Recent news about the Joseph Bishop sexual abuse scandal at the Provo Missionary Training Center has highlighted the resistance to acknowledge or correct sexual misconduct in the Mormon church community. This is, unfortunately, nothing new. My dad’s life is a telling illustration of this sad reality.
Let’s start in 1982. Tucson, Arizona. My dad had been a full-time seminary teacher for over a decade. Teaching was my dad’s passion. My parents’ marriage had never been a good one, but after six children and lots of trying to make it work, 1982 was the year of their inevitable divorce. Dad took full custody. Because of the Church Education System (CES) policy against divorced full-time seminary teachers, my dad was also suddenly unemployed.
My wife had divorced us. I lost my job. I had to move in with my parents. I had to find and prepare for a new career. My CES brethren would not speak to me. My new Mormon bishop would not speak with me or issue me any callings. Worst of all, I believed that Heavenly Father, Himself, had “fired” me from teaching His children.
To ease the blow, the Seminaries had offered my dad a full year’s leave of absence with pay and full tuition at Brigham Young University. So Dad enrolled full-time in the Counseling Psychology Master’s program while Grandma took over caring for the kids.
As devastating as this time was for my dad, it enabled him to discover that he had a gift for counseling. And in part because of his own background as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, his gifts led him to shepherd other survivors. During his graduate coursework, he completed an internship at Parents United, an incest and sexual abuse group counseling program provided through the Division of Family Services in Provo, UT. In the summer of 1983, Dad received $19,000 from the State to administer a newly-created private non-profit agency, Central Utah Sexual Abuse Treatment Program, the first sexual abuse treatment program south of the point of the mountain.
As my Dad’s work with sexual abuse survivors in Utah County grew, so did the resistance to his work.
Although we were funded by the State of Utah and United Way and had a broad based support from the community for tackling a very uncomfortable issue, and probably because of that same discomfort, there was a small, but highly vocal group of people who spoke out against our work and my leadership of it.
Some doubted my competence to address such a complex problem; some rejected my assertion that incest even existed in Utah Valley. . . . After an interview by the BYU student paper, the Daily Universe, in which I asserted that we Mormons had similar rates of incest as other populations, I became the target of a letter to the editor. The writer, referencing my assertion, stated, “This must be what an ancient prophet meant when he declared, ‘Woe unto to those who call evil good and good evil.’”
One LDS stake president, who also just happened to be the Dean of the BYU School of Social Work at the time, became very angry when I suggested that we had similar rates of child sexual abuse among our Mormon membership. He rose quickly from his seat and dismissively declared that he knew personally that there was no incest or sexual abuse in his stake!
Over the years I gave hundreds of presentations to LDS groups on how to recognize and prevent child sexual abuse. When I would speak openly of the occurrence of abuse within the LDS population, it was not uncommon for a member of the audience to call me to task for falsely creating the perception of a problem that did not exist, particularly “among the Saints.” Then I received the support I needed from President Gordon B. Hinckley, who proclaimed from the pulpit in General Conference (in an address on the topic of child abuse and incest), “We applaud those who raise the hue and cry against this terrible evil, too much of which exists among our own people.” After that, when I would present to Mormon groups, I would preempt potential criticism about my message by first quoting President Hinckley.
Growing up, we talked a lot about sexual abuse. Often my dad would tell me of children sitting in LDS sacrament meetings, their fathers standing at the pulpit as bishops, all the while being sexually abused by those very fathers at home. For most of my life, I have known that these types of abuse were happening everywhere and that Mormons were no exception. Despite my father’s work and knowledge about sexual abuse, my own siblings were sexually abused by neighbors.
As a father who was molested myself, I cannot express the guilt and pain that arose, knowing that, while I was “asleep at the wheel,” at least two of my children were experiencing much worse abuse than I had gone through.
There is a very real possibility that I myself am I survivor of sexual abuse. I know at the very least it came very close. My memories are cloudy.
So why am I sharing all of this? I suppose I felt compelled to acknowledge that this problem is real. I felt compelled to say to all those who have been abused:
I hear you.
I believe you.
I ache for you.
I honor your courage and resilience.
I stand beside you in reaching for something better.
And I feel compelled to say to those who doubt the words of those who say they have been abused… Please listen. Please acknowledge their pain.
Jesus Christ threw the moneychangers out of the temple. Maybe, just maybe, our Shepherd is now using the brave voices of these survivors to throw the wolves out of His beloved sheep herd?
But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. . . . For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matthew 18).