Justice and Mercy: A Rape Survivor’s Perspective

Today’s guest post is from Rachael.

I was sexually abused as a child and later raped as a teenager and again as an adult. All of these horrific experiences were at the hands of LDS priesthood holders. Of course, those who did these things were sinning and were not true representatives of Christ or His priesthood. It was relatively easy for me to separate out in my mind these evil men from what I knew God wanted.  But it was much harder for me to figure out how to make sense of the good men, bishops and stake presidents, who counseled me to forgive, to bury the past, to not hold my perpetrators legally responsible.  Because I believed that these men were representatives of God, I believed them when they told me that it was God’s will that I let my rapists (and abusers) off the hook.  And so I did.  I earnestly practiced the forgiveness that I was taught to practice, burying any hint of anger the moment it tried to rise up in me, and consequently, I believe, that buried emotion took on a life of its own, to the detriment of my health.

Five, count them, five separate priesthood leaders counseled forgiveness as opposed to holding my perpetrators legally responsible.  Perhaps I was just extremely unlucky, continually losing at leadership roulette; perhaps I just kept running up against those very rare exceptions to the rule. But, after talking with other LDS women with similar stories, and after reading some of the stories found here, I can’t help but wonder if these things are not more common in our church culture than most of us realize.      

Thankfully, President Monson has said of child abuse, “Let the offender be brought to justice, to accountability, for his actions and receive professional treatment to curtail such wicked and devilish conduct.”  While an ideal statement from the church would be broader in scope (to include rape and domestic violence) and less passive in tone (are we just supposed to let an offender be brought to justice or are we supposed to actively seek justice?), I view this statement as an important acknowledgement that forgiveness does not necessarily preclude civil or criminal justice.

I would like to pose two questions for you to ponder as you read what follows of my post, and in the comment section below: When is forgiveness not forgiveness, but denial?  And what is the relationship of justice to mercy in these contexts of sexual or domestic violence?

When is forgiveness not forgiveness, but denial?  After encountering so many stories of women being told by their priesthood leaders to forgive and not seek justice, I began to suspect that maybe denial, and not forgiveness, was the true motivation in many of these cases.  Denial can take many forms, including disbelieving or partially blaming victims, minimizing the frequency or seriousness of offenses, encouraging abused spouses to stay and make it work, pushing survivors to forgive (and forget) too soon, or encouraging survivors to not report their rape or abuse.  

Why would a priesthood leader, or any member of the church for that matter, be in denial about sexual assault or abuse?  Perhaps he or she wants to protect the church as an institution, and believes that a survivor seeking criminal justice will only bring the church negative publicity.  Perhaps a member wants to believe that our LDS culture is a safer place for his or her family than the rest of the world, and thus wants to minimize the severity of the problem.  Perhaps he or she sees the victim as a partial cause of the problem in order to maintain the illusion that such horrific things are preventable.  Perhaps a leader believes that families should stay together, even if this means that an abuser remains in the home.  

Or perhaps priesthood leaders and other members see more of themselves in the perpetrators than the abused.  On this last point, researchers have found that due to the psychological phenomenon of defensive attribution, male subjects are more likely to empathize with male rapists and thus assign less blame to those rapists, while simultaneously assigning more blame to female rape victims.

I have seen evidence of this within our own culture where too many commentors seem overly concerned that justice, rather than mercy, be served to sexual assault survivors who violate BYU honor code rules.  Further, it is often suggested that if a victim of assault had only followed the rules to begin with, the rape would not have occurred. Some have even committed themselves to the absurd suggestion that if BYU rules were always followed by female students, rape would never happen at BYU.  And yet, I can’t help but think that some of these same commentors, if such were called to be judges in Israel, might also be among those inclined to argue for forgiveness and mercy towards perpetrators of sexual and physical violence, particularly in those cases where the perpetrator is also male.  In other words, where we place blame and demand justice, and conversely where we call for mercy, might have more to do with implicit bias and our ability to empathize with those of our own gender, than with principle.

We must be vigilant to distinguish denial from forgiveness because, where denial seeks to bury, to minimize, to ignore, to pretend as if these assaults never occurred, forgiveness can never do such things.  Forgiveness is the flip side, but also the fruits, of repentance.  While it is possible to forgive a person who has never repented, we must remember that in such cases, ultimately, the price of justice must be paid. Repentance is the act of acknowledging our wrongs, of acknowledging and feeling sorry for the damage that we have done, of paying restitution for our crimes.  No one who is in denial about one’s own sins has ever successfully repented.  

To be forgiven of harming another person, we must go through an inflammatory period where we feel and acknowledge the weight of our sins.  The temptation is to soothe that inflammation, to pretend like what we did was really not that bad, or to revert back to denying that a sin even took place at all; but if we are to obtain forgiveness, we must resist that urge.  Just as inflammation is a healing response, so too is godly sorrow within the repentance process.  When priesthood leaders or members seek to minimize or bury these injustices on behalf of abusers, they are, in effect, depriving individuals of the opportunity to take personal responsibility for these grievous sins.  Such actions stunt the repentance/forgiveness process and can lead to further violence and victimization at the hands of these perpetrators who have never yet been held fully accountable for their sins, and so may yet repeat their sins. Forgiveness can never be confused with denial.  There is too much at stake.

And now for my second question: What is the ideal relationship between justice and mercy?  Or put another way, what would Jesus do—what would He want us to do in these cases?  I can sympathize with the belief that forgiving the perpetrator of violence is something that Jesus would always ultimately do; but my concept of forgiveness now diverges importantly from what my priesthood leaders’ conception of forgiveness was.  I do not believe that forgiveness entails letting the perpetrator off the hook, burying the past, pretending like it never happened, or disregarding criminal justice.  I believe that God will hold these perpetrators of sexual and physical violence accountable in the next life.  The oft-quoted scripture in Luke 17:2, “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones,” gives us a sense of what God’s justice will look like.

Further, I believe that if Christ were here on the earth today (with the same social and legal structures in place as there are now), Christ would minister to the abused, the raped, the violated, and that ministry would never look like minimizing or burying what happened, but would instead encourage survivors to seek justice where such justice would a) hold perpetrators of violence accountable for their action(s) and b) get perpetrators rehabilitative help, or at the very least, keep them off the streets, thus protecting future victims from harm.

Does the idea of Christ helping rape and abuse victims to seek justice make you uncomfortable?  I have to admit, it makes me a bit uncomfortable as well.  In our culture, we have internalized this view of Christlike forgiveness as one that entails turning the other cheek; of giving our coat to the one who sues us for our cloak.  It is this kind of radical forgiveness that some priesthood leaders probably have in mind when they encourage rape and abuse victims to forgive immediately and not involve the law.  But it is one thing for a person to choose to sacrifice themselves on the altar of radical forgiveness; it’s another thing entirely to be willing to sacrifice others on this altar.  When I was sexually abused as a child, I told my parents, and they, in consultation with my bishop decided to forgive my abuser and not hold him legally accountable (nor did he receive any church discipline).  That same man went on to abuse thirteen other girls—girls like me who also had their lives torn apart unnecessarily.  Christ would not want that.  We can’t afford to pretend like this sort of cover up is the Christ-like thing to do.

While it may be tempting to believe that there is no real harm to survivors of abuse and assault in engaging in the sort of forgiveness that lets perpetrators of abuse off the hook, there is actually a great deal of further harm that takes place, psychologically speaking, to such survivors when justice is disregarded.  When we say, “Forgive the abuser, don’t hold him accountable,” what a survivor hears is that her pain is not worthy of validation, that she is not worthy of being protected from harm. The survivor of abuse or assault is often dismayed to realize that she now faces the potentially lifelong, excruciating consequences of another’s evil actions, while the protected perpetrator of those evil actions will likely go on to lead a life (relatively) free of any consequences. I know from personal experience that the shame and self-doubt these minimizing messages elicit only serve to add to a survivor’s trauma.

There is so much good that we, within the LDS community, can do for survivors of assault and abuse.  We can love them, we can nurture them, we can offer them a safe place for healing.  We can support them in seeking and obtaining justice.  It is my hope that we can prayerfully examine our conceptions of forgiveness, mercy, and justice as they apply to perpetrators and victims of assault and abuse, that we can acknowledge personal or cultural tendencies that lead to victim blaming and covering up of injustices, that we can eschew denial in place of true repentance and appropriate forgiveness, that we can become more aware of the implicit biases that might influence our attributions of blame, and that we can ultimately become more like our Savior in our approach to alleviating the suffering of the most vulnerable among us.


  1. Jason K. says:

    Thank you for having the courage to share your experiences, and for urging our community toward Jesus and toward Zion.

  2. Rachael, thank you so much for sharing this with us. It’s urgently important.

  3. Rachael, thank you for having the courage to share you story and your insights about both the power and the limits of forgiveness. Thank you for speaking these things that our community so desperately needs to listen to right now. Thank you for trusting us with your story. And thank you for the grace-filled gift that is this post.

  4. I was so grateful that the State chose to prosecute my then-husband, taking the choice out of my hands. But when my ex was tried for what he did to me that last night, I told the prosecutors that I would testify. I had been raised by the programs of the Church to believe that justice/mercy, repentance/forgiveness were part of one whole.

    I was never angry at my ex (until later, when he played mind games with my children. I admit I was not at my best then,) but I knew intrinsically that we had to face the consequences of our sins, and not try to hide those consequences in order to keep peace. I wish that all daughters of the Church were able to say the same. For whatever reason, the recipe coagulated properly for me.

    When my ex and his lawyer were told that I would testify, they plea bargained. After I endured a two-hour-long temporary custody hearing, they knew he could not bluff his way through with my testimony of that night un-silenced. I was not angry. I was not “seeking justice.” I was too brokenhearted. But I was willing to tell the truth of what I experienced that night, and let justice take its course.

    I know he tried to get the record struck after his probation was over. I know he has continued to abuse his new wife and his children, and has attempted to draw me and everyone around me again into his games. But I learned through that experience to let go of concern for justice and leave that up to the Lord. I have not gone to see if he succeeded. I have put justice into the hands of those who have been entrusted with it.

    When it came to church discipline, I know he exercised his priesthood unrighteously. But he baptized my daughter without hearing a word of protest from me. I believe that my bishop of the time will be held accountable for refusing to let his bishop know of his failure to fulfill the duties required for worthiness, because my bishop was too involved in empathizing with his own brother via my ex to do his duty. My previous bishop was a good man with a blind spot, and he will have to account for that. But that, too, is thankfully in the Lord’s hands.

    Forgiveness is for the victim, not for the perpetrator. Because our forgiveness does not mean that the Lord will forgive. “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.” But that forgiveness must be achieved by the victim. It cannot be guilted into her (or him) without being an accessory to what has been done.

    Thanks for this post.

  5. Rachael, I am in tears over this. We can and must do better. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  6. You could have been writing my life and my experiences with male leaders. I only found out that the leaders hadn’t been reporting properly, (according to the church’s own rules) until more than a dozen years after they told me they had. I never prosecuted my rapist because my bishop put me on probation for being raped. I’m not sure how my life would be different without the decision to talk to my bishop first, but I know that it would.

    So many good points about the problems with leaders telling victims to forgive and forget. Thanks for writing this. It took me several tries to read it, because it all hit so close to home.

  7. Rachael says:

    Thank you all for the kind and supportive comments. :)

  8. Rachael says:

    Silver Rain and poetryansonions, I am so sorry that these horrible things have been done to you. It breaks my heart to think about you both and so many others in similar situations. Thank you for having the courage to share your experiences. It is my hope that as more of us share our voices on this important topic, awareness will increase, and hopefully, with that awareness, we can start to see real and lasting changes for the better.

  9. “Gold standard.”

  10. Well done. This brings to mind the most profound (to me) point among the many written by the survivor in the Brock Turner rape case– that rape/sexual assault is such a serious and destructive crime that it should always be heavily penalized, and that such a lesson should never be learned (by perpetrators) by trial and error. It should carry heavy penalties so that even a perp under the influence of alcohol would be deterred. I think her point applies here. If the penalties were more consistent and punitive, maybe [more of] our church leaders would understand it better.

    It’s not hard to see the many ways our culture fails to support and help rape survivors heal. No need to list them again when it is so well delineated in the OP. And in that young woman’s statement.

  11. AMEN! When are we going to learn what forgiveness really is?
    Forgiveness is to stop hating the sinner (because hating is detrimental to our own souls). Forgiveness is to not demand that the sinner spend eternity in hell, but is a hope that they will repent and let the atonement work in their lives (because Christ has in fact already paid for their sin).
    Forgiveness is not denial.
    Forgiveness is not reconciliation. Reconciliation is a separate decision.
    Forgiveness is not helping someone get off the hook. It is not helping them escape consequences.
    Forgiveness is the gift the victim gives herself, through the atonement, and it should be granted whether or not the person ever repents. Elizabeth Smart got this right. Her perp does not own her life.
    When someone argues that when God forgives us we are let us off the hook, I argue right back that forgiveness is no such thing, at least not in our mortal world. I cite Dr. Frank Fincham’s lecture on forgiveness at BYU in 2013. It’s on youtube if you want to watch it. I highly recommend it.
    A priesthood holder once asked me if forgave someone who had committed a serious offense. I said, “First, let’s define forgiveness!”

  12. Angela C says:

    Rachael, thank you so much for sharing your story. We as a community need to be listening more, and the silence must be broken. Our continual push for confession to male authorities often steers us wrong, in some cases in very damaging ways.

    I was reminded of a college roommate who told me that her father had repeatedly sexually abused her and her sister. She said her mother denied it. Her father denied it. But they also both said she had to forgive him and move on which meant not holding him accountable. To quote O.J. Simpson, that sounded a whole lot like “If I Did It . . .”

    Denial and pushing rape victims to “forgive” while really meaning “don’t report” or “don’t hold them accountable” or “stop forcing us to deal with this horrible thing we can’t handle” needs to be called out and corrected from the top down. Well meaning but clueless bishops who are not aware of how common sexual assault is will continue to blunder if it is not trained and reinforced correctly. That blundering enables further abuse, ruined lives, and more victims, as well as re-victimizing those who are wounded physically and emotionally by sexual abuse.

    Heartbreakingly, that roommate concluded that nothing that happened to her mattered. As she said, people could do whatever they wanted to her.

  13. Richard Redick says:

    Thank you for this very well thought-out article. As I read your article, I pictured a cross. On one length of the cross, Justice and Mercy are opposite each other. On the other length of the cross, Denial and Forgiveness are opposite each other. Jesus was nailed to a cross to be the peace offering for us (all of us).

    Your question of when does forgiveness become denial is as sobering and worthy a question as what is the proper blend of justice and mercy for any situation involving offense. In the lengthy conversation between the prophet Alma and his son Corianton, Alma discusses the necessity of both the law, and the constant, unbiased enforcement of the same. All of this is in the context of the divine law of restoration; a law that, interestingly, is supported by the Atonement, and serves as a parameter of that same infinite and eternal atonement. Alma asks the thought-provoking question (to the best of my faulty memory), “For without a just law, what could justice do, or mercy, either; for they would [both] have no claim upon the creature!” Alma (who spent 2 or 3 days suffering the pains of a damned, immortal soul) understood that law of retoration. He also perfectly knew that without justice, there is no mercy. Justice must rest upon the faithful enforcement of just laws.

    I question the wisdom of any church leader – local or general – who would counsel a victim of sexual assault to simply forgive, and have everyone just sweep the crime under the rug. The perpetrator has raped the victim, yes, but the perpetrator has broken the law of the people. Even if the victim is willing to forgive for what s/he has suffered, the People have the right and duty to try the perpetrator according to their laws. That accountability – I believe – is something altogether out of the hands of both the victim and the church leader (even if that leader happens to be the Prophet). Frankly, it is very difficult for me to see the counsel of your five priesthood leaders as anything other than an obstruction of justice and, therefore, – according to the teachings of Alma the Younger (already alluded to) – anti-Christ!

  14. Molly Bennion says:

    Your story is heartbreaking and was surely hard to share. Thank you for sharing. You teach us and inspire survivors. I not only agree Priesthood leaders must abandon phony forgiveness and victim blaming but I also see this as a cry for the involvement of women leaders in all church sexual abuse issues involving females. Many priesthood leaders handle these cases wisely and compassionately but involving women would be some protection against those who don’t.

  15. It makes me so mad/sad that all those priesthood leaders told you to not pursue legal justice. My dad was a bishop for several years, and he told me that as soon as anyone told him about any sort of criminal activity (including sexual abuse) that he would make sure that legal justice was pursued. He made it sound like this was standard procedure among bishops, but I guess not. (Or too many have dozed off during leadership training?)

    Thank you for telling your story and for sharing your words of wisdom.

  16. I would never go to the bishop first in any situation like this. I would go to the police or a therapist. I am very active in the church, but I don’t go to the bishop to discuss problems (since I was raised in a high functioning family and don’t commit sins that need confession). Whenever I have had a problem in my family (one of my children) or whenever I have witnessed something, there are many more people to talk to about it before making the bishop aware of a problem (if he needs to be).
    I believe I would pursue all legal justice that was reasonable and that I thought I could handle as a victim (or my family member could handle if they were a victim). I would also believe that forgiveness would be achievable and it would come. I would not see it necessary to not pursue legal consequences in order to forgive.
    Currently, I am trying to figure out how to punish my 16 year old for doing something dishonest. I have forgiven him, yes, but he needs a consequence so that he (I hope) does not make a habit of this. I believe his mistake is an action that if consistently happened would put him on a path to becoming an entitled jerk who takes advantage of others. I believe that it is the more loving response to hold him accountable for his mistake at age 16, so that he becomes a good person.
    So, I find it strange that you think of justice and mercy being at odds with one another.

  17. thank you Rachael

  18. Genevieve says:

    Rachael, I am so very, very sorry, and outraged and sad. Thank you for writing about this topic with such clarity and sensitivity. Every Church leader needs to read this.

  19. I follow BCC closely but comment infrequently, but wanted to thank you for this post – I mean truly bottom of the heart thankful — and for all the comments, especially from Silver Rain and Beth. Not only in the church, but in society at large, there is a misunderstanding about the relationship between forgiveness and consequences. I’ve never suffered any wrong that comes close to being sexually abused/assaulted, but I’ve experienced a few seriously damaging injustices that brought internal crisis (though they didn’t involve any criminal behavior). I’ve come to spiritual peace and even can say I harbor no ill feelings toward the “perpetrators”, but that doesn’t mean that I trust them, want to associate with them, or want to pretend that everything is fine. However, maybe if one came to me and truly took ownership for the wrong done, maybe even these feelings would change somewhat. What I really don’t understand is — didn’t those priesthood leaders realize that those perpetrators would keep molesting members of their own ward, stake, and community. Didn’t they have daughters? Did they just keep THEIR daughters away from the perps? Egads!

  20. Rob Osborn says:

    I completely am in favor of full justice against rapists and child abusers. Justice and mercy, from the Lords POV is about equal weights and measurements. On the one hand we are commanded to forgive all men. But that doesnt release a person from the claim of justice. Mercy comes into play only when justice is meted out evenly. Otherwise, whats the point of having laws and penalties and rewards? It truly bothers me to see any person in leadership attempt to delay or write off justice in the claim that forgiveness lets a person off the hook. We should all forgive but that in no way should transkate into a get out of jail free card.

    Especially for rape and child abuse victims, justice MUST be meted out to the full extent to the perpetrator so that mercy can be allowed to work its course and becone the even weight to fulfill the law of penalty and reward in the long term to both victim and criminal to bring both back to God.

    Many on the blogs complain against me for my staunch approach to rules and modesty. I dont want any to think I am biased towards rapists or males, etc. I am extremely judgmental against rapists and child sex abusers. I have an extended family member in prison, WHERE HE BELONGS, for grooming and taking advantage of a minor with various sex acts. I have no sympathy whatsoever for him or what he did. He should be locked up forever in my opinion. I have forgiven him in my mind for what he has done but according to justice he must pay a very heavy price and hopefully be forgiven by God someday. I fathom to think what I would do physically to someone if they sexually abused or assaulted any of my family members. We need to forgive so that justice can be meted out and mercy can, at some point, be measured out to redeem them but never should justice be robbed or set aside in sex abuse cases.

  21. Rachael, thanks for sharing your story. I think this issue is so important to be addressed. I also had an experience as a teenager having my abuse minimized. I was fifteen and dating a twenty four year old man who was routinely sexually abusing me against my consent in a cycle similar to that of domestic violence. I was isolated and overwhelmed and went to my bishop for help. When I told him what was going on, including the age of my “boyfriend” he told me that I wasn’t taking enough accountability and that if I really wasn’t okay with his behavior I would have stopped dating him. Nothing was reported to my parents or to authorities even though even the law was clearly being broken even if I had been giving my consent. The only result of my visit was that I was put on probation for six months, not allowed to take the sacrament, and racked with even more guilt and shame over the abuse I still didn’t know how to put a stop to. Now as an adult with my own teenage daughter I am appalled at how things were handled.

  22. Sarah, I am so sorry that happened to you. Thank you for sharing. Every bishop needs to be trained to never, ever put a rape or abuse victim through the repentance process for being raped or abused.

    When I was raped at sixteen (by my boyfriend at the time) I went to my bishop seeking comfort and counsel. I told him how I begged my boyfriend to stop repeatedly and cried through my rape. My bishop seemed to think that I had sinned in this situation. He lectured me about how women need to be the guardians of virtue because men have a hard time controlling their sexual impulses. I was given a copy of The Miracle of Forgiveness, not allowed to take the sacrament for six months and told to write an apology letter to my rapist for “putting him in a bad situation.” Words can’t describe how painful and humiliating apologizing to my rapist was. While I hope that most LDS rape victims get love and support from their bishops, if this is happening at all, to even one other women, then it is happening too much.

  23. Thank yo for these insights, Rachel—particularly on defensive attribution. It helps me understand why we can reflexively sympathize with some but not others. I can’t help but wonder how yours and others experiences could have changed if a woman was allowed to be there alongside the priesthood leader in these discussions. Imagine a Relief Society or Young Woman’s President, or a mother, acting as an advocate and support for the victim. Then we can reflexive sympathy work for us, and not just always against us.

  24. This is so beautifully articulated. Thank you for taking time and energy to compose these words of truth.

    You’ve written my life too. How many of us are there? I don’t know. But I do know there is no radical forgiveness for traumatizing crimes such as childhood sexual abuse. What there is is a long, deliberate course that takes a victim through the healing process. Forgiveness comes (if it comes) as a natural result of grieving, raging, reclaiming ones identity and personal power.

    Most significant for me is my personal belief that survivors of childhood sexual abuse in particular are not cable of “forgiving” perpetrators of this crime. It is a crime against heaven, a purposeful corruption of innocence, an assault on agency, because one’s ability to access and utilize one’s agency is damaged profoundly by such abuse.

    As such, these crimes against the spirit and against heaven can only be forgiven by God. I believe my job as a victim and as one who has emerged from the destruction of childhood sexual abuse, is to free myself from said destruction via all the wonderful, loving resources available – not the least of which is the atonement – and to leave the perpetrator to God. (Unless, of course I have the emotional, physical, and financial resources to bring the perpetrators to justice via the legal system.)

    The LDS church (and presumably other religious organizations) has long been a safe haven for perpetrators because of our contorted application of the concept of forgiveness, which you so perfect detail in this post: denial. The church and its leaders are culpable in this. God bless us with eyes to see and courage to change.

    And God bless you, Rachael. And God bless the innocent children who, even now, tonight, are bearing the burden of our collective denial.

  25. So important. Thank you for writing this.

  26. DeJean L. says:

    Church members/leaders fail to make a distinction between sin and crime. These are crimes that need to be reported and followed through justice channels in order that there be accountability. Accountability leads to the greater probability that the offender will reform. Where there is denial and no accountability, there is a greater probability that there will be future offenses. A passage of scripture about the importance of accountability kept me going through the justice process with a child who had been abused. Some were more concerned that the offender’s life would be ruined more than about the child. I have since learned in working in the field of abuse prevention that this is not uncommon.

    This scripture passage follows that much-quoted scripture in D&C 64:10 “I the Lord will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.” We often stop there, but perhaps should read further:

    “11 And ye ought to say in your hearts—let God judge between me and thee, and reward thee according to thy deeds.

    12 And him that repenteth not of his sins, and confesseth them not, ye shall bring before the church, and do with him as the scripture saith unto you, either by commandment or by revelation.

    13 And this ye shall do that God may be glorified—not because ye forgive not, having not compassion, but that ye may be justified in the eyes of the law, that ye may not offend him who is your lawgiver—.

    14 Verily I say, for this cause ye shall do these things.”

    I hope this will be a help to someone else.

  27. wreddyornot says:

    Thank you and amen.

  28. Angela C., Molly Bennion, and Cathy: You have suggested that it might be helpful to include female leadership in individual discussions of rape and sexual abuse. I agree that that option should certainly be made available, because for some women who have been abused or raped, there is a loss of trust in men in general, and consequent fear and shame at having to recount their stories to another man. It would be nice for these women to have the option to confide in a woman instead. Whoever a survivor chooses to confide in, the ideal candidate, regardless of gender, will be one who is gentle, kind, non-judgmental and willing to reaffirm as often as it takes, “What happened to you was wrong. You are in no way to blame for this.”

    MDearest, Beth, melodynew, and DeJean thank you for your unique and powerful insights into the relationship between forgiveness and accountability.

  29. Mistress Swallowhaven says:

    As DeJean says, a Bishop has no right or power to declare that LEGAL justice has been done when a crime has been committed. Leaders need better training and need to be instructed that when a crime is committed – rape, domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault of any kind – they should help and encourage victims to bring criminals to justice because secular justice is different and separate from their spiritual responsibilities. I live in a branch where currently about 1/3 of our adult membership are mandatory reporters for child abuse (teachers, medical professionals, first responders or social workers) so this is not even a question (I hope!!!) for our local leaders right now but I know it has been a problem in the past.
    The Church is not supposed to be a Good Old Boys club. We should not be seen to protect predators. We should not enable predators, especially since we know that the temptation to harm does not go away without significant professional help so leaving an abuser or rapist to his own devices leaves everyone else vulnerable.
    Thank you for this post.

  30. Bishops and stake presidents who supports abusers or blame victims should be released. There are too many who do so or who are abusers themselves. When we went to stake authorities who help our friend who was being horrifically abused by her bishop/husband, we were told to stay out of the matter or we would be excommunicated. I know several good people who were also threatened with excommunication when they reported abuse by stake presidents and bishop. Fortunately, we did not live in our friend’s stake, which neighbored ours.

    The Church is becoming complicit in too many abuse issues. Lavina Fielding Anderson documented some of them, and although faithful and active in the Church, she was excommunicated and has been denied rebaptism until she says that Church leaders are infallible. Thank you for this post.

    The Church handbook needs to be rewritten so that there are clear guidelines for leaders. They are doing it for their own peace of mind, not to absolve the perpetrator from his crime.

    The problem that you have addressed in this post is perhaps becoming as pervasive as the abuse by priests in the Catholic Church because the LDS Church is not accepting the fact that it is a serious problem or is the Church responding appropriately to the cases where verified abuse is occurring. Women who have police statements, doctors’ reports, and witness statements of abuse are being ignored and even punished by the Church. This is unacceptable.

  31. LaJean Carruth says:

    We often quote D&C 64:10 on forgiveness, less often v. 11, but rarely the following verses, yet all scriptures are to be read in context. While v. 10 and 11 deal with forgiveness, v. 12-13 clearly teach that the Lord requires us to hold perpetrator/sinner/person causing hurt responsible for his/her actions, that holding someone responsible for their actions is totally consistent with forgiveness:
    D&C 64:10-14
    10 I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.
    11 And ye ought to say in your hearts—let God judge between me and thee, and reward thee according to thy deeds.
    12 And him that repenteth not of his sins, and confesseth them not, ye shall bring before the church, and do with him as the scripture saith unto you, either by commandment or by revelation.
    13 And this ye shall do that God may be glorified—not because ye forgive not, having not compassion, but that ye may be justified in the eyes of the law, that ye may not offend him who is your lawgiver—
    14 Verily I say, for this cause ye shall do these things.

    Forgiving someone can help remove the anger from our heart, but not the consequences of an act, especially a serous injury, emotional or physical. Forgiving someone is something we can do, often with great effort, over time; repenting, making restitution, taking the just consequences of the action, are actions we cannot do for the perpetrator – our forgiveness does not mean they have changed and are safe and will not hurt us or anyone else,. As the Lord makes clear in v. 11-13 above, our forgiveness does not in any way relieve the perpetrator of the responsibility for his/her actions. Sometimes pressing charges against someone is the only way to protect not only ourselves but others from their behavior, and can be the best thing we could ever do for the perpetrator himself/herself.

  32. I was sexually abused by a ward member as a young child. The bishop and other ward leaders at the time counseled my parents to forgive and forget. I’m very grateful that my parents ignored that advice, pressed charges, and saw my abuser convicted.

    When I think about that time I can hardly remember, oddly I find it easy to forgive and have sympathy for the abuser. He was guilty, yes, but he was also a young man from an imperfect home. He also paid the price the state felt was fitting for his crime. I hope he learned from his punishment. However, I haven’t yet found it possible (decades later) to forgive the leaders who counseled silence. They were poor representatives for the One they represented, and they have not been made accountable for their actions (yet). Had they prevailed, it’s impossible to know how many others would have been harmed or, at least, what additional harm I might have suffered.

    I have had many faithful, loving, and right-minded leaders since then, but I learned early the lesson that trust must be earned, even by those who have authority over us. Thank you, Rachael, for sharing your experience and starting this conversation.

  33. Thanks Rachel. Fantastic. Your courage and insight are just incredible. You’re an inspiration. (And this is the most praise I’ve given in a long time – usually I’m on the cynical side!)

  34. Thank you so much for this important piece of writing, and for the work you are doing.

  35. Rachael says:

    Mae, what happened to you should never have happened, and my heart goes out to you. I am so proud of your parents for making the right decision, even if it meant disregarding their bishop’s advice. In doing so, they protected you and untold others. I love your idea that trust must be earned. I think Mormons in general are a very trusting people and that makes it easier for predators to groom victims and to get away with their crimes.

    Right now, Utah has the highest rate of childhood sexual abuse in the nation and has embarrassingly high levels of rape as well (while we’re lower than the national average for every other form of violence, we are consistently higher than the national average for sexual assault.) Since pedophiles and rapists tend to be repeat offenders, just think of how much we could curtail those awful statistics if everyone were to behave as your parents did and immediately report sexual offenders to the police.

  36. Thank you so much for this powerful post. It was very well written and added clarity to my thoughts on the subject. I’d like to share a great video that illustrates some of the illogical judgements people can put on rape victims. https://youtu.be/Op14XhETfBw I really hope to see a change in our society about this topic.

  37. Rachael, after reading your excellent post and these comments, I’m realizing the burden of these principles of forgiveness, justice, etc. you must carry. Not only to the perpetrator but also those 5 priesthood leaders. Such a weight. Have you considered contacting the priesthood leaders and educating them as to how they wronged you? It would give them the opportunity to seek your forgiveness and hopefully give them pause the next time they are counseling a victim. I ache for you to obtain some justice for what was done to you.

  38. seerofpolicy says:

    I am so sorry to read of these accounts of abuse and the actions of local leaders. I have been feeling for a long time that the problems are structural.

    Every organization needs to decide how much legal risk it assumes. It is just a fact that the church is making the following choices:
    1) never directly help victims (See 2014 Utah Supreme Court decision) –> avoid legal duty to do so. –> so if a bishop doesn’t help a victim, the church can’t be held responsible and won’t act, because it doesn’t have that kind of relationship with members.
    2) not directly inform bishops of policy, that is up to the stake president (another untrained person) –> avoid legal duty related to training –> so if a bishop isn’t aware of the policies and there is an active abuser in the ward it is not the church’s responsibility.
    3) make Bishop calling the helpline optional –> avoid legal duty to make sure bishops use the helpline (See 2014 Utah Supreme court decision) –> so if a bishop doesn’t call the helpline, the probability of illegal actions by bishop go up and the victim has no recourse or guarantee.
    4) provide little prevention training to bishops, not allow bishops to use helpine related to prevention (only for known offfenders) (bishops only get the counsel in the manual to “do all they can to prevent abuse” and to have 2 deep in primary, it is not a training that helps them assess and identify potential problems and patterns) –> avoid taking legal duties related to prevention –> the local result is that often unaware local leaders miss warning signs until it is too late.
    5) make abusers sign a document promising things related to contact with children –> make it so the liability is on the abuser and not on the church to provide effective on-site monitoring of abusers –> the result is that known abusers are sometimes allowed by local leaders to have access to children, but the church may be covered, since the abuser signed that agreement.

    Everyone here should remember that to the institutional church we are just donors and we don’t have any influence on policy. The people who say “the church should do this” and “the church should do that” don’t realize that the church is very, very experienced. Their lawyers know about many thousands of cases of abuse in the church and they are very confident that their legal strategy is sound and the fact that victims can or may be helped by local leaders is enough for them.

    What many here want (kids to be safe and to be reliably helped) and what the church wants most of all (the church’s assets to be safe) are incompatible given liability laws. Local leaders can get educated and put proactive, high-quality education and training in place. I think the church would be happy about that, but they don’t want to assume the risk of doing it at the institutional level.

    So things won’t change until legal decisions or new laws make the church change.

  39. RockiesGma says:

    This is the finest article I’ve ever read in all my years on this subject. I’m sorry for what you’ve endured Rachael, including the emotional “rape” from leaders. This article should be an addendum to the Church Handbook of Instruction. It should be read and re-read often by those called as judges in Israel. And it wouldn’t hurt for Ward council members to do likewise. Even all folks.

    God bless you, Rachael. You’ve risen from the ashes to gift us great wisdom. Glory that.

  40. Rachael says:

    RockiesGma, Maybee, Asmae, Tb, and so many others. Your comments of concern, love, support and encouragement have brought tears to my eyes. It means so much to me to be part of a community with so much love to share. Thank you!

  41. DariaMorgan6407 says:

    After reading some of the comments left for this article and in conjunction with other similar articles that I have read, I am very deeply confused by something. Why are these rapes or sexual abuse being reported to a Bishop at all? It is not the responsibility except in the most peripheral of ways for a Bishop to be involved when it comes to a rape. The most he can really do is refer you to the proper authorities.

    I am thinking that perhaps that the women who were placed on probation after a rape were put on probation because the very fact that they reported to their Bishop rather than the appropriate authority “signaled” to the Bishop that she was reporting sexual misconduct rather than sexual abuse. Some of them may have felt that if it had really been a rape, she would have reported to the police instead of him but that because she is reporting to him, whose responsibility is taking confessions not police reports, it must mean it was really sexual misconduct.

    I am not saying this assumption is right, I am just really, really, really not understanding why you would choose your Bishop over the appropriate authority. I think there is a lot of confusion in our Church about what the role of a Bishop really is. They are not doctors, lawyers, therapists, or police. They’re are not even really very good sources of theological philosophy because they are a lay clergy. In many other religions, clergy are required to not only have degrees in theology but training in counseling. In our Church any man can serve as a Bishop regardless of education or training- but that’s because if we need a doctor, lawyer, or therapist we are meant to go to a doctor, lawyer, or therapist, not our Bishop.

    As for those the author says encouraged her to forgive without pursuing legal actions, have clearly only read part of their scriptures- or haven’t even read their scriptures and are just relying on the “Mormon way” of doing things. The scriptures counsel us how to handle these situations:
    (except in the case of a violent offender you should never confront them alone. That’s why you get the police, not a bishop involved.)

    15 ¶Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.

    16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.

    17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.

    No where in here does it say to just let it go (a better term than forgiveness but forgiveness is a process.)

  42. DariaMorgan6407, I can’t speak for others. But when I was raped at 16 I had literally just heard in conference Elder Richard G. Scott’s talk to the abused found here: https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1992/04/healing-the-tragic-scars-of-abuse?lang=eng&_r=1.

    In the talk, Elder Scott says repeatedly that our first source of counsel and healing (after the Savior) should be our bishops or priesthood leaders. He also says that we should only consider therapy under extreme circumstances. Here are some of the quotes that led me to make the decision to talk to my bishop:

    “In justice, and to compensate, the Lord has provided a way for you to overcome the destructive results of others’ acts against your will. That relief comes by applying eternal truths with priesthood assistance.”

    “There is available to you a priesthood leader, normally a bishop, at times a member of the stake presidency. They can build a bridge to greater understanding and healing. Joseph Smith taught: “A man can do nothing for himself unless God direct him in the right way; and the Priesthood is for that purpose.”’

    “Talk to your bishop in confidence. His calling allows him to act as an instrument of the Lord in your behalf. He can provide a doctrinal foundation to guide you to recovery. An understanding and application of eternal law will provide the healing you require. He has the right to be inspired of the Lord in your behalf. He can use the priesthood to bless you.”

    “When abuse is extreme, he can help you identify appropriate protection and professional treatment consistent with the teachings of the Savior.”

    “You need to understand the principles which will bring healing. I repeat, most often that comes through an understanding priesthood leader who has inspiration and the power of the priesthood to bless you.”

    “Likewise, the repair of damage inflicted by abuse should be done privately, confidentially, with a trusted priesthood leader and, where needed, the qualified professional he recommends.”

    “Please, don’t suffer more. Ask now for the Lord to help you. (See Morm. 9:27; Moro. 7:26, 33.) Decide now to talk to your bishop.”

    I hope that you can have compassion on those of us who chose, or who may yet choose, to go to our bishops first for abuse or sexual assault. Many of us were taught that the bishop’s office would be a place of healing and succor, many of us went in order to be obedient to the counsel of our General Authorities.

    Now, with the perspective of time, of course I agree with you that ideally, police should be contacted prior to speaking to a bishop. I also think that a good therapist needs to be found in *all* sexual abuse/assault cases, not just the extreme ones, and that generally speaking, a really good therapist can do so much more for an individual’s healing from abuse than a really good bishop can. But you must keep in mind that I didn’t know then what I know now.

  43. I also disagree with your suggestion that the mere presence of a person seeking counsel “signals” to the bishop that a sin needs to be repented of. You must keep in mind that a bishop has many duties, beyond confession, as he minsters to the ward. If a person was to go to the bishop and say, “Someone robbed our house last night. I feel unsafe now, I’m not sure what I should do legally, and our family might need the ward’s support as we get through this,” a bishop is not going to say, “Okay, well let’s get you started on the repentance process.” There will not be any victim blaming for the robbery. Further, the bishop will not take the mere fact that someone has come to him seeking counsel as a sign of sin.

    But rape is a different sort of thing. Because it has a sexual component, too often, bishops may buy into the rape myths that would describe rape as sex that has gone too far, or that someone later regrets, rather than a crime of dominance and power. Because people want to believe that safety can be bought with the right behavior, people tend to want to blame the victim of sexual crimes. (Google “Just World Theory” for more on this.)

    Aside from the rape myths and cognitive biases that generally drive victim blaming, we also have some damaging LDS cultural traditions that might influence a bishop’s faulty thinking about sexual assault. Holding women responsible for men’s thoughts with respect to modesty comes to mind.

    Some bishops may even put rape victims through the repentance process because they’ve been explicitly counseled to do so. They take Richard G. Scott at his word that it is part of their duty in counseling rape victims to help them determine their degree of responsibility:

    “At some point in time, however, the Lord may prompt a victim to recognize a degree of responsibility for abuse. Your priesthood leader will help you asses your responsibility so that, if needed, it can be addressed. Otherwise the seeds of guilt will remain and sprout bitter fruit. ”

    The last thing a rape or abuse survivor needs, when they are already blaming themselves unnecessarily, is to be told by their priesthood leaders that they have a degree of responsibility in their abuse. This idea is so damaging and must be stopped, both at the BYU Honor Code Office and at the Bishop’s Office. Moreover, it should never be taught from the pulpit. There is no healing that comes from such cruel behavior, only a deepening of wounds.

  44. ““At some point in time, however, the Lord may prompt a victim to recognize a degree of responsibility for abuse. Your priesthood leader will help you asses your responsibility so that, if needed, it can be addressed. Otherwise the seeds of guilt will remain and sprout bitter fruit. ”

    How has this not gotten “lost” in the internet? I remember being disturbed at 12 when I first heard this talk during GC. But am more disturbed that it still exists. *heavy sigh*

    Thank your for sharing this Rachel. It has really helped clarify for me, the distinction between the delicate balance of denial/forgiveness and hopefully I will be able to more fully articulate my rationale to others in future discussions.


  45. pconnornc says:

    A couple of other quotes (and expanding) from Elder Scott that might better represent the spirit of his message:

    “I solemnly testify that when another’s acts of violence, perversion, or incest hurt you terribly, against your will, you are not responsible and you must not feel guilty. You may be left scarred by abuse, but those scars need not be permanent. In the eternal plan, in the Lord’s timetable, those injuries can be made right as you do your part.”

    “If you are now or have in the past been abused, seek help now. Perhaps you distrust others and feel that there is no reliable help anywhere. Begin with your Eternal Father and his beloved Son, your Savior. Strive to comprehend their commandments and follow them. They will lead you to others who will strengthen and encourage you. There is available to you a priesthood leader, normally a bishop, at times a member of the stake presidency. They can build a bridge to greater understanding and healing.”

    “The victim must do all in his or her power to stop the abuse. Most often, the victim is innocent because of being disabled by fear or the power or authority of the offender. At some point in time, however, the Lord may prompt a victim to recognize a degree of responsibility for abuse. Your priesthood leader will help assess your responsibility so that, if needed, it can be addressed. Otherwise the seeds of guilt will remain and sprout into bitter fruit. Yet no matter what degree of responsibility, from absolutely none to increasing consent, the healing power of the atonement of Jesus Christ can provide a complete cure. (See D&C 138:1–4.) Forgiveness can be obtained for all involved in abuse. (See A of F 1:3.) Then comes a restoration of self-respect, self-worth, and a renewal of life.”

  46. Elder Scott means well. He always did! But the first sentences of that second paragraph are so problematic it’s hard to know where to start.

  47. pconnornc says:

    I also think Elder Scott’s talk, April 1992, was also a reflection of current events. During this time it seems that “restored” or “recovered” memories was somewhat en vogue. It is well documented that though sometimes this was helpful, it is also well documented that at times “memories” were fabricated during the process. In that context, some of his comments might seem more appropriate. Like:

    “I caution you not to participate in two improper therapeutic practices that may cause you more harm than good. They are: Excessive probing into every minute detail of your past experiences, particularly when this involves penetrating dialogue in group discussion; and blaming the abuser for every difficulty in your life.

    While some discovery is vital to the healing process, the almost morbid probing into details of past acts, long buried and mercifully forgotten, can be shattering. There is no need to pick at healing wounds to open them and cause them to fester. The Lord and his teachings can help you without destroying self-respect.

    There is another danger. Detailed leading questions that probe your past may unwittingly trigger thoughts that are more imagination or fantasy than reality. They could lead to condemnation of another for acts that were not committed. While likely few in number, I know of cases where such therapy has caused great injustice to the innocent from unwittingly stimulated accusations that were later proven false. Memory, particularly adult memory of childhood experiences, is fallible. Remember, false accusation is also a sin.”

  48. pconnornc says:

    Steve – I think you may have been referencing a different sentence, as the 1st sentence of the 2nd paragraph says “If you are now or have in the past been abused, seek help now.”

    If it is the 1st of the 3rd – “The victim must do all in his or her power to stop the abuse”, yes – it is wise counsel, but can be overly simplistic and create guilt or despair for the abused.

    Like he said at the beginning, “I would prefer a private setting to discuss this sensitive subject and ask that the Holy Spirit help us both that you may receive the relief of the Lord from the cruelty that has scarred your life.”

    It is easy to misconstrue (or poorly communicate) what is meant. Even more, even apostolic counsel is not a one size fits all proposition.

  49. As well meaning as his talk was, I feel confused that he would include a paragraph about victims possibly recognizing their own responsibility for abuse. I am not sure how that is helpful as abuse by it’s very nature is nonconsensual. Even if a child totally consents they are of course not capable of consent and not responsible for it at all. All abuse, rape, and sexual assault is non consensual by definition! And the implication that guilt following abuse is linked to sin on the victims part is in my opinion totally false and very hurtful. Feeling guilt and shame and like the abuse is somehow thier fault are some of the most painful results of abuse. Even implying to a victim that guilty feelings are from responsibilty not repented of is simply not true and not helpful and seems to totally discount his earlier statement that victims should not feel guilty. I dont question that the spirit of the talk was meant to be kind and helpful, but it doesnt stop his statements from being damaging to those who have already suffered so much, nor does is stop his statements from leading bishops to possibly believe it is part of their responsibility to help victims assess their responsibility and that if victims are feeling guilty repentance may be the answer instead of reassuring them that IT WASNT THEIR FAULT. That is the truth and the basis for beginning to heal. I wish that was the only thing being preached at the pulpit for those so in need of love and healing.

  50. So well said Sarah. Thank you for articulating what I feel so often.

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