You Make The Call: Marriage Counseling

You just moved into this branch 3 months ago and last Sunday they made you the branch president. During the week  sister X(*), a woman in the branch whom you barely know, made an appointment with you and shared some sad, shocking news: her husband has been unfaithful to her and broken his marriage vows. She offers as evidence the fact that she observed him entering a “house of ill repute” (her words) twice during the past week. She even has the dates and times written down.

You are righteously indignant that a priesthood holder would do this and contact brother X immediately.  You make an appointment for the following evening where you expect to lower the boom and explore the various options for church discipline, which you anticipate will be dispensed with a liberal hand. 

Br. X appears promptly for his appointment but he delivers another shocker.  When you ask him if he went to the brothel at the dates and times his wife wrote down, he answers affirmatively and forthrightly.  He goes on to explain that the reason he went to the brothel on those occasions was to speak to his wife, sister X, who works there.  Sister X denies this charge.

What do you do?  Is this marriage worth saving, or do you conclude that a marriage is pretty well shot when people start accusing each other publicly of participating in prostitution?  How do you get to the truth of the matter?  You can’t interrogate people in the style of detective Andy Sipowicz or even Jethro Gibbs.  You can’t enter the establishment in question to determine whether sister X really is employed there as a vendor of goods and/or services.  And there is still the big question about church discipline.  How would you approach that?  Of course we would expect a branch president to try to seek answers through prayer, but what kind of preparatory work do you think should be done in order ensure that prayers are effectual?

* This incident is a true story. It is recorded in a copy I have of the handwritten notes of branch presidency meetings from the New Orleans branch in 1844. X is a stand-in for a very common Mormon name of Scandinavian origin. BCC is just like Dragnet; we change names to protect the innocent, and maybe the guilty, too. There is a good chance that a reader of this blog would recognize the names of somebody in the family genealogy. I’m assuming that we really don’t want to know how great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother made her living.

I think we also need to recognize that even though this is an unusual situation, it illustrates the nature of intractable, difficult problems our bishops are called to handle. It shouldn’t be surprising if your bishop were over at the church right now, dealing with something just as off-the-wall and unsolvable. Next time you see him, thank him. And this incident also serves as a good illustration of the quirky combination of mixed motives, weakness, depravity, and nobility of which our fellow beings are composed, and whom we are obligated to love and help.


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  1. What a whorible position to be in!

  2. Hahaha, #1!

  3. Why can’t he visit the brothel to inquire about the facts? I’m a firm believer in God requiring us to do all our homework (not just some or most of it) before He’s going to grant us with the revelation required to make appropriate judgments.

    Anyway, church discipline is about assisting in the repentance process and based on the facts presented it looks like neither party is interested in repentance.

  4. Yea, I assume this would require me to make a trip over to the burlesque house to get to the bottom of it. Why not?

  5. Hmm, unless you live in NV, you’re unlikely to have a house of ill repute nearby. That’s one of the nice things about the United States in the 21st century as opposed to the 19th century. But still, this case raises a lot of interesting issues. The husband’s charge is really outrageous and pretty easy to prove or disprove, I would think. The branch president could ask the husband to provide some proof of some sort or he could even discuss with the Madame, I suppose. People in the town would know — a married woman being a prostitute is even more of a scandal than a husband visiting a prostitute.

    As for the marriage being worth saving, if there is that kind of drama going on, probably not.

    You are correct to point out that bishops deal with nightware situations all the time. It seems to happen in every ward I have been in. One good thing about not being in a bishopric is that you don’t have to know all the details, which are often horrific.

  6. esodhiambo says:

    Before I saw that this was a case in 1844, I was going to suggest that he refer them to actual marriage counseling and once they have progressed to at least admitting to certain facts about themselves, then maybe consider discipline. Do we do things very differently now than in 1844? I don’t know much about church discipline (you know, being a girl and all).

    But to have one person act as counselor (who should be impartial) and judge (who eventually has to side with one side or another) seems problematic.

  7. “Hmm, unless you live in NV, you’re unlikely to have a house of ill repute nearby. ”

    Geoff B,
    You are incredibly naive.

  8. Wow 1844 was just as scandalous as today! I think the couple has to decide if the marriage is worth saving. If both people aren’t willing to tell the truth then the Bishop can’t do much. If he investigated and found out who was lying, that doesn’t guarentee that they are willing to participate in the repentance process. I agree tough position for the Bishop to be in.

  9. nightware situations ftw

  10. Perhaps I would ask to see them both together and talk to them both about honesty and repentance. It seems they both may need to stay home from the brothels.

  11. It seems the most important issue here is what is causing this couple to have approached the new branch president over their marriage. The underlying reason the wife went to the branch president doesn’t seem to appear to be that her husband went to a brothel, and that accusation should be considered only after the real underlying issue is resolved. Particularly since the husband retorts by saying that he only went there to see her.

    Now, this particular issue is based in a different time, and apparently in New Orleans, a wholly different place than we are accustomed to. Is the question how would we handle this by today’s standards (when we would never see such a scenario) or how we would judge it by the standards of 1844?

    If I were branch president, I would sit down with both of them separately and ask them pointed questions about their accusations. The stories will not end up reconciling and as such you cannot judge the husband by the accusations of the wife, or the wife by the accusations of the husband. But I would try to find out why the wife felt as if she needed to accuse the husband of going to a brothel where she supposedly worked, as if that was something bad.

  12. I agree with #6

  13. Are Freudian slips nightwares?

    I’m a bit surprised that several commenters have suggested making a visit to the wife’s place of employment. I can’t imagine a Mormon bishop doing that, and even if he did, I would expect that the other people who work there would lie to protect her. So the only other option is for the bishop to go, ah, undercover. But I don’t think Groucho glasses and moustache would get the job done.

  14. My first impression is that it is not up to the bishop to determine whether the marriage is worth saving; that is up to the spouses themselves. It seems that one way or another, they may agree on that point, if on nothing else. It may take one or more visits with the bishop to determine their attitudes, but prayerfully asking about whether the couple needs counseling appears to be premature.

  15. When my father was a bishop, he’d quite often come home from church meetings, wearily hug my mother, and say, “We are so blessed.” Of course, he couldn’t elaborate, but the deep lines in his face said it all–and my mother had no desire to know what he’d heard and was dealing with.

    I’m sure bishops regularly face things we have no clue about.

  16. Last Lemming says:

    So the only other option is for the bishop to go, ah, undercover. But I don’t think Groucho glasses and moustache would get the job done

    What, you think men who look like Mormon bishops don’t frequent brothels? Or are we still operating under NV rules?

  17. Neither, LL. I’m assuming that a bishop wouldn’t want to be seen there, especially if there was a chance he might run into somebody he knows.

  18. It is so awkward when you visit a house of ill-repute and find your wife working there. I hate that.

  19. Latter-day Guy says:

    RE: 4,

    On my mission (in the USA), one of the apartments I lived in was in a building that had been (in the late nineteenth century) a Catholic school. I really liked that apartment, because all six missionaries that worked in the ward were in the same building –– living close enabled a great camaraderie. In any case, shortly after I left the area, the missionaries had to move. They found out that some of the friendly girls, who were our neighbors, were running a (very successful) business out of their apartment, which involved the girls becoming considerably more friendly after money changed hands.

    You’d be surprised, Geoff.

    RE: 17,

    There is only one thing worse… “It is so awkward when you visit a house of ill-repute and find your [mother] working there. I hate that.”

  20. This reminds me of that one Simpsons episode when the football coach offers to take the school team to Hooters because he is so proud of them, but Nelson declines “because Mom hates it when I bother her at work.”

  21. Stephanie says:

    So glad I will never be a Bishop – not because I’d have to judge or counsel. Just because I would even have to listen to stuff like this.

  22. On the bright side, SteveP, it makes the news.

  23. Mmiles, naive I may blessedly be, but I maintain that most people in the U.S. today do NOT have a “house of ill repute” nearby in the same sense that we did in the 19th century. In most of the 19th century, prostitution was either legal or ignored by local authorities. That is simply not the case today. The “house of ill repute” was the place that everybody in the community knew was the local place for prostitution. It was well-known and recognized, which is relevant for this story because it makes it easier to put yourself in the shoes of the husband, the wife and the bishop.

    Today’s situation is very different. Prostitution obviously takes place but not in one central house that everybody knows about. There may be the occasional apartment like that mentioned in #18, but is different than a 19th century house of ill repute.

    To imagine what I’m getting at, imagine “Gone With the Wind” and the “house of ill repute” that Rhett Butler openly and regularly visits. Even the women say they want to go because they have heard it is a magnificent place. Sorry, folks, that simply doesn’t exist in most communities today.

    Mmiles, I’m a bit surprised at your attacking tone.

    Mark, sorry for thread-jacking.

  24. I make the mistake once of asking a buddy what the biggest challenge was of being in a Bishopric. He said, “You just wouldn’t believe the vast amount of abuse that goes on.”

    This was in a BYU married student ward. Mostly newlyweds, very few babies, everybody seemingly happy.

    As a home teacher, I’m in the know on a few issues. There’s the mom who hatches a suicide plan. The boy is dating a girl who’s in the ward, but texts very suggestive pictures and requests to come over and “help me out”. There’s a family with serious medical issues, and kids are going to bed hungry on occasion. A pre-teen girl has explosive rage disorder and beats up her mom and younger sister.

    Now, take that and multiply by 80 active families in the ward.

    I work on not bothering the Bishop. My family has problems, but nothing that rises to the level where he needs to get involved. A ward could do a lot worse than to have self-sufficient members.

  25. It’s not any more fun to be on the other end. When your abusive spouse falsely claims you had an affair (among other things), and you are told by the bishop that he can’t take sides, it’s devastating. Whether the bishop wants to or not, he is then tacitly approving the abusive behavior.

  26. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 23 You’re right about the old days vs today, Geoff B but are we sure this case didn’t occur in Texas? “No drinking allowed, we get a nice quiet crowd….” Ah, Dolly Parton.

  27. Edward Thomas says:

    A friend of mine who used to live in a small town in Nevada told me this story. One Sunday morning, he got a call from the branch president asking him to help him administer to a young woman, not a member, who worked in the local house of ill-reputed. The branch president was a long-time resident of the town and, before he had joined the church, had had a rather sketchy past.

    They asked the permission of the madam and went back to a small bedroom where they administered the blessing. As they were leaving, my friend heard the madam talking to the men at the bar about the branch president saying, “He was a good man ’til he got religion.”

  28. This reminds me of a couple from Whipple’s The Giant Joshua that met in a Nauvoo brothel. On his deathbed, Lars asks his wife “Vhere did I find you, Yulia?” Her reply, as always, is “Vhat were you doin’ there, Lars?”

    I suppose in the situation in the OP, I would try to support each of them in getting what they wanted (and hope that those wants weren’t mutually exclusive). As far as discipline, I would hold off completely, barring solid evidence or confession.

  29. AmoreVero says:

    I agree Anon, for family, friends or leaders to tolerate, minimize, deny or ignor abuse in any form & not apply consequences to stop it, is to support evil & as Pres. Monson said they will share in the guilt & punishment for not doing everything they could to stop it.

    Bishops are not only required to take a side & protect the innocent when abuse, adultery or abandonment occurs in their ward, they are also obligated & entitled to have the Spirit of Discernment to know who is telling the truth & who is righteous or unrighteous. Though they may not know exactly what the specific problem is yet, they should be able to tell, like the night from the day, which spouse has the abuse problem or if both do. To be educated on all forms of abuse also is a huge help to discern if someone is abusive.

    The majority of abuse allegations are true & must be taken very seriously. The bishop & the Church’s 1st responsibility (so said Pres. Hinckley) is to protect those who have been abused in any way (adultery & abandonment are also abuse). The problem is that it seems most church leaders have not been educated in abuse yet as Pres. Hinckley wanted them all to be. Too many leaders don’t seem to be able to identify abuse, whether emotional, financial, sexual or physical, etc. & so they tolerate or minimize the abuse & thus it almost always gets worse & worse.

  30. StillConfused says:

    My very non lds business partner says “sounds like a perfect couple”

  31. I’m assuming that we really don’t want to know how great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother made her living.

    Are you kidding? Of course we do. Didn’t you see my Family History: Moonshine post?

  32. Steve, have I been banned, or am I in the filter. If filter, no worries.

  33. I seem to be showing up now, so no worries.

  34. MrsPeacock says:

    Did he pay to ‘visit’ his wife? Because I think I just found a new revenue stream.

  35. CLUE police says:

    #32, I thought Ms Scarlet was the owner/operator of the “house of ill repute”?

  36. Anon for this says:

    The thing I’m struggling with right now (currently involved in criminal law felony adjudication, from the judicial branch side) is knowing *too much* about what goes on in my neighborhood, community, ward, and stake. I feel for our bishops. They have a lot on their plates. I try not to worry about my children more than I had done before taking this job… there’s a lot of crazies out there, and I know where they live (and it isn’t far from our house). (And I know they’re everywhere.)

    What is hard is knowing that, due to ethics rules, I can never tell anyone this knowledge. Not even when someone is given a calling at Church and I am asked to sustain them. Or when something is going down with a church member that really needs support or protection, I cannot tell a bishop or Relief Society president. Then there’s just plain the problem of “information goes in, but never goes out.” I can do nothing at all with this information. I cannot help. I cannot fix. I cannot counsel. I cannot do a thing. Bishops at least can talk over their ethical problems with the Stake President. I have no such luxury.

  37. Anon for this — I knew someone who was a psychologist in a similar situation. During sustaining votes, he would often step out of the chapel so he wouldn’t have to sustain or vote no.

  38. Kevin Barney says:

    No. 34 MrsPeacock ftw.

  39. There is no reason a Bishop couldn’t stop by and visit in a case like this. A call to the SP to let him know what was going and *why* the Bishop would be making such a visit are all it takes. That way when some person sees the Bishop and feels the need to report it (and I can’t say that I blame the whistle blower in this instance), the SP says, “Thank you for letting me know. There are explanatory details you are not aware of, do not need to know, and I will not tell you.”

  40. anon for this too says:

    The quandary is that if someone discloses something to a bishop regarding abuse or other misconduct in a confessional setting, you are caught between legal reporting requirements and the concept of privileged communication.

    When I served as a bishop, (comments deleted, you know we can’t discuss these things except in the most abstract terms—anon).

    A bishop does have a responsibility to ascertain truth, and the problem is discernment will often tell you something you have no external evidence for. That is heavily problematic if people are not being truthful, or legal authority is involved.

    In the specifics of the case in the OP, I would do like any bishop would do, and assign the EQ president to go collect evidence. :)

  41. This case exemplifies the strange role of the bishop in the Church. In the normal course of events a judge is to exact retribution for the guilty and weigh compensation for the wronged. The bishop does not do this at the present time.

    I claim that as things have evolved, the bishop, as judge in Israel, has only one function: to protect the Church. He does this by rooting out apostasy and safeguarding the temple from impure people.

    There are a few other cases. As a fairly poor (in general) psychological councilor he may try to help people. He may help people find a spiritual center to their lives. He provides funds for the poor and needy. In these roles he uses judgment and spiritual insight but does not act as judge. He calls people to callings in the ward, again, with judgment and spiritual insight but not as a judge in the classical sense. In these cases we would call him a manager or councilor rather than a judge.

    Because we do not really understand the role of spiritual judge we get confused. So in this case, as protector of the Church, the bishop should tell both of them that they are going to be excommunicated unless they bring exculpatory evidence in their own behalf. It is a sordid business and the Church does not want to be involved in anything like this.

    As in Prop. 8 (or the equal rights amendment) cases several bishops and stake presidents have had to hold their noses and extract punitive measures to make sure the Church stays free of overt pro Prop. 8 sentiment. Justice has no weight in Church courts, only the protection of Church interests. Secondarily the spiritual welfare of individuals may be weighed if Church interests are not impacted. (Oddly and because of this, the Church courts can reflect the Soviet courts which were tasked with protecting the Soviet Union and Communist purity over individual justice.)

  42. Wow. I was shocked when the 1844 date was named.

    And glad my Mormon people were in Nauvoo and Cincinnati that year.

    Sounds like sister x does not want to be married to brother x. Either for her stated reason or for some other reason.

    So who was the branch president?

  43. FYI, my brother-in-law was part of getting the brothel next door to him in Salt Lake City closed. It was within walking distance of Temple Square (having walked it from his house). He testified at the pornography trial of the owner (who was passing out color catelogs of the workers in the brothel who he insisted he only rented space to).

    He was annoyed at the prior owner of his house, an LDS realtor, who did not disclose the brothel, and the police, who made courtesy visits. That ended when he was able to get a television crew to make a courtesy visit.

    Somehow that made more of an impression on law enforcement in the area than did the phone calls from the others in the neighborhood.

    The University of Utah provided a professor to testify that the catalog was not pornographic because it was within the community standards of Salt Lake.

    Since I understand it has remained closed, most probably no longer have a house of ill repute within walking distance if they live in downtown Salt Lake.

  44. This kind of thing is why one of my stake presidents asked to be in the nursery after he was released.

    Interesting thoughts BobW

  45. A former bishop of mine once told me that he occasionally interviewed people that he knew where lying, because the Spirit told him so, but he never had enough evidence to do anything about it, like deny a temple recommend or something.

    I’ve never figured out why the Spirit wasn’t more specific with him.

  46. Stephanie says:

    Goldam, maybe because it’s a test of their integrity and not the Bishop’s. The Bishop is standing in for the Lord, so they aren’t just lying to him.

  47. Glenn Smith says:

    When my wife was RS president, she accompanied the Bishop to visit a less active sister at her place of employment, a local bar. The sister worked as a bartender. Our ward covers six small towns in two countries. So, the likelyhood of another ward member seeing the Bishop and RS President going to the bar together was small…… The Bishop told me later he would be more careful.

    Re Bishop as judge
    In some areas , temporal disputes were taken to a Church authority for a decision. I suppose this was because civil courts were too distant in newly settled areas. Such an event occured in my family. The ruling was that if the relative (grandfather’s brother-in-law) was not being truthful with the “court”, his daughters would all suffer broken marriages. And they did.

  48. My first thought would be what my role in this is and what I’m being asked to do.

    The wife is either asking me to play the part of judge in Israel here and excommunicate the guy, or she is simply looking for someone to take her side in a domestic dispute.

    If it’s the later, she can leave me out of it. She’s got friends and family for that. I’ll be happy to sit and hear her out and maybe even give some advice. But she shouldn’t expect me to be taking her side in this dispute. I don’t think that’s a proper use of a bishop’s time.

    If she is asking me to excommunicate him – well, I’m going to need evidence for that. Barring that, I can’t in good conscience move forward with disciplinary proceedings. I also wonder what she hopes to get out of her husband being excommunicated.

    My overall inclination is to stay out of it and let them sort it out themselves without using me as a club to beat the other spouse with.

  49. By the way, a Bishop playing Magnum PI and scoping out a house of prostitution is a waste of his valuable time, and probably ill-advised anyway. These kind of establishments tend to have problems with people snooping around, and they’re probably going to notice you snooping around. It’ll just be trouble.

  50. “This incident is a true story. It is recorded in a copy I have of the handwritten notes of branch presidency meetings from the New Orleans branch in 1844.”

    What an interesting post. To the author of this post I say, how did you come to across these notes? What else was in them. I am completely intrigued.

    I am quite new to blogs and so of course new to this blog as well and perhaps this has been disclosed at some earlier date somewhere, if so bear with me please.

  51. I (well, not *I*, since I doubt the Mormon church would let women be branch presidents in my lifetime), would refer them to a licensed psychological/marital counselor, stat, and get out of it.

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