A Bishop’s Authority, Sexual Harassment, and Me

JUNE: “Bishop, I’m scared…in my own home.” He sat silently. “My kids shouldn’t hear me called a ‘F***ing bitch’ by their father. I am being…coerced sexually. He kicks me out of the car and leaves me on the side of the road if I upset him. I…I don’t understand what’s going on. We need help…please.”

My plea hung in the air while his eyes raked me over. In ironic foreshadowing, I found myself foolishly and hopelessly wishing my husband, my abuser, was there to protect me. He sat in the foyer. He’d had an hour-long chat with the bishop ahead of me. When he exited the office, I was invited in. I begged for help.

Instead of responding to what I’d said, our bishop said, “Your husband just told me about your past. I need to ask you some questions.” My face flushed hot. I hadn’t been a virgin when I married, and, after enduring years of shaming by my husband, he had just successfully discredited me by disclosing my private sexual history.

If I could erase one experience from my life it would be what happened next. For the following two hours, my entire sexual history was poked and prodded like a science experiment. It’s nearly impossible to describe the shame I, a married woman in my mid-thirties, felt when this man, who was twice my age, asked me invasive and explicit questions about a nearly two-decade distant sexual past. He had no formal training in pastoral ethics or counseling, but he believed he could determine my spiritual worthiness.

He believed himself my “judge in Israel” and this, he felt, gave him the authority to ask about my sexual preferences, my sexual partners, and for intimate details regarding my teenage sexual experiences, some of which included sexual assault and rape—all things I’d addressed with a previous bishop. I didn’t understand why I had to repeat that experience. I didn’t have the language to describe what this was—tag-team gas-lighting by both my husband and my bishop and sexual harassment.

I had overcome a lot in my life: bouts with postpartum depression, hospitalization for an eating disorder, multiple miscarriages, and sexual assault and rape. But those things were buried in my past, distant memories that seemed like old and overgrown tombstones.

I had thought I was doing well. I had supported my husband through four difficult years of medical school and three years of residency, giving up my own aspirations to have and raise our young children with special needs. My life was as it should be. But then the bomb dropped: my husband had been having a slew of extra-marital affairs throughout our marriage.

I stayed with him to help him right himself with God. I wanted to save our marriage, but his abuse of me persisted. It was covert, so subtle that even I had a hard time identifying it in the fog of confusion and the darkness of my grief and misery. But he was sorry for being mean, he would say, and so I determined to find us help. That’s why we’d come to the bishop’s office. Or so I thought.

I did, in fact, protest the bishop’s invasive questions that day, repeatedly stating my past had nothing to do with my current situation. But he pressed on, insisting that I hadn’t cleared up all of my sins and I had lied to my husband about being sexually experienced. Naturally, he said, my husband was mad and would act like it.

“But I can help you if you let me,” the bishop said, adding that he had “a special way with women.”

Even after all of the abuse, the affairs, the fear, and the mistreatment by my husband, what my bishop did in his office hurt, scarred, and damaged me more than anything my husband had done. What he did shattered my world, my faith, my trust. I have gone through years of trauma therapy, working through what happened next. I was vulnerable and confused, so very alone, but I recognized something deeply wrong in what was happening.

I said no to the bishop, that I wasn’t willing to submit myself to him for fixing. His face went beet red and he stood up, towering over me, accusing me in a loud and angry tone of being “unappreciative.” He emphasized how he “works so hard to lead the ward,” saying that I should recognize his efforts by cooperating. In a rush of adrenaline, I darted toward the door and sprinted out of the church building, my sympathetic nervous system telling me to take flight. I instinctively knew this was an unsafe situation.

There is a saying that goes, “Trauma is not our fault. But it is our responsibility to address it.” Since this event, I have moved forward. I’ve divorced, become an advocate for safe laws and church policies, and set personal boundaries to ensure my well-being.

Still, the shame of this event lingers over me like the thick fog that sets in as the sun disappears each evening on the mountain where I live. The shame of assuming someone else would protect me. The shame of thinking I was worth  believing. That shame always returns.

I communicated with my Stake President, but he said the entire incident never happened because the bishop told him it hadn’t. What was I supposed to do next?

This situation has shown me firsthand that a huge problem exists within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: members have no recourse for correction should they experience a truly unethical and abusive leader.

There is no hotline for members, no policy for members, no training for members. There is no impactful training for leaders, no clear policy for leaders, no outlined standards of ethical conduct for leaders.

What happened to me was sexual harassment behind a closed door. There is no way of addressing issues like this when they happen. And they are happening. The trauma persists. The shame stays. More stories like mine will continue to be shared.  This is becoming our legacy.

~June~

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One Reply to “A Bishop’s Authority, Sexual Harassment, and Me”

  1. Wow, June. This is heartbreaking. And infuriating. I think you’re spot on in your conclusion. There’s really no check on the power of bad leaders in the LDS church. I guess there’s no check on the power of any leaders, but it it’s more of an issue when they’re bad. I’m so sorry that your bishop ignored the problem in front of him–your then-husband’s affairs and abuse–in favor of prodding you about your sexual history. He was so wrong to do so, and I’m sorry that you suffered because of him.

    Like

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