A Call to Repentance: The LDS Church Response to Victims of Sexual Assault



In 2016, social media was in an uproar. The Mormon Newsroom, the official organization responsible for releasing news about the LDS Church, had just released an article praising the LDS Church's approach to victims of sexual assault. Originally written in 2010 by (now) Elder Von G. Keetch, the article claimed that the Church was the "Gold Standard" in handling sexual abuse. And victims were furious. The Church quickly removed the article, announcing that it's release had been accidental, and later released an updated version (though much of the original text can be here).

The uproar was well-founded. Many of the false claims were easily renounced, including that the one that "preventing and responding to child abuse is the subject of a regular lesson taught during Sunday meetings", even though there are only two lessons (here and here) found in any church manual used for Sunday instruction that even remotely addresses preventing sexual abuse, and one of these (the far more comprehensive one) is on a near decade-long rotation.

One of the more outrageous claims was that "the suggestion that the Church instructs members to keep abuse issues solely within the Church is false". There are literally only two General Conference talks given directed at victims of abuse, and both of them explicitly state that that victims should report first to their bishops (1992 and 1978) and then actively discourages victims from seeking therapy, directing victims to only do so with the permission from and even inclusion of their bishops. Unfortunately, many bishops are often hesitant to take the necessary actions to help a victim, which would often require separating a victim from their family, the sudden releasing of an individual from a calling, and possibly relocating whole families to different wards. 70% of victims are hurt by people they know, many of whom are in positions of authority or have a close relationship with the victim. Many victims are children who lack access to victim services without an adult to arrange it (as the adults may be the very source of their pain), and if therapy would have ramifications on the family or Church (which is likely), bishops may be unlikely to arrange help. Additionally, mandatory disciplinary action (and subsequent record documentation) is only required for sexual offenses if the offender (1) holds a "prominent church position," defined as a bishop or higher, (2) is a relative of the victim, or (3) a "predator", which has many possible legal definitions but which is most often defined as someone who has been found guilty of sexually exploiting someone, often habitually. So unless a victim has already reported to police and the offender found guilty, the offender may not receive any disciplinary action. A Scout leader who molests his charge, a young man who rapes his girlfriend - there is no guarantee that these individuals would face any church disciplinary action or that their church records would contain any documentation to this effect, especially if the victim is dissuaded from contacting the police or receiving help outside the Church.

These are not the only harmful practices and messages that victims of sexual assault receive in the Church. The most recent talk given by a General Authority to victims of sexual abuse (1992) told victims of abuse that, unless they do everything in their power to stop the abuse, they are partly responsible for what happened to them and need to repent. Victims have a hard enough time not blaming themselves for what happened, so the message that they might have to repent is not only abhorrent, but it reinforces the idea that the victims deserved what happened to them. At least two other articles in the Ensign (here and here) encourage victims of abuse with anger problems (a recognized side-effect of abuse and a symptom of PTSD) to repent, which not only oversimplifies the long-term damage of abuse but also blames victims for something they have little to no control over. Change comes when victims receive therapy, not guilt-trips.

Other articles published by the Church have had more positive messages for victims of abuse, though they are relatively few in number (I could find only five) and were not written by Church authorities. Written by victims for victims (mostly women), they most often focus on the importance of forgiving, finding your self-worth, and ending cycles of abuse, with emphasis on how the church has helped them find peace. While helpful and reassuring, they do little to counter the harmful messages that victims have heard from Church authorities or the unhelpful policies that keep victims from receiving the help they need. The Church did recently release a whopping five-point list of how to help victims of sexual abuse this past April in the Liahona, so at least it's making (some) effort.

Perhaps even more damaging are the messages received from leaders and parents that, while most likely well-intentioned, have done far more harm than good. Messages about modesty are directed at girls, not boys, and young women are frequently told that their bodies cause boys and men to think bad thoughts (even comparing them to pornography). Elder Holland himself stated that he has heard all of his life that women are held responsible because men cannot control themselves, and that the concept is repulsive, a statement made in a BYU devotional and not found on LDS.org. Instead, the same messages that Elder Holland heard are the same the messages that girls receive: that that boys can't control their thoughts and that girls must cover their bodies to keep boys clean. When the messages that women hear time and again are that they are responsible for the thoughts of men, is it any wonder that they then blame themselves when they are assaulted? Women who have had sex (consensual or not) are commonly compared to chewed gum and nailed fence post, with the implication being that you become damaged goods - an all-too common refrain in the minds of victims. Elizabeth Smart has been especially active in communicating the harm this kind of language does, but change is slow, and for many victims, the damage is done. The Miracle of Forgiveness, a very popular book that is still handed out by many bishops to victims and perpetrators alike, states quite explicitly that unless a rape victim does everything in their power to resist, they would be better off dead. Only last year (2016) did the Church remove language from the Personal Progress book, a guide for young women, that a girl's virtue can be taken by rape. Is anyone really surprised that victims of sexual assault have self-worth issues?

Now, to be completely fair, Handbook 1 does include more victim-friendly language, directing bishops to prioritize victims, encourage therapy (though still within the Church), and assure them they are not responsible for what happened. But there is a problem with this: Handbook 1 isn't publicly available, and Handbook 2 (which is available) doesn't contain any information about sexual abuse. So the only way victims hear these messages are if the Bishops choose to disclose them. Members cannot hold their bishops accountable for abiding by these policies because the members aren't granted access to them. Instead, they receive the messages I've outlined above, and bishops - who were members for years before becoming bishops - often fall back on the cultural norms.

But of all the messages that victims receive, what they don't hear might be more chilling. Not only have been only two general conference addresses targeted to victims of sexual assault since 1971; in a search of general conference addresses, only 23 mention both the words "sexual" and "assault" in the same talk (using "sexually" adds 2 more), the phrase "sexual abuse" is found only 11 times, "sexual assault" only once, and "molest" (in reference to sexual molestation) only twice. In all, I could find only 16 that mention sexual abuse, assault, or molestation specifically in some way, and in most of them, it is referenced tangentially with less than a paragraph devoted to it, usually in a list of the evils in the world, and most often in reference to children (even though teenagers are twice as likely to be sexually abused). In comparison, in the same time period, there have been over 550 on pornography. For this rate to be justified, pornographic use would have to be over 34 times that of sexual abuse. Pornography use is high (nationally between 64% and 84%, depending on how you define "use"), but even at the high estimate, this would require sexual assault to only affect about 2.5% of the population.

And yet - Every 98 seconds, an American will be sexually assaulted. One out of every six of women has been sexually assaulted. One out of every ten women will be raped by an intimate partner. 3% of all men are victims of sexual assault. At these rates, we can estimate at minimum 800 million women were sexually assaulted in the US in the 20th Century. And those are just the numbers in the US: globally, nearly one out of every three women will be sexually assaulted, and the WHO calls violence against women a "global epidemic." And being religious does not make you less likely to be victimized, so any argument claiming that sexual assault "isn't a problem" in the Church is unfounded.

How ironic is it that the male leaders in the church have addressed sexual assault at almost the same rate as men who are victims of sexual assaults?

This silence is unacceptable. Victims have already receive painful messages that they are to blame for their assaults, that their worth is diminished because of it, and that the need to maintain Church and family harmony is more important than their mental health. The neglectful attitude toward victims on their path of healing only compounds their feelings of neglect and isolation. If helping victims of abuse was such a priority, shouldn't this be self-evident in the words of our leaders?

Victims of sexual assault are already significantly more likely to suffer from mental health problems including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating and sleep disorders, and tendencies toward self-harm and suicide, and almost one third of sexual assault victims will have PTSD. When victims don't receive immediate help, such as being removed from dangerous situations and receiving mental health services, these mental health problems are exacerbated. On top of mental health problems, Mormon women who are sexually assaulted are likely to suffer spiritually as a result of their assaults. Shouldn't we make alleviating the suffering a victims a higher priority than we have?

To give credit where credit is due, the Church has begun making efforts. The five-point list in April's Liahona was positive, if also brief and inadequate, and removing the harmful language from the Personal Progress book was certainly the right move. After the sex abuse scandal at BYU in 2016, in which victims of assault faced school disciplinary action because of what they may have done to contribute to the assault (sound familiar?), the Church condemned the policy, emphasized the importance of prioritizing victims, and encouraged BYU to change it's approach, which it did the following fall. The Church also recently announced a donation of $125,000 to two organizations in Salt Lake that help prevent sexual abuse and assists sexual assault victims, though this frankly seems like a paltry sum given to only a select few - especially when we're a world-wide church with a global sexual abuse epidemic on our hands and that specializes in organizing world-wide training programs.

8We have to face the facts*: The Church has not done enough for victims of sexual assault. From perpetuating messages that victims are to blame and that they need to repent - both for their assaults and for harmful effects on their mental health - to having policies that discourage victims from contacting authorities and accessing mental health services, they have failed.

But it's never too late to do better. The Church aspires to be the "Gold-Standard" in handling sexual assault? Well, there's a way to do that:

  1. Stop. Being. Silent. Victims of sexual abuse struggle speaking up for themselves out of fear of being blamed for their assault, being called a liar, and the utter terror of reliving the past. When leaders of the Church address victims of sexual assault only rarely and tangentially, they communicate the message that it isn't important, even though victims often have life-long effects of their assaults, especially when care is not taken to prioritize their needs. Our leaders are responsible for addressing the morally relevant issues of the day, and their relative silence on this is unacceptable.

  2. Specifically address the harmful messages in the past. We're getting better - a little. Removing the language in the Personal Progress manuals telling victims that they have lost their virtue is a step, but it isn't enough. The Miracle of Forgiveness is still being distributed, not only to victims, but to others that continue to perpetuate its harmful messages for victims. Victim-blaming attitudes that have for so long permeated the dialogue about sexual abuse continues, in large part because they haven't been directly countered. The articles above are not hard to find; any victim searching LDS.org for help will find them and read them because this issue has been ignored for so long that there's nothing to drown them out. Articles with harmful messages should either be excluded from the results of index searches or should come with a disclaimer: "These messages contain information that is no longer in harmony with the practices and policies of the LDS Church. Victims should feel no guilt, are not to blame, and are encouraged to seek medical and legal services." But even this may not be enough; those that perpetuate these messages write off language changes as the Church caving to political correctness. Unless the toxic messages of our past are replaced with messages that directly contradict them, these attitudes will persist in our culture, and some bishops will continue to ignore the official polices in Handbook 1.

  3. Push for awareness. Sexual assaults happen in the church. Sometimes the perpetrator is a member, and sometimes it isn't. But it's happening. Bishops receive no mandatory training on sexual abuse; they get a single page in Handbook 1. All bishops, parents, and youth leaders need regular exposure to (1) attitudes and practices for preventing sexual assault, (2) recognizing predatory behavior, (3) identifying signs of assault, (4) best practices for intervention, and (5) how to help victims after an assault. The creation of a Church-sponsored regular workshop/fireside that includes parents, leaders, and youth could do considerable good, in preventing sexual assaults from happening, providing a safe place for victims to speak up, and providing resources for current victims. The ten paragraphs in the Parents Guide manual isn't enough, especially if we're not actually reading them or teaching from them. Comprehensive sex education - from parents, teachers, or leaders - is known to help both decrease sexual behavior outside of marriage and the rate of sexual assault (see also this), and encouraging parents to take a more proactive role in discussing sexuality with their children can be very effective.

  4. Re-examine Church practices and policies. Performing mandatory background checks for all leaders working with youth should be standard practice, all claims of sexual abuse should be thoroughly investigated, all youth leaders should have mandatory yearly training on abuse, mandatory disciplinary action should be expanded to all perpetrators of sexual violence, and if we require two leaders present at all overnight youth activities, then we should certainly reconsider the practice of putting young men and women behind closed doors with a single male leader asking them questions about their sexual practices. More than one bishop has been guilty of inappropriate behavior in precisely this setting.

  5. Prioritize victims. Historically, many bishops have been known to focus their attention on the repentance process for perpetrators of sexual assault, regardless of what it says in Handbook 1 (since no one can hold them accountable for abiding by its policies, and helping people repent is basically what bishops do). And to be clear - I have absolutely no problem with helping victimizers repent and change. This only becomes a problem when this is a higher priority than helping victims. Sacrificing victims for the sake of their perpetrators is a form of revictimization - they are being told that their needs are not as important as the needs of the one who hurt them. Let that sink it. Is that really a message you want to convey?

Look, the Church is good at many things, and let's give credit where credit is due. We're great at providing disaster relief, pitching in for service projects, and helping those in financial distress. We're an amazing instant network of social support, and if you need something organized, we're on it. So just imagine the impact we could make if we shifted this type of concentrated effort into preventing sexual abuse and helping victims. But we haven't.

So yes, the Church has failed.

But do you know what we do in the Church when we fail? We repent. Maybe it's time to start that process.

This article can also be found at A Believing Scientist.