With the April 2018 General Conference, many hoped LDS Leadership would address the most recent abuse scandals that have rocked the foundations of trust for members of the Church.
Many of us have been aware of systemic abuse and cover-ups under the roof of God’s house for a long time, yet recently, two of those cases have been shouted from the rooftops loudly enough for those both within and without the Church to hear.
In February, two ex-wives of Mormon White House staffer Rob Porter alleged not only abuse by their husband, but mishandling of that abuse when they reported it to Church authorities.
And more recently, former MTC President Joseph Bishop was accused of rape by a former missionary, and his admission to sexual assault was recorded on tape. The victim reported her abuse to the Church many times, and in return, LDS Lawyers compiled a file containing every speck of dirt they could find on her to give them an advantage in the legal settlement — including Church and employment records. Greg Bishop, Joseph Bishop’s son, sent a copy of that file to Utah news outlets in the hopes of smearing her name in the court of public opinion.
The weight of these public stories, and the thousands of lesser-known stories of abuse and cover-ups, have led to mass outcry and movements such as Protect LDS Children. For many victims of rape and domestic violence, this is a Mormon Me Too movement. For many children, victims of predators who were protected by the Church, this is the Mormon Spotlight, because it compares to Catholic abuse cover-ups.
One protester during a Saturday session in Conference shouted, “Stop protecting sexual predators!” before being escorted out of the building.
The Church’s public response has been less than encouraging. They have:
- Blamed the victim.
- Slandered the victim.
- Gathered evidence against the victim’s character that had nothing to do with the actual rape.
- Issued non-apologies.
- Protected perpetrators by declining to report to law enforcement, failing to place them into the Church discipline process, allowing them to maintain high callings, protecting their “good names” above the good names of the victims, and allowing them advancement to high levels of status in society.
To many of us, this isn’t news, and these aren’t isolated incidents. I’ve seen this pattern for decades and been frustrated at the Church’s inattention and inaction.
This Conference was a further exercise in misdirection.
Let’s take a look at the talk by Apostle Quentin L. Cook, in which he presumably addresses this issue, yet his attention is still focused on making the Church and its leaders look pristine while making members feel inadequate. In which the seriousness of the sins of violation and abuse is watered down. In which the Church places blame on victims and decides to await further instruction from the Lord rather than taking proactive steps.
This is spiritual abuse of the worst kind.
Elder Cook’s talk may seem to cover random topics. He quotes Eliza R. Snow, talks some Church history, refers to the temple, to Elijah and Moses, priesthood keys, touches on nonconsensual immorality and regular immorality, goes to missions, then the temple again.
But there is a theme that runs through it, when viewed in the context of these scandals. They fit into this outline:
- Legitimize the source of authority for LDS Leaders.
- Remind members of the good the Church does.
- Address nonconsensual sin as briefly as possible.
- Remind members of how sinful they are.
- Reiterate the Church’s source of authority.
- Place the burden of solving these problems onto the members, who simply need to follow the commandments better.
- Remind members that everyone is equal in the Church (to distract from the fact that they aren’t).
- Offload responsibility for inaction onto “the Lord’s time.”
Let’s take a closer look.
Cook opens his talk with Church history, describing miracles and the restoration of Priesthood sealing keys. The Restoration is the source of all LDS authority, which asserts the claim that God himself runs the Church and that it is the only Church on Earth with direct authority from God.*
But with power comes responsibility, and Cook asks:
“Where do we stand today in fulfilling these divinely appointed responsibilities?”
If we were hoping for accountability from Church leaders, here we are disappointed.
I would hope responsibility to keeping Church members safe might be at the top of the list, but instead, these are the priorities he lists:
1. Missionary work.
As I and other cult researchers have asserted, cults have a preoccupation with proselytizing. Cook deems this responsibility to be well filled:
“When viewed across the brief history of the restored church, the missionary effort has been most remarkable.”
Which isn’t even very impressive, given that only 2/10ths of a percent of the world’s population is LDS.
2. Perfecting the Saints, (that is, making all Mormons perfect.)
He gives Church leadership credit for this, should it ever eventually happen, citing recent program changes and how they will “…unleash Priesthood power and authority.”
But we need less Priesthood power and authority, perhaps more Priesthood accountability and humility.
3. Sealing keys, temple work, and family history work.
He offers very stern words on how important it is to attend to the needs of the dead…
…meanwhile, the needs of the living are being ignored, even though just days earlier, Mormons from all backgrounds and all over the world gathered in the shadow of the Church Office Building to plead their case.
Elder Cook does brag about offering material needs to members in this talk, but it’s only to assist those who live far from temples, so they can travel to do temple work. This isn’t assistance with member’s daily physical needs, nor what I would consider the greatest responsibility of a Church: to soothe emotional pain and spiritual sorrows, to heal the damage of caused by a harsh world. Instead, he touts their assistance for members who spend their own time doing the Church’s work, which they must pay a 10% tithing to qualify to do in the first place.
This is a Church in service to itself, not in service to its members.
Moving into the meat of this sandwich, Cook begins to address the recent scandals:
“During my lifetime, worldly issues and concerns have moved from one extreme to another, from frivolous and trivial pursuits to serious immorality. It is commendable that nonconsensual immorality has been exposed and denounced. Such nonconsensual immorality is against the laws of God and society.”
There is much to break down before moving to the next paragraph.
For starters, rape and sexual abuse aren’t new. We’re only now just hearing about them, because for decades they’ve been covered up by authorities from all manner of organizations: From families, to schools, to universities, to law enforcement and the courts, to religions. Mormonism is no exception.
Moreover, prior to recent decades, rape was defined so narrowly that it hardly “existed,” even tho it did exist and many suffered the same traumas that they do today. It was thought in the past that marriage was automatic consent for sex, wanted or unwanted. That child sexual abuse didn’t exist (it was thought that children made it up). That most forms of physical abuse was merely good discipline for wayward wives and children.
Abuse isn’t new, in spite of this attempt to whitewash the past. It’s just that society is starting to recognize the harm caused by what once were considered normal in all but the most severe of cases.
There have always been abusers in the Mormon Church, even among LDS leaders, going all the way back to Brother Joseph himself, who used threats and manipulation to marry girls as young as 14 and women who were already married to other men.
Joseph Smith’s abuses weren’t frivolous, either. This problem is as old as time itself.
There are also a number of problems with Elder Cook’s euphemism “nonconsensual immorality.”
“Immorality” is a common euphemism for “sex” within Mormonism, but this itself limits the broad range that morality ought to cover. What about the morals of honesty, integrity, charity, kindness, respect, empathy, spirituality, courage, responsibility, patience, dependability, tolerance, forgiveness, determination, and humility? Within LDS circles, “morality” is a loaded term having only to do with sexual sin.
By avoiding the terms “rape, “sexual assault,” and “sexual harassment,” Church members are allowed to remain confused. The reality of the traumas faced by the victims are brushed aside with a small sweep of the hand. The sting is taken out of the scandal.
Moreover, the Church has a pattern of treating victims as though they have sinned. Victims are placed into the repentance process of “disfellowshiping,” meaning they are not allowed to fully participate in Church meetings. They are considered unworthy to pray in public, take or serve the Sacrament, or hold callings.
In effect, by naming it “nonconsensual immorality,” Elder Cook is implying that both the perpetrator and the victim are immoral, further heaping blame on victims who already feel at fault.
Elder Cook continues, “Those who understand God’s plan should also oppose consensual immorality, which is also a sin.”
This is utterly inexcusable.
Every Conference, and again repeated nearly every week in Church, firesides, devotionals, nearly every chance the Church gets, they talk about the dangers of “consensual immorality,” a.k.a. sex and every small act leading up to sex.
Can’t they for once just dedicate an entire talk to the dangers of nonconsent?
Perhaps describe what it takes to consent, discuss informed consent, discuss how a power imbalance can impair consent even when a “yes” is spoken. Draw clear lines that potential perpetrators ought never cross. Illustrate examples of how members can protect one another. Talk about ways potential victims can protect themselves, tell people they have the right to say “no,” encourage confidence in young women that they have a right to their bodies. Inform members of the kinds of trauma that victims suffer, instill in them empathy for those who suffer, and offer scientifically-backed paths to healing for those who have been harmed.
That’s several 15 minute talks right there.
It’s irresponsible to conflate consensual sex with nonconsensual sex! The consequences of being raped are far, far more severe than the consequences of responsible, consensual sex. I’ve experienced both, and can testify to this, but you don’t have to take my word for it. There is scientific consensus on this.
Consensual sex doesn’t leave a person with:
- Severe and lasting post-traumatic stress.
- Mental illness.
- Panic attacks.
- Fear and mistrust of other people.
- Trauma-induced physical illnesses.
- Depression and anxiety disorders.
- Chemical addictions in an effort to numb the pain.
Most Mormons won’t know this, though, because all they know from leadership is that consensual and nonconsensual sex are basically the same thing.
This conflation didn’t start with Elder Cook. He quotes a prior document:
“The Family Proclamation to the World warns that individuals who violate covenants of chastity, who abuse spouse or offspring, or for that matter anyone else, will one day stand accountable before God.”
Abuse and violation of chastity, once again, basically the same thing.
Let me be clear: A man who abuses the trust of his wife or the defenseless children under his care has nothing in common with a man who gives physical affection to someone who reciprocates his feelings.
These “sins” are as comparable to one another as a shoe-chewing puppy is to a hungry tiger.
Elder Cook’s statement causes real harm to real people. And that is immoral.
While I personally don’t believe in the Law of Chastity, believing Mormons are free to follow it if they choose. I don’t have a problem with that. Elder Cook can preach chastity all he wants (and he certainly will) from a different pulpit at a different time.
Now is not that time. Not when weeping victims are sitting in the pews feel utterly wretched and unclean, blaming their wounded selves with every ounce of their being.
Each of your words will be taken to heart, Elder Cook, but not by the perpetrators.
Sexual predators will not hear your words in this way. They believe themselves to be righteous. They blame the victim, too. For being attractive, for dressing that way, for imagined flirtations that never existed. For tempting them more than they are able to endure.
Sexual predators never feel the need to repent, because they don’t feel they’ve done anything wrong.
Elder Cook, you are creating an environment where sexual predators thrive.
“As we look around, we see the devastation of wickedness and addiction at every turn. If as individuals we are really concerned about the ultimate judgment of our Savior, we should seek repentance. I’m afraid many people no longer feel accountable to God, and no longer turn to the Scriptures or the prophets for guidance.”
I will reiterate what I said above — predators are incapable of seeking repentance. You are casting seeds randomly upon the soil, and the mind of a predator is solid rock. Your seed will not grow there.
There is only one thing a predator responds to, and that’s actual accountability. That means, literally holding them accountable.
Don’t wait for God to do it. By putting this responsibility onto God, you are postponing the day of their repentance until after they are dead, until it is too late for the thousands of innocent victims they will leave in their wakes.
That is suffering you can prevent, today, by changing Church policy. Sniff out the predators in your midst. Take victims seriously. Offer a hotline that any member can use to report abuses. Educate Bishops using the modern scientific understanding of abuse and trauma. Report offenders to police. Do not allow offenders to hold any position of authority in the Church. Stop protecting the “good name” of those who harm God’s innocent children.
Elder Cook continues, “If we as a society would contemplate the consequences of sin, there would be massive public opposition to pornography and the objectification of women.”
As I’ve said, the problem is that the consequences of responsible, consensual sex are negligible. Which is why there’s no public outcry. The non-Mormon public has tested your words through experience, and found them wanting.
But there is massive public outcry against the objectification of women. It’s called “feminism,” something past leaders have called the enemy of the Church.
And have you not been watching the news? It’s also called “the Me Too Movement.”
In addition to all of that, there is currently another public movement, and that is opposition to the LDS Church’s poor handling of abuse cases that has revictimized and retraumatized those who trust you to take care of them.
Unlike consensual sexual sin, in abuse we can see direct and incontrovertible harm being caused right now, and it’s something you and your fellow Apostles and Prophet have power to do something about. Today.
Elder Cook then quotes the Book of Mormon, “Wickedness never was happiness,” which implies the source of all unhappiness is wickedness, which is one more scrap of emotional evidence for any trauma victim listening, who will hear, “I am unhappy, therefore I must be wicked.”
From my direct experience, observations, and research, I believe trauma is the source of the majority of suffering in the world. If you define abuse as wickedness, then I can fully agree.
So take greater steps to end abuse and help victims heal.
Elder Cook then shifts gears again, reminding members that we should be united, a not-so-subtle subtle call to end all this controversy:
“In regards to unity, the Savior declared, ‘If you’re not one, you’re not mine.’ We know that the spirit of contention is of the devil. In our day, this scriptural imperative for unity is largely ignored…
“In the Lord’s Church, the only culture we adhere to is the culture of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The unity we seek is to be unified with the Savior and his teachings.”
He attempts to diffuse the righteous outrage that stems from a desire to solve real problems into reminding members that they’re all one in Christ.
Elder Cook describes the equality in the Church, which is interesting because he is a leader with great power sufficient to end this problem, and yet members are struggling to even get his attention.
I see no equality here. Only abuse of power.
Elder Cook describes the equality in temples, where everyone wears the same white clothes, where you cannot tell one’s higher or lower status by looking at them.
I’m glad he reminds all members that they are equal to one another (even if they are not equal to the General Authorities), yet this equality he may see in the temple does not translate to the lives of members outside.
Those who are less equal still have to go home and deal with poverty, lower status, and the effects of discrimination and abuse.
Worse, an abused wife who sits through a temple marriage ceremony on behalf of the dead, dressed in white equal to her husband, still has to go home to the tension and terror. She still has to figure out how to protect her children.
And the Church isn’t going to do anything to help her.
Elder Cook claims that all receive equal priesthood blessings in the temple. But no, women do not receive the same blessings as men. Men promise to obey God. Women swear their covenants to their husbands, and are told to obey their husbands. Men offer no such humility to their wives, only directly to God.
Elder Cook then asks members to counsel with their bishop to become worthy of temple recommend. But isn’t that the problem we’re complaining about?
In order to enter the temple where everyone is supposedly equal, one must endure in-depth sexual questions to be worthy. Starting at the age of 12.
Children have to sit alone with a man and answer sexual questions. Adults, too.
In my early 20s, I was sexually harassed by a Stake Counselor during my first interview for a full temple recommend. He asked me in-depth, creepy questions about a sexual sin I’d already repented of through my Bishop. When I protested his line of questioning, he pressed on. He seemed to be getting off on it.
I never told anyone at the time, because who would believe me? I could barely believe it myself.
So to become equal in the temple, members first have to endure the risk of being shamed, harassed, or groomed by their leaders, so they can be found “worthy.”
You can’t be equal until you are judged worthy (without worth). Which sounds like double-speak to me.
And under current LDS policy, one thing that can make a person unworthy is to be a victim of nonconsensual “immorality.” Such victims will be required to “repent” as if they had done something wrong.
Elder Cook doesn’t mention the lack of equality for those who aren’t able to go to the temple, because of worthiness, lack of funds, or lack of time because they have to work two jobs, plus raise a family plus, fulfill their callings.
He says that the temple “prepares us to meet God,” yet many are still excluded from the promises he hypes.
Elder Cook returns to glorifying the Church, citing the number of temple recommend holders, he says, “The core membership of the Church has never been stronger.”
He then assures members that the “senior Church leaders” continue to “receive divine assistance.” But there’s a caveat, and perhaps this is why they refuse to take responsibility for the systemic abuses currently running rampant through the Church: “Guidance is given in the Lord’s time,” and reminds members that only the Prophet can receive inspiration for the whole Church.
What a way to offload responsibility for taking proactive action on a problem when the evidence for it, and potential solutions, are sitting right in front of them!
It reminds me of when God asked Cain where his murdered brother was, and Cain replied, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Cain knew perfectly well what God was asking.
My answer to Elder Cook is a scripture, D&C 58:26:
“For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.”
Church leaders can take action now. They need not wait for the Lord to descend and waggle a finger in admonition.
The right action is clear. They can Choose the Right right now, and take proactive steps to protect the vulnerable, heal those who have been injured, define harmful behaviors very clearly, and push abusers to the fringes where they can no longer harm the innocent Children of God.
* Elder Cook claims here that Jews believe Elijah and Moses will appear before the end times. This is in the context of how their appearance in the Kirtland Temple was a fulfillment of prophecy.
I checked with some Jewish friends, and this is a vast distortion and appropriation of their belief. They believe Elijah will appear before the Messiah comes, and there is no mention of Moses. They asserted that they do not believe in the kind of End Times that many Christians do, moreover, unlike Mormons and Christians, they do not believe the Messiah has been here yet.