READER POST: When my friend, *Rachel, visited me and showed me a black eye inflicted by her husband, I was concerned for her safety. She told me about the horrific abuse she had suffered for years and said the psychological abuse was worse than the physical abuse. As a Stake Relief Society President at the time, I had recently attended a regional training session where we were taught that the Church did not condone domestic abuse. I encouraged Rachel to meet with her bishop and felt confident he would help her.
I was wrong.
Rachel’s husband, a former bishop, was well-liked in his stake. Instead of her bishop comforting her, he condemned her. Her bishop told Rachel that she had fabricated the abuse, even after she showed him doctor’s reports of past injuries. He told her she must stay married, remain silent, and tell no one of her abuse.
Eventually, the abuse became life-threatening, and Rachel left. She was shunned by her friends and family members, who believed her husband’s lies. A former football player, her husband convinced their friends and family that Rachel, who weighed less than 100 pounds, had precipitated the fights. He also asserted that Rachel was delusional and her abuse claims were false.
After the divorce was finalized, Rachel lost everything: her home, family, and friends. Her children, whom she adored, sided with her husband and her bishop, and told Rachel she had destroyed her marriage. Her husband, a wealthy, charismatic, powerful man in their community, hid his assets and hired five prominent attorneys. Rachel was left almost destitute.
In an attempt to help Rachel, my husband and I contacted her stake president, who dismissed us, and then the Area Authority, outlining the physical and mental abuse Rachel had suffered and asking him to review the case. We told him that physicians had detailed reports of her injuries and that they could validate her claims. We hoped that this would at least help Rachel reestablish the relationships she had with her adult children and her grandchildren, whom she adored.
Instead of helping Rachel, we hurt her. She was called in by her bishop and disfellowshipped for not heeding his counsel. My husband and I were called into the office of our stake president by Rachel’s stake president. Her stake president was enraged that we had contacted the Area Authority and told us if we lived in his stake, we would be excommunicated.
Unfortunately, Rachel’s scenario is not uncommon. I have seen it play out over and over again in various forms in the Church. For instance, a close friend was molested by her bishop, who came to her home when she was very ill, knowing that her husband was on a Church assignment. When she and her husband reported the abuse to their stake president, they were threatened with Church sanctions and she was accused of being a liar. Another childhood friend was groomed by her branch president while she was working at his resort. She became pregnant by him and was excommunicated for two years. He was disfellowshipped for nine months. All of these women I have described remain active in the Church, but each carries deep wounds from ecclesiastical abuse.
My son-in-law, a bishop and a respected physician, reports that he treats numerous survivors of abuse, some of whom are married to members of bishoprics and stake presidencies. These women have no ecclesiastical recourse and are victimized further by the Church, a place that should offer healing and comfort to the afflicted and broken.
I encourage abuse victims–whenever possible and safe–to document and report abuse to police, as well as to leave the home for a safe place. However, when women leave an abusive situation, the abuse can escalate. It did for Rachel and even for us. Her brakes were cut, and we received threatening phone calls from her husband. Her other friends found themselves in danger as well when they tried to shelter Rachel.
As a church, we must do a better job to help abused women. These changes will not be fully realized in a patriarchal system. When dealing with abused women, stake and ward Relief Society presidents should have a voice equal voice to that of bishops or stake presidents. Female abuse victims should have the opportunity to meet simultaneously with the bishop and Relief Society president to discuss abuse issues. No abuse survivor, whether the abuse is sexual, psychological, or physical, should be blamed for being abused. Untrained and unqualified ward and stake leaders should not assume the role of a professional therapist in helping a survivor recover from abuse. They may offer spiritual succor, but psychological counseling should be left to professionals.
Abuse in the Church is more systemic and problematic than many realize. Unfortunately, as I understand it, the Church’s legal department has survivors sign non-disclosure agreements when they report abuse by Church and Boy Scout leaders, so the full extent of abuse cannot be determined. However, if even one survivor is dehumanized, marginalized, or defamed by Church leaders, that is one woman too many.
Women should never be forced to suffer in silence.
The shaming and blaming of abuse survivors in the Church must stop.
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*Names in post have been changed for the purposes of confidentiality.
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