Sexual Abuse in Church

I don’t know if people on the East coast are following this as closely as I have to assume folks out in Utah are, but a story came out a few days ago about a woman who accused the president of the Missionary Training Center in Provo of raping her in the mid-80s, when she was a missionary there. (Here’s the Deseret News article, and the article that appeared in the Tribune.)

When I first read about the allegations, I was inclined not to give them any credence whatsoever. The LDS church consists of millions of members, some of them balanced, and some of them very much not. To have someone come out and claim rape, 30 years after the fact, not just by a mission president, but by the MTC mission president? It was just too outlandish, and when I paired that with news that she’d accused 10 other men of assault or sexual harassment, seeking cash settlements, it seemed a cut and dried case.

But then the news came out (linked above) that the former MTC president had admitted in a police interview to having the missionary come back into a side room and, well, I’ll just quote it:

“He did go to his small MTC preparation room in the cafeteria area with (her). Then while talking to her he asked her to show him her breasts, which she did.”

I had to re-read that sentence multiple times to be sure I was understanding it right, because my mind just didn’t want to believe it. Even then, I was trying to come up with some sort of outlandish situation where such a set of events might make sense. What if she was complaining about being physically sick, and there was something wrong with her

Nope. In no set of circumstances that I could come up with was the right thing to do “ask the missionary to show him her breasts.” And this is what he has freely admitted on the record. Even if you set aside the alleged rape (which you should not), this was very wrong.

For those of you who aren’t members, a Mormon mission president is most definitely a big deal. He has a huge impact on the missionaries he supervises for three years. The president at the MTC would interact with over 100,000 missionaries in the course of his service. I would have thought he’d be under a very close microscope.

I’m still dumbfounded this happened, and it has caused me to reflect on what the church should do differently to ensure this doesn’t happen again. Because if it can happen at the MTC of all places, then it most certainly is happening with Bishops, Branch Presidents, or other church leaders across the globe. Let’s assume it’s very rare. (I would really hope!) Say it only happens in a tenth of a percent of cases where a unit leader abuses authority and sexually harasses someone. Even if you just limit it to Bishops or Branch Presidents, there are 30,439 wards and branches in the church. That would mean 30 leaders are currently abusing people. Multiply that out over the years to see what the total effects would be.

I have no idea what the number is. I just bring those figures up to illustrate my point. When you scale things up to a large number, even fractions of a percent become real situations. Unavoidable truths that (I believe) need to be paid attention to.

In an ideal situation, a mission president, bishop, or branch president is a confidant and counselor to his congregation or mission. He meets with people to discuss their personal struggles and to help them improve their lives. This involves one on one worthiness interviews with men, women, boys and girls. When it comes to the youth program of the church, there has long been a “Two deep leadership” approach, where no leader is allowed to be alone with one of the youth.

Up until now, I suppose the assumption has been that anyone called to be bishop, branch president, or mission president (or higher) wouldn’t abuse their power the same way as just anyone. But a simple Wikipedia article quickly shoots that down. It links to multiple news stories of former LDS bishops convicted of heinous crimes. This isn’t a hypothetical. This is real, and it’s happening, and I’ve mostly been ignoring it up until now. I’d read a report about a bishop, and I’d think it was terrible, but I’d then go and resume my daily activities. We can’t do that. Ignoring it only exacerbates the problem.

So what can be done?

I’m not sure. It’s certainly above my pay grade to make decisions for the church as a whole. But I can brainstorm a few ideas:

  • Change the way “worthiness interviews” are run. This would protect both the bishops and the members. I understand that worthiness comes into play a lot in the church. It’s ascertained before you can be baptized, before you can go to the temple, before you can hold a calling. There are plenty of worthiness interviews. Could the ones for women be performed by women? Could Relief Society Presidents be charged with that, perhaps? I know a lot of this is deeply embedded in church culture, but I think sometimes things everyone takes for granted as unchangeable are actually very easily changed. It’s already awkward enough talking about worthiness with someone of my own gender. I would imagine it would be much, much more difficult talking about it with a woman, and for a woman to have to talk about it with a man who might or might not have the tact necessary to deal with all situations well? There’s a real dynamic of power there that’s way too easy to be abused. Changing it to women interviewing women takes much of that power imbalance away. For a mission president, what if his wife were to conduct worthiness interviews of Sisters?
  • Could all interviews at least be conducted in a room with a window? How about if the door has to be ajar, and someone else has to be present, out of earshot, but within a reasonable distance? (Though that only takes away the chance sexual assault to happen right then. It does nothing for grooming people for later abuse, which seems the much more likely outcome at the moment.)
  • Having interviews involve two men instead of just one takes away the potential for grooming, but makes the power imbalance in genders even worse. Yuck.

Hopefully there are even more ideas I’m just not thinking of at the moment. I would really like to see changes happen. Am I going to campaign for it? Not actively, beyond blog posts like this. I realize that’s not how the church works. But I do believe change happens, and I do believe God sometimes has to wait for us to get with the program enough to let that change occur. That’s kind of the basis for the entire story of the restoration.

Sitting back and assuming God will fix it all or prevent anything bad from happening is antithetical to the whole foundation of this religion. I would love to see church leaders take an active role in making it harder for predators to function within the church. Simply making speeches about how evil harassment and abuse are doesn’t really cut it. At least, it hasn’t cut it yet.

So what else can be done?


  • By Megan, March 24, 2018 @ 3:51 pm

    In the Scouting program, all leaders have to do a short Youth Protection. The kids themselves have their own training, too, about what to do in bad situations. In the church (outside of scouting), I feel like we don’t even want to admit that abuse can happen — that people will prey on the trusting nature of such a community. It doesn’t fix everything, but I feel like it would be very wise to run background checks on anyone called to work with youth/children, and require some kind of Youth Protection training like what’s required in scouting. I feel like having regular conversations about protecting people would make it easier to talk about, that it would help people spot signs of abuse, and that it would give people tools to react and seek help quickly.

  • By Bryce Moore, March 26, 2018 @ 11:37 am

    Good points, Megan. I agree that the church needs to start recognizing the potential for abuse and then take actions to try to prevent it. Anything is better than nothing. It’ll be interesting to see what actually comes of it.

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