Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Mormon bishops’ interview policy opens the door for sexual abuse

A guest post by Mette Harrison

Yet again, a Mormon bishop is in trouble because of sexual abuse.

Erik Wayne Hughes of Mapleton, Utah has been charged with 20 counts of forcible sexual abuse of minors, among other charges. Two now-adult men have come forward to say they remember being drugged and sexually abused by this bishop, a man who ought to have been interested only in their spiritual welfare. They were in their teens at the time.

The police chief said he is “concerned that there is more” abuse in this case, and that other victims may come forward in the future. Furthermore, Hughes has been accused of trying to silence the young men by manipulating their feelings for him as their bishop, allegedly telling them that others had been spreading false rumors about his deeds.

The LDS Church has long prided itself on its “Gold Standard” of protecting abuse victims, including a hotline for bishops to call if they find out about abuse. But there is no such system in place for ward members when the bishops themselves are the problem.

Some years ago, the Mormon church began to implement a policy of two-deep leadership (two men in all situations for safety). I’ve also seen peek windows added in Primary rooms. This was good, but not enough. Some parents I know insist that they be on hand for any of the yearly youth bishop interviews (in which young men and women are asked in private about their sexual activities and other things) or that such interviews not happen at all, but I don’t know if this is the best solution.

Can we not make sure that the leadership is two-deep for these interviews also? And that vulnerable young women speak to the Relief Society President instead of the bishop, especially when they are being asked about their sexual behavior?

In my opinion, there should also be limits about what is asked in such interviews. Too many bishops feel it is appropriate to ask detailed questions about sexual practices, not just basic outlines of what sins have occurred. This has to stop. There must be boundaries for the protection of our youth, and these boundaries need to be explicit and understandable for both sides.

Regarding the Hughes case, an official spokesman told the media that “There is zero tolerance for abuse” in the LDS church, and that as soon as leaders learned of this particular matter they “immediately reported it to law enforcement.” He also assured other Mormons that if someone is found guilty of abuse they are subject to “serious discipline, including loss of church membership.”

This is good to hear, but such church discipline only occurs after a guilty verdict. I know multiple people who have complained that when they alerted church authorities to inappropriate contact or inquired about a ward member’s status on a sexual offender’s list, they were told to be quiet, to forgive, to be more understanding. The church must do more than offer “love and support” to victims as the spokesman says.

A friend who was a member of Hughes’ ward spoke to me about her frustrations when their stake president came to speak about the issue. She had to ask multiple times for a concrete solution to the problem and was only told that the church would “look into it.” She and others in the ward were also instructed that they needed to forgive and simply move on.

This is unacceptable.

It is one thing to preach forgiveness as part of religion. It is something else entirely to demand it of victims who have yet to see justice and whose wounds are still raw.

It feels very much like a recent case where Utah County judge Thomas Low, at the sentencing of another abusive Mormon bishop, Keith Vallejo, praised the man in front of his victims and lectured them on how much good the bishop had done. He said Vallejo was “an extraordinary, good man,” but that “great men sometimes do bad things.”

What? How is it possible to defend a convicted perpetrator in such a situation?

I am also concerned about how Mormon children and youth are being taught to view authority in the church as beyond question. In the “Gospel Topics Essay” about Joseph Smith and polygamy on the church’s own website, the church admits that Joseph married a girl who was still 14 years old. She was one of several teens, and other women, including other men’s wives. These girls and women were sometimes told that their salvation was on the line if they did not marry Joseph Smith.

Is this kind of spiritual coercion acceptable? If not, the church needs to say so more emphatically. If teens can’t tell when they should say “no” to a leader, abuse is going to keep happening.

Please, Mormon church leaders, take action. We can and must do better.

 


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Mette Harrison is the author of The Bishop’s Wife series of detective novels and many other books. Her newest release, The Book of Laman, is a retelling of 1 and 2 Nephi from Laman’s point of view.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

40 Comments

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  • It just keeps getting stranger. This is your religion, I would suggest owning it. Take the power back from the leadership. The shame THEY must feel for perpetuating this illusion of power, control and obedience is shockingly apparent to those outside the bubble.

  • Great thoughts. There is not enough done in the Church to protect youth in these situations. When I served in a bishopric, we rarely had training in this area.

  • For a church which has made such a big deal about what consenting adults do in private and deliberately shun children based on such things, they are awfully blase and indifferent to sexual assault.

    I guess once you are emboldened to violate personal boundaries of others by your church, it’s easy to escalate from there.

  • Showerthought: If you were to take away the notion these men are “inspired”, “called of God”, would you ever allow your children to discuss the most intimate details of their lives in a one-on-one setting? Of course not. It all becomes so clear once you stop drinking the cool-aid.

  • Although I think that having a second person in these kinds of interviews should be an option, I don’t think it should be a requirement. People have different needs, and some will prefer to have as few people in the room as possible when working through personal questions, sins, and/or challenges.

    To be clear, having someone just outside the room is and should remain mandatory.

  • Spuddie, it’s clear to me from other interactions that you have no idea what you’re talking about.

  • Ah a variation of the useless rhetort “YOU LIEEEEEEE!!!!” that so many people put out when they don’t have a real argument to speak of.

    The Church spends a great deal of its time, money and manpower trying to dictate what consenting adults do. It does precious little to deal with sexual abuse of minors. In fact it has created a culture which enables it.

    In fact the LDS “purity culture” was a key factor in perpetuating the sexual abuse of Elizabeth Smart
    https://www.thecut.com/2016/09/elizabeth-smart-is-speaking-out-against-the-mormon-church.html

    Then there is the cover up of sexual abuse by LDS sponsored Boy Scout Troops
    http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/mormon-church-boy-scouts-accused-covering-sex-abuse-article-1.3129033

  • Well, you do lie. You have a habit of it, so if the shoe fits, wear it.

    P.S. allegations are not proof. The church and BSA are likely only named as defendants because they have the biggest pockets. This is common in any type of litigation.

  • Bring something to the table besides your say so?

    Elizabeth Smart was remarking of her own experiences with LDS purity culture in perpetuating her abuse and trauma. Your opinion on that doesn’t mean much. It was her views of her experiences.

    As for the rest got any articles as to refute them? Such as any kind of follow up stories relating to the incidents in question?

    Are you trying to claim a “purity culture” does not exist with the LDS? That it has a more modern attitude towards consensual non-marital relations? If so, I would love to hear about it.

  • Props to Mette for being willing to address this issue, and props to Jana for being willing to publish it. Nice work, both of you! Keep it up!

  • For decades, the Boy Scouts banned anyone gay, scout or scoutmaster, from the organization. For decades, they pretty much insisted that everyone be married – heterosexually, of course. (for the record, I worked for the Boy Scouts about 45 years ago. They were so stupid on the subject of sexual molestation that I left after two months, but that wasn’t the only reason.) for decades, they had a molestation problem which is well documented in articles in the LA Times. For decades, they covered up the problem in the inimitable style of the Roman Catholic Church.

    Allegations may not be proof. But where there is a hell of a lot of smoke, one might do well to see if there is actually a fire.

    There was a scoutmaster in Berkeley that was vociferously antigay. He got arrested, and if I recall, convicted of molesting boys. There is a Mormon scout liaison charged right now with the same offenses.

    Do the math.

  • Interesting that you criticize me for opining on Elizabeth Smart’s experience when I in fact did not opine on Elizabeth Smart’s experience. I happen to agree that the kinds of lessons Smart cites are despicable, but they are not lessons promoted by the Church at an institutional level, and these kinds of lessons have been extraordinarily rare in the wards I have attended. I believe chastity may be upheld as a virtue without implying that those who are victims are somehow dirty.

    You have saved me the task of finding an example of you lying. Thank you.

    As for the rest, I’ve already addressed the issue. An allegation does not constitute proof. Of note, in the case you cited, the plaintiff’s theory of liability as to the Church is not that Church officials engaged in predatory behavior, but that the Church knew of abuse and generally encouraged participation in the boy scouts. Some of the plaintiffs weren’t even involved with LDS-sponsored troops. The allegation against the Church basically amounts to the idea that the Church knew of a limited number of cases of abuse (in this case, two) and still believed in the program as a whole.

    The strongest connection alleged in the Idaho BSA lawsuit is that the Church knew that an adult leader (Schmidt) had abused children, but the complaint itself is inconsistent on the facts. In the Church’s response, the Church denied that Schmidt was a leader in any LDS troops after it learned of the allegations against Schmidt (which at the time, involved him “pantsing” scouts–wholly inappropriate for sure, but nothing like the crimes for which he was later convicted). The lawsuit you cite barely attempts to claim active cover up.

    http://fox13now.com/2017/06/08/lds-church-denies-wrongdoing-in-idaho-boy-scout-sex-abuse-lawsuit/

    http://www.idahostatesman.com/news/local/article149736579.ece/BINARY/Read%20the%20May%201%2C%202017%20lawsuit.

    http://www.idahostatesman.com/news/local/article149736589.html

  • Yep, the BSA used to have poor protections for youth, including some people who tried to sweep allegations under the rug in a misguided attempt to protect a valuable program.

    I’m responding to Spuddie, who made unfounded claim that the Church is “awfully blase and indifferent to sexual assault.”

  • ” I believe chastity may be upheld as a virtue without implying that those who are victims are somehow dirty.”

    So you believe in a self serving fiction. The entire extolling of chastity amounts to commodification of a woman’s ‘virtue”. It enables abusers as a matter of course as seen in every religious culture that carries such ideas.

    The very rhetoric employed in support of chastity is based on shaming tactics. To claim it is a rarity smacks of apologia,not a credible assertion.

  • When I was a councillor in a student ward, I certainly didn’t feel comfortable asking any intimate details. When doing TRs I stuck to the script and didn’t feel the need to ask details. But then, as a councillor I wasn’t a common judge. When someone admitted wrong doing I made it clear I didn’t want details, and that they needed to talk to the bishop. While I don’t know what was said in those bishop meetings, in the disciplinary councils that followed there was no prying for details of the transgression. The only prying (bad word choice) was where the person was at spiritually, which is how my understanding of the process should be. If I’m ever unlucky enough to be called as a bishop, I’ll stick to the same principle. I won’t want to know the details of what was done – it is sufficient to know which commandment was broken, not how it was broken. To me the focus should be more on where to go from here to repent than what was done.

    I’ve previously thought that a 2nd person would be a good idea – but on the flip side it could be more overwhelming for a troubled youth. And if there are problems at home they won’t be likely to confide if a parent is there.

    Likewise though, I see no reason why the RS president shouldn’t be able to conduct TR interviews or youth interviews. If the priesthood can be delegated to sisters to conduct temple ordinances, I see no theological reason why that can’t extend to worthiness interviews. And if that was done, let the sisters of the church choose who conducts them. I’ve never served with an RS pres who wouldn’t have my full confidence in such matters. Can’t say the same about all the bishopric councillors, (and even bishops), I’ve served with.

  • Ummmm out wards Boy Scout troop leader is in prison. He had been for four years now, guess what he did? Yep. And my kid had to be interviewed to make sure he was not one of the victims. Luckily I felt concern about this type of thing from the beginning and my husband and son always went together. It happens more than you think.

  • Except when one looks at every ultra religious grouping. The same stories and incidents run through them. Especially when it comes to celebrating chastity.

    But Mormons are different that way because.. .reasons.

  • That sucks. Sounds like the troop leader and his assistant(s) weren’t observing two deep leadership. Glad he was sent to prison and your Bishop followed procedures to protect the ward.

  • Thinking some more on this – perhaps a solution would be CCTV. It could provide evidence of wrong-doing by the bishop, and on the flip side it could also protect against vexatious claims.

  • “In my opinion, there should also be limits about what is asked in such interviews. Too many bishops feel it is appropriate to ask detailed questions about sexual practices, not just basic outlines of what sins have occurred. This has to stop. There must be boundaries for the protection of our youth, and these boundaries need to be explicit and understandable for both sides.”

    So, “here must be boundaries for the protection of our youth.” ???

    Ya think?

  • OK, I agree that “having a second person present in these kinds of interviews . . . ” should indeed, be an option.

    I’m totally in favor of the one-way mirrors that allow observers to view what’s going on in those interviews!

  • When I had an interview with the bishop, attended a bishop’s court ending in disfellowship, had an interview with the stake president and then attended a high council court ending in excommunication for being gay, in each of those situations I was asked pointed questions and asked to describe minute details, to the level of being prurient!

    I had to wonder if some of those men weren’t getting off on it and creaming their Gs.

  • After I was excommunicated for being gay, I stuck around and was re-baptized 3 years later. One aspect of those 3 years was that I attended counseling sessions with a Church therapist in the LDS Church office building in SLC who told me that the reason that I was attracted to men was because I had built a super strict concept of chastity in my mind and believed that having sex with a guy was less sinful than having premarital sex with a gal.

    The crazy thing was that I hadn’t actually had sex with a guy. I was 22 and he was 18 and we were just dating and occasionally engaged in the petting that goes with dating. Plus we slept in the same bed one night when we were both fully clothed.

    Because I was an RM, I was excommunicated. Nothing happened to him because even though he told them that it wasn’t so, I was older, so I must have seduced him.

  • Has anyone ever actually called us the “gold standard” besides the Church Newsroom?

  • of course they were. It amazes me how much supposedly heterosexual men fanaticize about all of the kinds of sex they are not having.

  • “Can we not make sure that the leadership is two-deep for these interviews also?”

    I totally disagree with this. I think interviews with underage children needs to stop. Period. The Church is far too involved in the members’ private lives, penetrating even what they are supposed to wear and think.

  • Why would you go back to it? why would you willingly become part of an organization that tells you that who want to love is wrong and sinful? For a second time?

  • I am a former Mormon Bishop’s daughter, and I also was called into an interview (at a young age) of this nature with other Mormon male authorities of this sick church. I could not believe what they were saying to me. Folks, this false religion from the pit hell has always had undertones of sexual situations….starting with the practice of polygamy being taught as a “righteous” practice in the early years of the church. Keep your friends and loved one AWAY from this false “angel of light” religion. Run…run far away!!!! https://www.amazon.com/Can-Mitt-Romney-Serve-Masters/dp/1449711995

  • Why do abused women stay with the abusive men in their lives?

    I was loved into the LDS Church and I was hoping for the love again.

  • It gets worse folks. Our 14 years old son died of suicide, sparked by serious bullying at church per the suicide note, witnesses and chat logs. The aggressive cover up by church leaders was like kicking our family when when we were already down. To this day they still have not investigated the abuse that sparked his end of life decision, and we all know why. One more smack in the face during our worst moment was the suggestion that we needed to let the Atonement resolve our problem as the cover up continued. Folks be warned. If you or your family experience a serious abuse incident in the LDS Church, expect every effort to be made to cover it up if the abuse poses any liability risk to the church at all.

  • Hill AFB shares your issues. Please ensure the LDS that are employed on base are following this “gold standard.” Wife gets to stay home with the kiddos while the men go to work and “play.” Such a damn disgrace!

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