Beliefs Columns Culture Ethics Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

On Rob Porter, Mormonism, and siding with the abuser

Bruises on Colbie Holderness, left, after an alleged 2005 assault incident by her then-husband, Rob Porter, right, seen in 2018. (Left photo courtesy of Colbie Holderness; Right AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Bruises on Colbie Holderness, left, after an alleged 2005 assault incident by her then-husband, Rob Porter, right, seen in 2018. (Left photo courtesy of Colbie Holderness; Right AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

(RNS) — I’m angry, but I’m trying to understand.

On Wednesday (Feb. 7), White House aide Rob Porter resigned from his job as staff secretary because a story broke that his two ex-wives had both accused him of abuse. Despite that, this administration had kept him in power.

Apparently, after the FBI’s investigation early in 2017, it did not grant Porter a full security clearance, and he’s been operating all this time on an interim clearance.

Which means that at least somebody in the FBI, somewhere along the line, actually believed the women, which is more than I can say for the White House.

Or, unfortunately, for these women’s bishops.

Colbie Holderness, the first ex-wife of Rob Porter. Photo courtesy of Colbie Holderness

To me, what is especially heartbreaking about the story is that so many of the players are or were Mormon — Porter, both of his ex-wives, and also Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Porter’s former employer who on Tuesday denounced the accusers as “politically motivated, morally bankrupt character assassins that would attempt to sully a man’s good name.” (By Wednesday Hatch’s follow-up statement was far more circumspect.)

Most painful of all was the fact that both women seem to have gone to their bishops in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about the abuse when it was happening, and both had their abuse minimized or dismissed. One article describes the experiences of Colby Holderness, the first wife:

One summer, when she was interning at a federal agency, she had access to a counselor through her job. “When I explained to him what was happening, he had a very different reaction from the Mormon bishops,” she said. “It was weirdly validating to hear that from somebody else.” Speaking about the counselor, she said, “He was very concerned to hear Rob was choking me.”

That last statement seems to suggest that her Mormon bishop also heard at some point that Holderness was being choked by her husband, and the bishop was not concerned about it.

Let’s pause on that for a moment: Not concerned that Porter was choking. His. Wife.

The second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, gave a long and interesting interview Thursday to CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360. Here is the relevant portion about Mormonism:

Cooper: One of the things the bishop had sort of suggested to you or mentioned to you is, “Do you want to file this temporary protection order, because of the impact it might have on your husband’s career?”

Willoughby: Yeah.

Cooper: How did you feel when that was brought up?

Willoughby: I was taken aback. It seemed … not the priority in the situation that I was discussing. I hold no ill will towards that bishop. I think he was making the decision the best that he could with the information that he had. But ultimately, I think it shows some of the nuances of what someone goes through when they’re in an abusive relationship, that because I was unable to clearly articulate the fear that I had, and to clearly articulate even some of the more extreme forms of emotional or verbal abuse that I was experiencing, he really didn’t understand the severity of the situation. And wasn’t able to make that as a recommendation.

Willoughby did seem to suggest, though, that the Mormon bishop’s counsel, along with a police officer’s, helped her to ultimately make the decision to file the temporary restraining order against Porter. So maybe it was not entirely one-sided, and the bishop eventually was more of a help than a hindrance.

Listening between the lines, though, it sounds like Willoughby’s bishop was very slow on the uptake about how bad things actually were, and was primarily concerned about how allegations of Porter’s abuse might damage the man’s career, rather than the danger Willoughby might be in.

I’ve never seen credible evidence that abuse and domestic violence are more common in Mormon families than anywhere else. But I’ve never seen credible evidence that they are any less common, either.

And I am quite sure, based on what I’ve seen in my church, that Mormon women who are abused are not always likely to be believed, and that bishops are untrained in how to deal with abuse — both of which make women less likely to come forward at all.

Listen again to what Willoughby said: that she was not always able to clearly articulate her fear. That’s actually really common in situations of domestic violence, where people who are abused may minimize their own situation, or have difficulty initiating conversations about it.

That is why police officers, pastors, teachers, and other leaders get trained in precisely this. So they know the kinds of specific questions that must be asked, sometimes repeatedly, to get at the truth.

In Mormonism, our system of lay leadership means that a bishop who is in his day-to-life an accountant or perhaps a veterinarian is called out of the blue to be in charge of the spiritual and administrative affairs of a congregation of several hundred people. He serves for five years or so and does the best job he can, encountering situations he’s never dealt with before, seeing people at their best and at their worst, making judgment calls.

That accountant and veterinarian weren’t just hypothetical examples: Those are actual bishops I’ve had. And they did a great job. But it’s pretty unfair to expect them to be experts in all things, especially counseling and domestic violence, when they have almost no training.

Recently I was discussing this reality with two friends about my age who are currently serving as bishops. One was telling me about some wonderful training videos the LDS church has put together recently for bishops to help people deal with a variety of challenging situations — a real step forward, he said.

And then the other one looked at him and asked, “What training videos?”

So that’s part of the problem. What training bishops do receive is on the job — while they’re already serving, not in advance as preparation for this huge calling — and scattershot.

Then there’s the other part of the problem, which is that this is a thoroughly patriarchal system that makes it really tough for women to come forward and to be believed as the default response.

Therapist Julie de Azevedo Hanks referred to this in remarks to The Salt Lake Tribune Thursday, saying that the lay system of the LDS church creates situations in which men work side by side with men and might therefore be more likely to know and believe them rather than their partners, particularly when the men seem outwardly devout and caring.

And abusers can put on a really good show, as Porter’s case seems to demonstrate.

The LDS church needs to do better — not only with training bishops but also teaching them that the vast majority of allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault turn out to be true. True as in, the false reports are in the single digits.

As Willoughby said in the interview:

It’s important to me, in general, that anyone who is coming forward with a story like that is believed upfront. That’s it’s not the burden of proof for me or anyone else to justify those claims. And that the conversation around abuse or assault or even misogyny in general doesn’t automatically turn to, “Well, he is really great. Could it possibly be that she is exaggerating, or she’s not telling the truth, or it’s not as bad as they’re making it out to be?” Because there’s very little evidence that any woman would bring that kind of scrutiny upon themselves to share these kinds of details.

About the author

Jana Riess

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

46 Comments

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  • I don’t wish to derail an article that is asking sensible questions, however

    “Apparently, after the FBI’s investigation early in 2017, it did not grant Porter a full security clearance, and he’s been operating all this time on an interim clearance.

    Which means that at least somebody in the FBI, somewhere along the line, actually believed the women, which is more than I can say for the White House.”

    is not, as is stands, demonstrated to be cause and effect. It may be accurate but I suspect there are many reasons for withholding security clearance in addition to assaulting one’s spouse(s). There is, for example, a suggestion I have read that implies financial impetuosity.

  • “I hold no ill will towards that bishop. I think he was making the decision the best that he could with the information that he had”. This is the most troubling part of what she said, and is all too common in a church that teaches its leaders and their words are inspired by God, and beyond reproach. She finally had enough courage to face her husband, but hasn’t yet the courage to see clearly regarding the horrible actions of her church leader.

  • Bottom line: Mormonism is a business/employment/investment cult using a taxing i.e. tithing “religion” as a front and charitable donations and volunteer work to advertise said business. And the accounting books are closed to all but the prophet/”profit” and his all-male hierarchy.

    Tis a great business model i.e. charge your Mormon employees/stock holders a fee/tithe and invest it in ranches, insurance companies, canneries, gaudy temples, a great choir and mission-matured BYU football and basketball teams.

    And all going back to one of the great cons of all times i.e. the Moroni revelations to Joseph Smith analogous to mythical Gabriel’s revelations to the hallucinating Mohammed !!!

    And Rob Porter, the Mormon? Typical of a male who belongs to a group where polygamy was the norm for centuries. He will probably get a job as an adviser to the new “prophet”.

  • This article tells us about 70% of what we need to know about the LDS church.

    No wonder the LDS church doesn’t want members to study its history, and no wonder even faithful Mormons who make the mistake of writing honestly about the church are excommunicated. No one wants the truth told when it’s urly.

  • Most important information in this article:

    “. . . the vast majority of allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault turn out to be true.True as in, the false reports are in the single digits.”

    That’s what bishops need to understand and accept.

  • It is one of the most frustrating things, not just with Bishops, but with any Church calling. No one wants to read the handbook. Few want to attend training meetings. The Church has fantastic training resources, but people seem to consider it a badge of honor to learn “on the job”. The video example here is a prime example.

  • Well, there doesn’t seem to be any place else to put it, and since this column is about Mormons and heterosexuality, I suppose I’ll just drop it here.

    If you don’t want to read the article, I’ll save you some time. Another family values hypocrite, touting his strong conservative traditional values about marriage, was caught with a prostitute. And resigned. And wants to spend time with his family. And trashed his own family. And committed adultery and fornicaton. Traditional marriage: a religious man, his wife, his kids, and his prostitute.

    Former lawmaker Rep. Jon Stanard,(R-Dist. 62), who resigned from his position on Tuesday citing “immediate personal and family concerns,” met with a Salt Lake escort twice for sex.

    Stanard was elected to the Utah House of Representatives in 2012. He resides in St. George and is married with three children. The 43-year-old former state representative voted in favor of stricter laws on prostitution in March 2017. The penalty for soliciting sex is $2,500 and a Class A misdemeanor because of the passed legislation.

    Text messages obtained by DailyMail.com appear to show that Stanard met with the 39-year-old after seeing her advertisement online and looking at her website. The phone number these text messages were sent to match the phone number listed on Stanard’s public profile on the Utah House of Representatives website, the DailyMail reported.

    The Salt Lake Tribune reports:

    Call girl Brie Taylor alleges Stanard paid her for sex during two business trips to Salt Lake City in 2017. Taylor asserts he paid her $250 for each of the one-hour sessions in June and August — on dates when the Legislature held interim meetings.

    Stanard is married and voted for stricter laws against pornography. He also said on his website — which has since been deleted — “I am a strong advocate for conservative family values. I am pro life, as well as for traditional marriage.”

    Stanard resigned Tuesday evening, and his resignation was announced to the House on Wednesday after a closed-door House Republican caucus. No explanations were given. Stanard on Wednesday said in a text to The Associated Press that he hoped to spend more time with his father, who is suffering from cancer.

    Hmmmmm.

    Or something.

  • This is what comes from a patriarchy rather than a partnership. When men have ultimate power without the counter balance of women, neglect and abuse can result. Men will always see things through their male lens, their male point of view, and that view needs to be balanced with female experiences; a female point of view. This incident is the perfect example of a male point of view overshadowing the safety of a woman.

  • The story is tragic and revealing. The Church culture is about protecting and believing men. I mean they hold the priesthood after all. It also shows how slow the Church is on the uptake on so many issues. The one bishop saying how the church RECENTLY has new videos on this topic. I mean really. It only took until 2018. Where the hell is prophetic insight? The other bishop had never heard of the videos. I know why. He has to work a full time job, be there for his family and then work another full time job as a bishop. Tragic!!

  • Anyone can look at the handbooks that apply to their calling on LDS.org and in the Gospel Library app. Its on their phones, and few look at it.

  • Who could possibly blame the women victims for not articulating their fear well enough? It’s difficult to articulate anything when some larger person’s hands are around your neck, choking the life out of you.

  • “It’s important to me, in general, that anyone who is coming forward with a story like that is believed upfront. That’s it’s not the burden of proof for me or anyone else to justify those claims.”

    While I agree with Riess that training for bishops needs to be better systematized, this statement that Riess apparently agrees with is 180 degrees wrong. The burden of proof should always lie with the accuser, not the accused. When people level accusations against others, the question shouldn’t be why shouldn’t we believe them, but why we should.

  • Unlike our president who admitted to using the services of prostitutes. Yet he is still the darling of the “family values crowd”. Go figure.

  • Rob Porter, the Mormon and protege of Senator Orin Hatch another Mormon, is typical of a male who belongs to a group where polygamy was the norm for centuries. He will probably get a job as an adviser to the new “prophet”.

  • “Traditional marriage: a religious man, his wife, his kids, and his prostitute.” What makes you think that this situation is in any way representative of others who profess to hold the same values he professes to hold? So many of the Hollywood types now accused of sexual misconduct professed to believe in equality for women. Does their failure to live up to that standard devalue the standard itself?

    All you do by posting this (which has nothing to do with the article you are appending it to) is prove the unremarkable claim that some people are hypocrites.

  • “hasn’t yet the courage to see clearly regarding the horrible actions of her church leader.” Both women have claimed that they don’t remember telling their bishops the details. This is a case of learning to do better by recognizing signs of abuse and trying to follow up, not an example of bishops doing “horrible things” through cover-up or even willful ignorance.

  • “So many of the Hollywood types now accused of sexual misconduct professed to believe in equality for women. Does their failure to live up to that standard devalue the standard itself?” The two are not the same thing at all. They don’t contradict each other. So that’s pointless.

    “All you do by posting this (which has nothing to do with the article you are appending it to) is prove the unremarkable claim that some people are hypocrites. ” Religious hypocrites to be exact. You got my point exactly.

  • I like the tone of this article. It seems clear from this story and the recently leaked training video that the Church’s position is to not tolerate this type of action, but that local leaders cannot always recognize when abuse is occurring. This is why I believe that the Relief Society President or some other woman in the ward should have more direct responsibility for interviewing other women in the ward, and should attend bishopric meetings.

  • Equality for women and their debasement through sexual harassment do not conflict? I may not understand your argument.

    “Religious hypocrites to be exact.” Not just religious hypocrites. The only people who are incapable of being hypocrites are those with no values at all. I don’t think that creates a better world.

  • Strawman. Do you know any real men?
    No deity, rules you can break with impunity, that’s something. In fact, it’s the very subject of my posting.

  • I used the word “contradict”. You used the word conflict. All depends on how you are defining them.

  • Why, are you looking for a date?

    1 – atheists have no rules

    2 – you’re not familiar enough with theology of any kind to determine what the rules, whether they’ve been broken, and what that means in terms of hypocrisy.

  • No. I’m happily married.

    1. Untrue, wrong, and stupid. But then you also always tell atheists who we are, and are similarly situated there.

    2. See #1

  • Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Replace “conflict” with “contradict” and my point still stands.

  • Any who would like an in-depth exploration of spousal abuse in the LDS Church can access the results of over a year of my research on the subject, at https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V46N01_328b.pdf. The title of my article is “Bones Heal Faster: Spousal Abuse in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Unfortunately, an editorial slip-up resulted in publication without identifying the author. I retired from Washington State University in 2004 after 32 years in a non-teaching faculty position in which I popularized agricultural and family sciences. I have been criticized for focusing on male-on-female abuse, although I acknowledged that abuse is committed by both genders. The title comes from an abused woman who suffered both physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a priesthood-holding husband. “Bones” deals with male disinclination of wives’ reports of abuse. I am an active member of the Church, which I have served in 6 bishoprics, on a stake high council and in a stake presidency.

  • Then your comment was inexplicable.

    1. Absolutely true. No deity, no natural law, nada. No basis for “minority rights”.

    There is no Atheist Beatitudes, no Atheist Ten Commandments.

    In the 20th century atheists were primarily united in the rejection of a deity and religion, today they’re an amalgam of true atheists, confused agnostics, and various hangers on.

    The promises of sugar plums and happy days in the 20th century manifestations of atheism turned, with zero exceptions, into totalitarian nightmares when power was achieved. The pantheon of 20th century atheistic countries is a litany of crimes against humanity.

    While vague promises are made about “this time we’ll do it right”, in fact “might makes right” and “the end justifies the means” makes complete and total sense in a framework outside natural law. Without natural law, we’re left with the positivist idea that in determining rights and obligations must cast aside all moral standards, which is precisely how both Hitler and Stalin saw things and acted. It is how the tail is on the cat. There is not a single instance in history where atheists have assumed power that has turned out well.

    Generally the assumption of power is followed by severe anti-clerical atrocities including crucifixions, rapes, torture, in one case in Russia the boiling alive of seven nuns in tar near Voronezh. In both Spain and Mexico much the same happened.

    In fact, despite legal gymnastics at the Nuremberg trials to appease the Soviets who for obvious reasons (gulags, Holodomor) opposed citing natural law, and perhaps reflecting the compelling logic of Robert H. Jackson’s, chief prosecutor for the United States, arguments for trials based on a concept of justice resting on absolute right and wrong, philosophically natural law underlay the rejection of Nazi laws as defenses:

    http://journals.univ-danubius.ro/index.php/juridica/article/view/2744/2588

    https://bettystoneman.wordpress.com/2012/11/28/applying-natural-law-theory-and-legal-positivism-to-the-nuremberg-trials/

    2. See #1

  • Try a few decades. Plural marriage has not been practiced by the LDS Church for centuries. You always have to enflame your claims with falsehoods, rather than letting your facts speak for themselves.

  • Correction:

    LDS Church president Brigham Young had 51 wives, and 56 children by 16 of those wives.

    LDS Church apostle Heber C. Kimball had 43 wives, and had 65 children by 17 of those wives.

    “Polygamy (most often polygyny, called plural marriage by Mormons in the 19th century or the Principle by modern fundamentalist practitioners of polygamy) was taught by leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) for more than half of the 19th century,[1] and practiced publicly from 1852 to 1890 by between 20 and 30 percent of Latter-day Saint families.[2]”

    The Latter-day Saints’ practice of polygamy has been controversial, both within Western society and the LDS Church itself. America was both fascinated and horrified by the practice of polygamy, with the Republican platform at one time referencing “the twin relics of barbarism—polygamy and slavery.”[4] The private practice of polygamy was instituted in the 1830s by founder Joseph Smith. The public practice of plural marriage by the church was announced and defended in 1852 by a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Orson Pratt,[3] by the request of church president Brigham Young.

    ” In 1862, the United States Congress passed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which prohibited plural marriage in the territories.[3] In spite of the law, Mormons continued to practice polygamy, believing that it was protected by the First Amendment. In 1879, in Reynolds v. United States,[5] the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the Morrill Act, stating: “Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinion, they may with practices.”[3]

    In 1890, church president Wilford Woodruff issued a Manifesto that officially terminated the practice of polygamy.[6] Although this Manifesto did not dissolve existing plural marriages, relations with the United States markedly improved after 1890, such that Utah was admitted as a U.S. state in 1896. After the Manifesto, some Mormons continued to enter into polygamous marriages, but these eventually stopped in 1904 when church president Joseph F. Smith disavowed polygamy before Congress and issued a “Second Manifesto”, calling for all plural marriages in the church to cease and established excommunication as the consequence for those who disobeyed. Several small “fundamentalist” groups, seeking to continue the practice, split from the LDS Church, including the Apostolic United Brethren (AUB) and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS Church). Meanwhile, the LDS Church continues its policy of excommunicating members found practicing polygamy, and today actively seeks to distance itself from fundamentalist groups that continue the practice.[7] On its web site, the church states that “the standard doctrine of the church is monogamy” and that polygamy was a temporary exception to the rule.[1][8]”

  • Bob, why do you believe atheists have no rules? (By “rules”, I figure you mean some sort of code to live by.) There seem to be assumptions in your statement that require more scrutiny. First, is that only religious people can have a moral code. Second, that one needs religion in order to have moral standards. Third, that anybody who doesn’t believe in god ipso facto is without a code.

    None of these assumptions stand up to even a cursory examination. Religion does not necessarily make people “good”. The idea we must obey an arbitrary set of religious rules to avoid eternal torture by a wrathful god is repellant to me. Show me an atheist who does good having no belief in a reward hereafter, and I will show you true goodness. I would also argue that anybody worshipping in an Abrahamic religion, has greater obstacles to finding a benevolent moral code than a humanist. Look at many of the moral fables of the bible and you will see they teach a harmful and destructive vision of human behavior. God curses all of humanity for the acts of its first two parents. God becomes upset wtih humanity and kills millions in a flood. God tells Abraham to kill his only son Isaac to show his fidelity to God and lets him take every step necessary for the murder only at the very last moment to stop him. God tells his people to sexually mutilate their sons as a sign of a covenant. God gives an arbitrary health code but fails to tell them to wash their hands and boil their water. It goes on and on.

  • Yes, a few decades, not centuries. At most by a handful from the 1830s until those in existing plural marriages died out after 1890.

  • But the dominance of Mormon men over women is engrained in the religion due to polygamy. Roger Porter is a good example as are the 12 male apostles and the male Mormon fortune teller.

  • The LDS Church was an established patriarchy well before plural marriage was a short-lived public practice. A practice of at most 30% of memebers.

    Theologically, the Church still practices plural marriage. A male memeber of the Church can still have mutiple wives sealed to him. As long as it is one at a time and the previous wives are deceased. Woman may only be sealed to one man.

    The 1st Presidency is currently made up of 3 men, the President and his two councelors, all ordained Apostles, for a total of 15 ordained Apostles leading the Church as prophets, seers and revelators.

  • Male prophets, male seers/fortune tellers/ and male revelators. Give us a break with your misogynistic “religion”/business cult.

  • So you believe that Rob Porter’s abusive conduct towards his wives has nothing to do with your misogynistic business cult?

  • Note that I never argued that religion by itself makes people “good”.

    Josef Stalin had no belief in a reward hereafter. You hold that he showed true goodness? Mao Zedong? Pol Pot? Lenin? Hitler?

    If rules mean some sort of code to live by, everyone has rules. All of the figures I mentioned had rules. Those rules looked a lot like “might makes right” and “the end justifies the means”.

    If you can make a coherent argument as to why those are not viable, reasonable, and practical rules for an atheist, thus making these folks atheist “sinners”, please make it.

    The argument needs to be robust enough to show how the individuals mentioned violated whatever you believe are norms, and describe those norms – and their origin – in sufficient detail that anyone considering atheism can evaluate them.

  • Not surprising about the mormon thing. I don’t know much about the religion itself, but whenever someone is in the news that’s from that religion, it’s never good.
    Sex scandals, abuse, anti-lgbt nonsense. Very sad.

  • I went to my Bishop whilst dealing with violence in my marriage and he not only encouraged me to leave my husband who was a public figure at the time, but he also insisted my husband get the proper treatment he needed. Most importantly, he supported me by walking into the police station by my side when I made a police report. I got lucky. I know my situation is not the norm. Ladies, Heavenly Father doesn’t condone abuse of any kind. You owe it to yourself and your children to speak up until you are heard. 25 years later I’m still grateful for the love and support my Bishop and church family bestowed upon us and although our marriage didn’t survive, I did.

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