In one of the closing paragraphs of “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” a religious document outlining the family values of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it reads, “We warn that individuals … who abuse spouse or offspring … will one day stand accountable before God.” While the LDS church has a zero-tolerance rule for spousal abuse, the Rob Porter scandal has illuminated how some church leaders have failed to uphold this standard.
Porter, a former senior aide in the Trump White House and a Mormon, has been accused by both of his ex-wives, Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby, of physical and emotional abuse during their separate marriages. Their stories are both disturbing and credible. Adding to the tragedy of their abuse, these women allege the church leaders they turned to for help minimized the seriousness of Porter’s actions.
Both women claimed their bishops, volunteer LDS clergy, shifted the responsibility of the abuse. Willoughby’s bishop asked her to consider the negative impact filing a protective order could have on Porter’s career. Holderness and Willoughby are not alone in their experiences; an avalanche of other Mormon women have shared their bishops’ similar responses to their disclosures of spousal abuse. Contradictory to LDS doctrine, many were counseled to stay in abusive relationships and were even warned their salvation could be jeopardized by leaving violent partners. One woman was even told to “do something nice for [her husband], like cook his favorite meal.”
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, one in four women in the United States has experienced severe physical abuse by an intimate partner in their lifetime. There is no indication that Mormon women are more often abused, but there is also no evidence to prove them an exception to this statistic. As LDS bishops are often part of the congregation they are selected to serve in, many do not have the skills or training necessary to effectively counsel and care for domestic abuse victims. However, a church with assets valued in the billions should provide the resources necessary to care for the vulnerable people in their congregation.
In 1995, the LDS church responded to increasing cases of abuse by creating a hotline for bishops and other leaders to “consult with … specialists who can assist in answering questions and in formulating steps that should be taken.” While introduced in the original press conference as a resource to properly address any form of abuse in the church, it was particularly advertised as a measure against child abuse. Protecting victims of child abuse is important, as is protecting mothers, aunts and grandmothers.
The general membership handbook for the LDS church under the heading of “Abuse and Cruelty” states, “The Church’s position is that abuse cannot be tolerated in any form.” At the end of this section, church leaders are encouraged to reference their handbook for further detail on how to appropriately handle claims of abuse. This is an essential and meaningful step towards providing better support for abuse victims. However, as shown by the flood of stories of abuse being mishandled by local church leaders, this cross-reference may be overshadowed by personal biases and relationships.
Indeed, Julie de Azevedo Hanks, a Salt Lake City therapist, is unsurprised some of these lay leaders side with male abusers.
“Since it is more likely that the bishop knows the husband (because they’ve been in church classes together, maybe even served together in callings), it is more likely that the bishop will sympathize with the male,” Hanks told The Salt Lake Tribune.
Women often disclose abuse to spiritual leaders before seeking secular help in order to receive counsel that parallels their faith and to avoid having their religion blamed for the abuse. LDS Family Services, an existing counseling service within the church that provides faith-based counseling, could scaffold church leaders and provide spiritual support to abuse victims. I have had eight different bishops, all of whom served faithfully and earnestly. I believe the majority of my church’s leadership, on the local and global scale, strives to “choose the right” and care for those in their congregation. While I hope they would believe victims who come forward with claims of abuse, recommend professional counseling and support those who choose to file a claim, this is not always what Mormon women experience.
The instructional resources the LDS church currently provides to congregation leaders on addressing abuse are obviously not enough. Bishopric members should receive professional training in handling domestic abuse to better care for their congregations and to better reflect the church’s zero tolerance position on abuse. By increasing resources for survivors and leaders, confronting an abuser and comforting a victim will not be left in the hands of God alone.