaries bulleted:
    • In 2000, a four year old boy was molested in a bathroom at the Church during sacrament meeting by an inactive sixteen year-old boy. The victim is now 14. The perpetrator is 26 and is in prison, serving a 14 year prison sentence.
    • Person A alleges he was abused by Person B in a meetinghouse when he was 12 or 13 years old. Person A also claims he was drugged and raped by Person B in 2002. In March 2012, Person B pled guilty to four counts of sexual assault against Person A. Settlement authority: up to $50,000
    • Person A alleges abuse by her step-father. She claims she told a bishop and a therapist who did not report.
    • Person B was convicted of misdemeanor sexual assault in spring of 2010 for having sexual intercourse with 15 year old Person A who was investigating the church. Person A had become interested in the Church through Person B’s son and attended Person B’s Sunday School class, but the abuse did not take place on Church premises or in conjunction with any Church activities. Settlement authority: $400,000 approved by First Presidency on 06/19/12
  • 09/2018 – 2 pages of a document from October 2012 summarizing legal cases at Kirton McConkie, the Mormon church’s legal team. Example summaries bulleted:
    • Stake president has been accused of sexually touching a young girl at the school where he teaches. There is some indication that this may receive media attention. The stake president denies any inappropriate conduct. He is mystified by the allegation.
    • Elder A is accused of sexually abusing an 8 year old (on foreign mission). Elder A has returned home. The disciplinary council held in the mission determined no action would be taken. The home stake president is also not inclined to take any action. Leaders are working with the victim’s family.
    • Person A, a former Indian Placement student, claims he was physically and sexually abused by the father and older brother in the home where he was placed. Person A has demanded $8.3 million. We plan to tell him if he is interested in a reasonable sum, in the $10,000 range, to pay for some counseling then we can talk.
    • Elder A confessed to sexting with a 15 year old girl in [current mission] prior to his mission. The girl sent him nude photos. The missionary department is reluctant to send this Elder home where he may face prosecution for a felony. His conduct is clearly unlawful in [current mission], and his Stake President would have a duty to report.
  • Protect LDS Children – over 800 personal stories of how the church has fallen short on addressing sexual abuse, both in its teachings to members, and how they address sexual matters
    • #687 – When I was 11, my uncle molested me. He threatened my family. I eventually told my mother and we told the police. During the trial, our bishop was set to testify against me. After being released from prison, the bishop asked my mom to get her opinion on my uncle wanted to be baptized in the church. According to my aunt, he raped my cousin when she was 5 and his niece when she was 14. He still goes to church, and my mom will not go when he is there.14
  • 300 page document of instances of child abuse allegedly perpetrated by members. Some examples bulleted
    • 2014 – Colorado – LDS Defendant Frank, is 40 years old and is alleged to have sexually abused a child of 15 years. Frank was the 15 year-old-girl’s Sunday School Teacher.
    • 2014 – Utah – “Michael Alan Jordan, 34, was booked into the Salt Lake County Jail on Sept. 23, 2014 on allegations that he sexually abused multiple young boys in recent years. Jordan was a leader in the Boy Scouts of America organization from 2010-14 and an active member in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
    • 2015 – Iowa – LDS James Raborn, “An Oakland man, who holds a key position with a local ward of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, has been charged with six counts of sex-related crimes.” “The charges stem from alleged sexual relationships with two 16-year-old females. Raborn was the Ward’s Young Men’s President.”
    • 2015 – Utah – LDS Scott Gollager a convicted child sex abuser, allegedly “had molested two 11-year-old girls during their May and June 2012 recreational visits to the Morgan County residence. May 2012, Gollaher was charged with four counts of aggravated sexual abuse. Gollaher is now facing prosecution in two Utah counties simultaneously. In Morgan County, he faces four counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child. In Salt Lake County, he faces one count of sodomy on a child and 10 counts of sexual exploitation of a minor, relating to child porn that was allegedly found on a computer “and digital media,” at the condo, three images in which Gollaher himself appeared, according to a probable-cause statement.” “A FBI forensic specialist located “hundreds” of images of child porn on a Gollaher’s computer.” “In 1996 Gollaher was convicted of child sexual abuse of a 10-year-old girl and was sentenced to four years in prison. Shortly after, he was excommunicated from the LDS Church following a church court in Holladay, an event that distresses him to this day. He’s concerned that publicity about his excommunication could hurt his defense in his upcoming trial in Mormon-dominated Morgan County.” “Gollaher got close to parents of children he was later accused of molesting by exploiting Mormon cultural commonalities.”
    • 2015 – Australia – LDS Darran Scott was “charged with more that 50 counts of child sexual abuse. According to reports 15 boys were victimized and ranged in age from 11 to 15 years. One victim committed suicide December 2015. Scott’s predatory behavior and “the alleged offending occurred between 1990 and 2015, while Mr Scott was a high-ranking member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
  • Mckenna Denson accuses former Missionary Training Center President Joseph Bishop of rape in the MTC basement while she was a missionary there in 1984
    • Incredibly detailed timeline here 15
  • Camille and Maddie abuse on the mission16
    • Camille and her companion were assaulted while serving in Mexico. Maddie and her companion were assaulted in Bolivia.
    • Their story details the problems with the current way the church handles sexual abuse cases of missionaries. It highlights the lack of care directly after the assault and subsequent follow-ups. They describe the complete lack of controls to keep missionaries out of unsafe neighborhoods, instead they were told that God would protect them if they were obedient.
  • Christopher Swallow tells story of abuse at hands of uncle who became bishop, mission president and later stake president17
    • Uncle Lowell engaged in predatory sexual behavior with several male cousins
    • Was called to Mexico Leon mission in 1995. Cousins reported abuse to church and met with Elder Earl Tingey (church leader). Lowell continued his assignment and the church offered no support to the victims
    • Lowell is called as a stake president in Provo. Upon finding this out family again goes to church (Merrill J Bateman) with allegations. This time, he is immediately removed from position.
    • 63 days after this podcast Lowell commits suicide

Reading these stories causes me deep emotional anguish. There is so much suffering in the world. We should be able to have a mature conversation about causes and prevention. Unfortunately, religion comes packaged with a lot of good but also with a lot of poison. The fear, guilt, and shame train in the DNA of Mormonism causes spiritual and emotional abuse. There should be absolutely zero sexual conversations happening with the accountant/farmer/mechanic/salesman neighbor down the street and your precious children. It teaches kids that it is okay to be alone with an adult stranger and talk about sex. Why is this so hard to understand!? Abuse happens and will continue to happen. A church that is said to be led by Jesus himself and at the same time are party to profound suffering should be ashamed to hold that claim. Anyone that tries to defend it, causes more harm to victims and adds coal to the fire of the train of fear, guilt, shame, abuse, and suffering of children. Think of the children!


Resources

  1. Sam Harris Podcast #135 – https://samharris.org/podcasts/135-navigating-sex-gender/
  2. Catholic sex abuse article – http://www2.philly.com/philly/news/catholic-church-sex-abuse-clergy-pennsylvania-grand-jury-report-released-names-20180814.html
  3. Sam Harris article on abuse – https://samharris.org/bringing-the-vatican-to-justice/
  4. Abuse statistics – https://www.rainn.org/statistics/criminal-justice-system
  5. D&C 10:22 – https://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/10?lang=eng
  6. Richard Dawkins interviews Jill Mytton – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXA7GA9yntc
  7. D&C 1:30 – https://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/1.30?lang=eng#29
  8. Mormon Doctrine Bruce R McConkie pg 539
  9. Gibson, Lindsay C.. Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents (p. 17). New Harbinger Publications. Kindle Edition.
  10. Abuse statistics – https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/194972.pdf
  11. Matt Long podcast with Mormon Stories – https://www.mormonstories.org/podcast/matt-long-sex-crimes-prosecutor-discusses-lds-church-child-abuse-policies/
  12. Rape and The Miracle of Forgiveness – Chris Kimball  –https://bycommonconsent.com/2016/04/28/rape-and-the-miracle-of-forgiveness/
  13. Gene R Cook – https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1978/04/seek-out-your-spiritual-leader?lang=eng
  14. Story #687 – http://protectldschildren.org/687-name-hidden-cs-123578/
  15. Joseph Bishop timeline – https://medium.com/@davidscoville/timeline-of-the-joseph-bishop-sexual-abuse-scandal-77f39be1ef3a
  16. Sister missionary abuse podcast on Mormon Stories – https://www.mormonstories.org/podcast/missionary-sexual-assault/
  17. Christopher Swallow recounts abuse on Mormon Stories podcast – https://www.mormonstories.org/podcast/christopher-swallow/

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