Holding An Abuser Accountable

With the latest news story about Joseph L. Bishop, the former MTC president accused of sexually assaulting women serving missions, there have been a lot of discussions in online forums, including many women who’ve shared personal experiences of going to leaders for help when they were victims of assault, only to be told that the leader could not or would not pursue any disciplinary action against their attacker. In some cases, the individuals they accused went on to assault others. Given that the church is firmly on record as being against any abuse, in very strongly worded terms, even considering it as an impediment to entrance to the temple, how do these things happen as often as I’ve heard about them?

I have known many LDS women in my lifetime who were sexually abused, sometimes by an older relative or parent, often by  a spouse, sometimes by another lay member of the church, and even occasionally by church leaders or someone with authority over them in the church. I have very seldom heard this type of story in which the woman felt heard and understood by her leaders or in which she felt that the actions taken by leaders were sufficiently sympathetic and appropriate or that justice was served. Many (but not all) of these women have left the church as a result of their abuse and subsequent treatment at the hands of church leaders, making it all too easy for church members to dismiss them as faithless or lacking in credibility or to believe that their cases were exceptions, that only a few bad actors were responsible (and they were!), to continue to believe the old trope that the Church is perfect, but the members are not.

Recently I was discussing a friend’s situation with some Mormon women in the wake of the Rob Porter scandal. I commented that there were so so many women who’d been abused, and it was hard to fathom how this continued to happen. I have met LDS women at BYU, roommates, mission companions, women in my wards, and women I’ve worked with, who were sexually or otherwise abused. In the group of women I was talking with, three of the other women were surprised as they said they didn’t know any women who were abused. I quickly pointed out that it was a statistical impossibility that they didn’t know any; for whatever reason, others hadn’t confided their abuse to them. If you don’t know anyone who was abused, well, you do. Yes, you do.

I remember one of my roommates at BYU telling me very matter-of-factly about her father’s sexual abuse that started when she was 13. He was a former bishop. She sought help from her home bishop when she became an adult, and was not taken seriously because her mother sided with her father (as many mothers do in these cases, unable to process what’s happening in their own family; denial is easier). Her parents vilified her to other church members and the new bishop as crazy and prone to making up stories. As most victims of sexual assault, she suffered from bouts of depression, anxiety and promiscuity–all of which made her look less credible to others, particularly to male church leaders. In reality, these things were symptoms of her father’s long-term abuse. She told one BYU bishop of her sexual promiscuity as a cry for help, saying in despair, “Nothing matters anyway. Men can just do whatever they want to me, and the Church doesn’t care anyway. What’s the difference?” She was disfellowshipped by him. Her story is all too typical.

So, when is an accused abuser subject to church discipline? According to the Church Handbook of Instruction (Vol. 1 for leaders) [1] in section 6.7.2:

When a Disciplinary Council May Be Necessary

Serious Transgression

. . . It includes (but is not limited to) attempted murder, forcible rape, sexual abuse, spouse abuse, intentional serious physical injury of others, adultery, fornication, homosexual relations (especially sexual cohabitation), deliberate abandonment of family responsibilities . . .

Note the use of “may be,” meaning that even if there is a serious transgression, a disciplinary council is not mandatory. There is an exception, even for Serious Transgressions, for Passage of Time, although no specific statute of limitations is spelled out. It is apparently left up to the local leader’s judgment:

Passage of Time

If a member voluntarily confesses a serious transgression that was committed long ago and his faithfulness and service in the intervening years have demonstrated full reformation and repentance, a disciplinary council often is unnecessary (see “Time between Transgression and Confession” in 6.10.6).

As a quick aside, the referred passage (6.10.6) says:

Time between Transgression and Confession

If a transgression occurred many years before it was confessed, the presiding officer carefully considers the intervening circumstances. If the sin was not repeated and the member has lived righteously in the interim, his conduct during the intervening time can show that he has forsaken the sin. In this instance, confession may complete rather than start the process of repentance.

Rules are tighter for higher positions, predatory behavior, patterns, and publicly known sins. as found on the next page:

Serious Transgression While Holding a Prominent Church Position

A disciplinary council must be held for a member who commits a serious transgression while holding one of the following prominent Church positions: Area Seventy; temple, mission, or stake president; patriarch; or bishop (but not branch president). The term serious transgression is defined in 6.7.2.

Transgressor Who Is a Predator

A disciplinary council must be held for a member who commits a serious transgression that shows him to be a predator with tendencies that present any kind of serious threat to other persons.

Pattern of Serious Transgressions

A disciplinary council must be held for a member who demonstrates a pattern of serious transgressions, especially if prior transgressions have resulted in Church discipline.

Serious Transgression That is Widely Known

A disciplinary council must be held for a member who commits a serious transgression (as defined in 6.7.2) that is widely known.

Exceptional circumstances for sins that are being ruled on in a criminal trial (p. 66):

Conduct Examined in Criminal or Civil Courts

Normally a disciplinary council is not held to consider conduct being examined by a criminal trial court until the court has reached a final judgment. In some cases it may also be appropriate to delay disciplinary proceedings until the period of appeal has expired or the appeal has been rejected.

Criminal charges may or may not necessitate Church discipline. Acts that constitute serious crimes under local law normally would be considered serious transgressions. . . . Criminal charges that have serious moral overtones may warrant Church discipline even if a criminal court dismisses these charges for technical reasons.

If we have zero tolerance for sexual abuse, why do we tolerate so much of it? In the case of my friend, a victim of incest, one reason she was not believed is that her parents sided against her to minimize embarrassment and to avoid dealing with the bigger problem: a sexual predator father. From the handbook, section 6.10.3:

Communicating with Aggrieved Victims

When there is an aggrieved victim (such as for incest, child abuse, or spouse abuse), the presiding officer of the upcoming disciplinary council contacts the victim’s current bishop or stake president. If the victim’s current bishop or stake president already knows about the situation, the two leaders determine whether it would be helpful and appropriate for the victim to be given an opportunity to provide a written or oral statement about the known or alleged misconduct and how it has affected the victim and his or her family.

Any interview with an aggrieved victim for this purpose is conducted by his or her current bishop or stake president. Any inquiries about a victim who is under 18 years of age are made through the child’s parent(s) or legal guardian(s). Great care must be taken to avoid causing further trauma, especially with a victim of sexual or physical abuse.

For obvious reasons, the abusive parent of a minor is not going to be a very keen facilitator for that child’s accusations against them.

I have also heard many stories from women who reported rape or sexual assault to a bishop who were told that without a criminal conviction, the bishop’s hands were tied, even when the victim had not filed a police report and did not intend to file one. This is simply not true. The accusation can be based on either a confession or testimony (either written or verbal) of a witness to the misconduct. A victim has witnessed the misconduct firsthand!

Here’s what the handbook actually says in section 6.10.4:

Procedures of the Council 

If the member has confessed, the presiding officer asks for consent to use the confession as evidence in the council. Information received in a member’s confession cannot be used as evidence in a disciplinary council without the member’s consent. When necessary, the presiding officer attempts to persuade the member to give this consent. He explains that refusal reflects a lack of contrition and repentance, preventing justice and mercy from operating fully for the good of the transgressor.

A lack of consent to use a confession as evidence does not prevent a disciplinary council from proceeding on the basis of other evidence. Also, the presiding officer can still impose informal discipline on the basis of the confession, even if the member does not give consent for the confession to be used in the council.

So what is this other evidence if the accused does not give consent to use his confession? The most common is witness statements, including the accuser. The procedures in the same section outline how evidence is introduced in the proceeding.

3. If the member admits to the misconduct, proceed to number 5 below. If he denies the reported misconduct, present evidence of it or ask someone else to do so. This evidence may include the written or oral statements of witnesses, reliable documents, and the substance of the member’s confession (if he has confessed and given consent). The member must be given the opportunity to question any witnesses who give evidence against him. (If witnesses are unable to attend, see “Party or Witness Unable to Attend” in 6.10.12).

4. If the member desires to present evidence in his behalf, invite him to bring in witnesses one at a time, submit other relevant evidence, comment on the evidence, and make any other statements he desires.

Witnesses should be Church members unless the presiding officer has determined in advance that a nonmember witness will respect the purposes and procedures of a Church disciplinary council. Witnesses wait in a separate room until they give their evidence. The presiding officer asks them not to talk with each other about the matter either before or after they testify.

5. Ask questions of the member or witnesses in an orderly, polite manner, avoiding arguments. . . .

According to this section, even if the witness is unable to attend, their evidence can be presented in the council.

Party of Witness Unable to Attend

If a party or essential witness is unable to attend a disciplinary council, the presiding officer invites him to submit a written statement. Such a statement may be considered in evidence. When necessary, the party or witness may be questioned further, in writing or orally.

Preserving Evidence

If a witness will not likely be available for a possible future disciplinary council, the presiding officer invites him to write his testimony for use when needed.

As I’ve thought about these issues, I couldn’t help but think of another woman in my previous ward who got up in the wake of the highly publicized Steubenville assault and shared as part of her testimony that day how sad it was that this girl had ruined those boys’ lives. I was gobsmacked that anyone could say such a thing let alone say it over the pulpit. I was doubly surprised that it was a woman, one with a daughter, defending sexual assault and blaming its victim. I suspect this woman has also “never known” anyone who was sexually assaulted because who would tell her about it?

Her attitude is, unfortunately, all too common in our patriarchal church. Whether stated as openly as she did or implied, when we reflexively side with the accused (he had a scholarship! he had a promising future!) and blame the victim for being imperfect (she was at a party! she was drunk! she wore a short skirt! she was attractive!), we are continuing to create a culture in which victims are scrutinized while perpetrators are excused, where charges are not taken seriously, and women in general are not treated as credible. We don’t see it because we don’t want to see it.

We neither have eyes to see nor ears to hear.

Most of the women I know who were sexually abused or assaulted and who had unsatisfactory experiences with their bishops were unaware of what the Church Handbook of Instructions says, and how would they not be? This information is not public to non-leaders, and because there are no women allowed to sit in disciplinary councils, they don’t have access to this information. By contrast, abusers in leadership positions do have access to this information which spells out for them how to avoid being held accountable by the church.

So what can women do if they’ve been abused and feel that their complaint is being dismissed?

  • Be aware that a conviction is not required for the accused to be held accountable in a Church disciplinary council.
  • Be aware that even if the abuser is not convicted in a criminal court, a disciplinary council can still be convened for misconduct with moral overtones such as rape, incest, domestic abuse, and sexual assault.
  • Offer to give evidence in the disciplinary council. There is power in facing your abuser.
  • Do not accept excuses that contradict what the handbook actually says.
  • If the bishop demurs, demand to know why the accused will not be disciplined. Ask the bishop or stake president to read aloud from the handbook. Do not accept their word for it that a council cannot be convened without a conviction.
  • Pursue a police investigation for criminal activities. This may delay the disciplinary procedures and may be unlikely to result in a conviction, but it can still give a victim a sense of regained empowerment.

Of course, none of this will guarantee justice. Knowing your options improves the odds, though.

[1] This is from the 2010 edition which is online. The 2017 edition is not available online.


  1. Amen and amen!

  2. Sadly as these issues come on I find the sexual assault issues being my tipping point. I never have been assaulted, but the tone deaf, dismissive nature that the most recent stories have brought out have tarnished what remaining view I had of the church. Individual wards and members I still love. I love their hopeful devotion to families, to a God they love, to their ancestors sacrifice, and more. But the institution has now bottomed out for me.

    That is sad, because well meaning leaders no longer have any impact on me. I will interact with leaders as people not their titles. I am not a child. To be treated as one. To be dismissed. To have instructions hidden. To not value me, leaves me the only recourse but to lean out. Back off. Stand alone. I had hoped a different world would exist. But it won’t.

    Thanks for the thorough handbook insights.

  3. I keep thinking about how for years we taught the YW that the Lamanite daughters, when raped, were deprived of their virtue. And how wrong it is that we taught that, especially in defining “virtue” as “virginity.” Well this adds another dimension to that: virtue is often defined power, and we too often promote powerlessness within our eccesisatical support system for rape victims. This can then become cyclical. We just must do better at empowering victims on a systematic level.

  4. One point that sometimes gets lost in these discussions is that while the decision to convene a disciplinary council often results, as a practical matter, in some form of discipline, the decision to convene a council is not a decision to impose church discipline; it’s a decision to take evidence and formally consider on that evidence whether formal discipline should be imposed.

    That’s important because you sometimes hear people saying that we should not convene a council unless and until there is evidence of wrongdoing in addition to an accusation because we should hold people accused of misconduct innocent until proven guilty.

    Setting aside the issues of whether a presumption of innocence should apply in church discipline and what standard of proof is necessary to overcome that presumption, the issue of whether there is conclusive proof is a consideration for whether to conclude that the person should be disciplined, but I don’t think it’s correct to say that we need proof (at least not beyond a plausibly credible accusation) for the decision to convene a council in the first place. Even if there’s ultimately not enough proof to impose discipline, it can be freeing to air the accusations before a group of men (yes, they’re all men) that have convened to listen to the story and take it seriously.

    Whether to convene a council is obviously a decision that ought to be made with discernment and by the spirit. By nature, I’m very much inclined to err on the side of mercy, but I think that tendency can have serious unintended consequences in cases of abuse and we have to guard against that.

  5. Tiberius says:

    The fact of the matter is that we live in a world about a third of men indicate on surveys that there is some likelihood that they would rape a woman if they knew they could get away with it (google scholar “rape proclivity”), and about one in ten men admit on anonymous surveys to having raped someone at some point in their life.

    The fact that these problems are so ubiquitous across society, whether we’re dealing with Mormonism or organized atheism, suggests that it’s basic psychology more than anything institutionally unique to Mormonism at play here. We want rapists to be sniveling psychopaths, not the next door neighbor who spontaneously mowed your lawn for you while you were sick, but increasingly we’re realizing that Mister Rogers next door is in fact a rapist, and for a lot of people it doesn’t compute. So yes, I agree with a lot of the institutional suggestions for working against this natural tendency, but once people start using these issues as just another cudgel to attach the supposedly uniquely dysfunctional patriarchal, homophobic, racist Church that needs a complete overhaul from the ground up, I stop paying attention and I’m pretty sure that the higher ups do as well.

    For some reason the first one didn’t go through, so apologies if later on in the day this comment goes through and duplicates.

  6. Angela C says:

    Tiberius: Nobody here is suggesting that the Church is uniquely dysfunctional on these issues, so if you tired of listening and decided to stop (or god forbid, the higher ups have done so), that’s your moral failing (and theirs). What a luxury to be able to tune out victims! The point of the post is to help victims who also happen to be LDS so that they know how to navigate an opaque system. Similar posts could have been written for a victim navigating the opacity of the policy department or a campus security team.

  7. Sorry, I wasn’t suggesting that the OP was saying as much; it was more in anticipation of the comment thread which, yes, does more often than not veer into that territory. The OP was precise and clear, which is therefore much more useful in terms of actionable possibilities than the type of response I was alluding to.

  8. The $64,000 Answer says:

    Whenever I speak about clerical sexual offending, I urge people to look beyond the particularities of their own denomination or religion and to see how others, whose structures, doctrines or theologies may differ radically, nonetheless respond—or fail to respond—in extraordinarily similar ways. I was disappointed to note that on a previous thread devoted to this topic, which now has more than a hundred and fifty posts, few if any contributors seemed willing to do so. Instead, each faith community when confronted with this problem seems determined to replicate the patterns, and repeat the mistakes, of all the others. This is exacerbated by a high degree of ignorance within religious circles of the dynamics of sexual violence in general, a field on which an enormous literature exists, but in which there are still very significant gaps in our knowledge and which at present is rapidly in flux.

    Speaking as an outsider (Catholic), it appears to me that relatively few of the LDS Church’s difficulties in grappling with this problem are particular to that church, and the solutions likewise are unlikely to be found by modifying institutional practices alone—however seemingly radical those modifications may be. Changing what is asked in temple recommend interviews; making the Pence Rule mandatory for all interactions between two members not of the same sex; requiring criminal background checks of everyone holding office in the Church or working with young people; even extending the priesthood (and, for that matter, more senior ecclesiastical ranks) to women—in and of themselves these may be good or bad things. As a non-Mormon I would not presume to offer anyone here unsolicited advice on them. What can nonetheless be said with a high degree of confidence, taking on board the recent history of everything from Catholicism to Anglicanism to Unitarian Universalism, is that none of them is inconsistent with a state of affairs in which victims of sexual violence, of both sexes, remain almost as numerous, and stigmatized and ostracized almost as badly, as they are now.

    That is not to say that these initiatives are fruitless, or that some of them, at least, ought not to be tried. But it is to say that the answer, which I take to be an environment in which dramatically fewer such crimes take place and those who are offended against are dramatically better treated, is not to be found primarily by those means. Rather, it depends upon a willingness of faith communities to regard opposing this kind of evil, and ministering (in the broadest possible sense) to those affected by it, as something that is basic and fundamental to their mission, and publicly declared to be so. We take it for granted that our churches should be active in the fight against poverty; that they speak and act against racism; that they support immigrants and refugees; that they aid the elderly and the homeless. When it comes to victims of sexual violence, who are as numerous as some of these other categories and whose needs are as acute, the Christian and non-Christian churches have almost nothing to say, and most of what they do say is harmful. Nobody who has suffered it would be well advised to approach anyone holding office in her or his respective faith community for assistance, or even basic understanding.

    We do not have a vocabulary for addressing this question from a standpoint of faith—as professed believers, upholding a particular vision of the human person. We steadfastly deny the necessity of developing one. Until we change our minds about that, procedural reforms, however excellent in themselves, will achieve—and have already been shown to achieve—much less than their advocates hope.

  9. swocseattle says:

    The conclusion I came to after reading this post is that women (and men) in the church need a “church lawyer” to help them through the process. Someone want to start a business?

  10. Deborah Christensen says:

    The conclusion I came to after reading this post is that women (and men) in the church need a “church lawyer” to help them through the process. Someone want to start a business?
    (oops wrong account)

  11. The Other Brother Jones says:

    I think we need a better definition of repentance. The church’s own Addiction recovery manual(basically the AA 12 steps) requires the addict(rapist) to ask for forgiveness from those has has harmed. This is not the first step, but one which comes after serious reflection and a long term change of behavior.

    In cases where a priesthood holder is confessing, even after some time has passed, he should be required to complete the steps in the manual, including that step. (Note that is may be harmful to the victim to bring it up. All cases are different. These things must be considered)

    I think it is far too easy to tell a Bishop you are sorry and will never do t again, and too easy for the Bishop to believe and let it go at that. There must be a level where more is required of the penitent.

  12. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    There must be a level where more is required of the penitent.

    Amen. We rip on evangelicals for offering “cheap grace,” yet we seem to offer awfully cheap repentance for rather grievous sins against other people.

  13. I wish that local church leadership (bishoprics and rs presidencies) would opt to spend more lessons and firesides on victims rights and how to report abuse, and fewer on chastity and marriage.

  14. Amen Jen

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    Angela, I’m a lifelong member of the Church, but have never held the kind of calling that comes with access to Handbook volume 1. I had rattling around in my head the assumption that if there are criminal proceedings, the Church just sort of outsources any conclusion of the matter to those proceedings. Thank you for going through the actual HB provisions and demonstrating that that is not necessarily the case. The HB provisions look pretty reasonable to me, but when they are widely unknown or disregarded, that’s no help. I appreciated this post.

  16. My view is that the Church disciplinary system is not oriented toward punishment, or what might be referred to as “justice for the victim.” Rather, it is first interested in rehabilitation (“repentance” in religious terms), and secondarily in prevention. I believe this focus is intentional. I know it is controversial and misunderstood. Without debating the right or wrongs of the system but taking it as a given to be managed, I would make the tactical decision to set aside discussion of punishment and put my chips on prevention. “What can we do to make sure this never happens again?”

  17. Whatever definition of repentence is used, it should apply just as much to the institution as the members.

    Fix the problem. Seek restitution. Apologize.

    Do not hide the problem. Do not make excuses. Do not blame the victim.

    This should not be complicated.

  18. $64,000 Answer, I love your thoughts on this. We all need to accept and internalize the fact that authoritarian, hierarchical organizations are prone to abuse. Especially patriarchal ones. It’s built into the system. That doesn’t mean you need to abolish the system, but you do need to account for that fact. If you aren’t willing to look at these things through the lens of that power structure, you will always miss something important.

    The other big problem seems to be that conservative religions like Mormonism cling so tightly to notions of chastity and sexual repression that they can’t figure out how to also help victims of sexual assault. So anything with a sexual component of any kind gets shuffled into the same “bad” category, and there’s no one sifting through the complexity.

    If you can’t bear the evil in your own soul, you can’t stand to look at someone else’s. We need serious changes to the way we talk, think, and teach about a whole host of issues around power, consent, and sexuality.

  19. i just wanted to say, I really appreciate this forum and that we have a place to discuss this that isn’t giddy about the downfall of the church, or so “faithful” that we can’t hold predators accountable or it might make the church look bad. It’s very healing.

  20. My personal experience with church discipline (well, sorta, I guess my dad’s?) is that it’s usually nothing at all. My dad did a bad thing. He ruined our family, broke up his marriage, and was a member of the Stake Presidency at the time he did it. There was no disciplinary action. He was able to be sealed to a new wife in the temple months after his divorce, while because of the divorce my mom got “demoted” in her Temple work position. I have a strong testimony of the gospel but p much 0 testimony of the disciplinary process for the Church. I wish that weren’t the case.

  21. Do bishops/stake presidents get comprehensive training on this stuff, or does someone just hand them the Handbook and wish them luck?

    Having it in the Handbook is great, but in the moment, I don’t think most priesthood leaders pause the conversation so they can look up some references. They need to know this stuff before it comes up.

  22. nobody, really says:

    Omjs, there’s not nearly enough training. The best thing going is that secretaries and clerks are retained across Bishops ministries, so you’ve hopefully got somebody in place who knows how things have been functioning. I’ve steered discussions to the handbook more than once.

    A very smart former bishop of mine would actually assign bishopric members to study and teach a section of Handbook 1 each week during Bishopric meeting, and he made a similar assignment each week in Ward Council from Handbook 2. I can’t speak firsthand yet about stake level Bishop training meetings Those meetings do occur, though. I also know the primary job of a Stake President is to field calls from flustered and new bishops and branch presidents. If the Stake President is worth his salt, he’ll start everything off with “Well, lets check out what the Handbook has to say first.”

  23. The Other Brother Jones says:

    Mormon FTW

    “. . . we have a place to discuss this that isn’t giddy about the downfall of the church, or so “faithful” that we can’t hold predators accountable. . . “

  24. Great post.

    The instructions for disciplinary councils have developed a lot over the years. More than ever now, the Handbook’s description of those policies and procedures looks like body of legal rules. I think Deborah Christensen’s comment about legal representation for those involved has real merit. Both accused and accusers should have formal, independent advice. There are also other obvious due-process measures that we could take. If the church is going to create a body of rules for discipline, then it’s necessary to set up procedural safeguards to make sure that those rules are followed. That’s the only way to protect any legal system from being corrupted.

    I’m not sure how I feel about building an elaborate legal structure within the church, but if we’re going down that road, then we ought to do it right. A legal system without safeguards is often actively harmful.

    If taking a legalistic approach to church discipline is not the best way, then we need to reassess the whole thing. Christian’s comment about thinking through the fundamental objectives of church discipline would be a good place to start.

  25. Angela C says:

    I found the guidelines around confessions to be troubling, honestly. If an abuser has confessed, he has to further specifically agree to allow his confession to be considered in his disciplinary council; otherwise, it’s not used at all. It’s as if he didn’t confess. That feels a lot like those extra questions on your computer or phone: “Are you SURE you want to accept this upgrade or open that suspicious file?” Why are we giving abusers multiple chances to take back their confessions, and then allowing them continued unmonitored access to victims because our “hands are tied”? It feels like we are deliberately pointing out how to get off scot-free.

    And while the procedures say that it’s not intended to function like a legal court, it sure does have a lot of similar feeling to a legal court, not so much a trial by jury as a trial by judge (the system used in Singapore), with a heavy presumption of innocent until proven beyond every possible shadow of a doubt that the person is guilty.

  26. My personal explanation of why Bishops excuse behavior is because of presumed familiarity. To make it easier I’ll call the perpetrator Bob.
    The Bishop “knows” Bob. He sees Bob at church every week. Bob looks him in the eye as he shakes his hand. Every other year Bob assures the bishop in a recommend interview that everything is on the up and up. The bishop and Bob may even have had callings together and Bob never showed any sign that things weren’t right in his home or family or his relationships with others. The bishop also knows how guilt ridden he’d be if he sexually abused someone. He doesn’t see anything like what he’d expect to see in himself in Bob. Based on all this he “knows” Bob isn’t that kind of guy.
    On the other hand, the bishop doesn’t know the accuser or only knows her from a distance. He’s never worked with her in a calling. He may have interviewed her before and she never hinted that there was a problem. If she’s indulged in some risky behavior or self-medicated he has reason to be suspicious of her motives. Remember he’s seen the behavior and being human made a judgment possibly long before he’s heard anything about how Bob may have sparked the behavior.
    I’ve known a Bob. The only reason I had any, any doubts was because my wife told me she felt something was not right about him. I served on the high council with Bob. I saw Bob as a reliable member of a bishopric. Bob was a good guy, a friend. I could trust Bob.
    It later came out, because his wife found the emails, that Bob was carrying on a 20 year affair with another woman who had a husband of her own. Three bishops “knew” Bob and had assured his wife over the years that Bob was okay. One of those bishops ended up sitting outside Bob’s house as Bob’s wife told him the jig was up.
    I’m not excusing Bishops getting it wrong. Getting it wrong, however, is the most natural thing to do because “it’s Bob! You can’t mean Bob would do that? I know Bob.”
    Perhaps there should be a way to get someone who doesn’t know Bob involved early on.

  27. Deborah Christensen says:

    Ditto Loursat. I don’t like the idea of a full legal system that just burdens everyone with a ton of work. Either way we need to reevaluate and create a new system. One step to get started would be to release Handbook 1 and start discussions on topics. Really open up the current process to everyone. But I guess this is the purpose of the post.

  28. From the Church’s updated statement today (https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/statement-former-mission-president-alleged-abuse-joseph-l-bishop-march-2018) about Joseph L. Bishop: “Local leaders did not feel they could pursue church discipline for Mr. Bishop.” It’s about the local leaders’ feelings, apparently.

  29. I’ve had the experience of “he said, she said” several to times as bishop. No other evidence or witnesses. I did release individuals from their callings but didnt administer formal discipline because I was left with nothing more than my opinion and the statements of two who contradicted each other. I offered counsel, blessings, and recommendations of outside help to all. The church system is not a legal system. In other cases where I had outside witnesses and evidence formal discipline was given.

  30. Kristine says:

    “Perhaps there should be a way to get someone who doesn’t know Bob involved early on.”

    Or perhaps we could teach bishops to take Bob’s wife seriously. Perhaps we could suggest that they make the reasonable assumption that she, who lives with him, knows him better than someone who sees him once a week in his Sunday best. It is not out of the realm of possibility for men to treat women as fully human.

  31. Angela,
    Confession in private and then not in the disciplinary council is a huge red flag. I have served with multiple bishops and those who are known to have violated major rules and do not want to confess to a council have all been treated the same. No callings, and a mark on their church records. If the member moves out of the stake, their records are generally retained, which means they will not get a calling in the new ward. It is effectively probation, pending a formal council.

    The main issue with abuse is usually there is only a he said-she said level of evidence. When there is no confession, or incomplete/inaccurate confession then church discipline is not well suited at getting a fair result in the eyes of an accuser. The only way to get more evidence is likely pretty intrusive and not a favored way to operate. There are usually reluctant and amateur investigators if the bishop decides to pursue it.

    We have had accused abusers in our building from other areas in the stake. This was because the leaders did not want the accused and the supposed victim seeing each other at church. The state investigators did not pursue a court case, so the only reason for the request to attend another building was the allegation. In my state, I would not count on fantastic justice being served in the courts, but the authorities at least will do an investigation.

  32. “I cannot read a sealed book…”

    HB1 should be unsealed and open to all. Especially the most vulnerable who already suffer from an authority deficit in the church because of their gender.

    Any court that kept knowledge of rules and procedures reserved to only those in positions of power would rightly be called a Kangaroo Court.

  33. I think Bishops, High Council Members, and Stake Presidencies are under a tremendous and often unfair burden of labor, often at the time their careers are heaviest. As a woman, I have never served in one of these positions, but I imagine the process of convening a church court is uncomfortable, not to mention a ton of work and time. My dad was a Bishop (and a good one) for many years. If I were in their shoes, I would avoid convening a church court if I could help it just because I like to do the minimum possible while still feeling like I have done my duty. Convening a court for someone who denies abuse, and they always deny it, probably just doesn’t seem worth it, sadly. They probably just assume that God will work it out.

    We don’t have an entirely lay leadership. Maybe it’s time to get some professionals in here? If it’s important enough for institute, seminary, mission presidencies, general authorities to get paid, maybe we do need full time Bishops or at least stake presidencies. Then they can be trained to be judges in Israel, counselors, mess cleaner uppers, and all the other things we expect them to do.

  34. I just wanted to say, that in no way do I think that sexual assault is a small matter. I would want there to be a church court every time someone is accused. One accusation should be enough to get them barred from any calling that works with anyone vulnerable, even home teaching at the very least. Why don’t people get that women and children hate to come forward and accuse people? I swear there is a segment of society that thinks women and children love attention so much that we are out to get the men or something. I have never been assaulted, but a simple case of trying to imagine coming forward with something so devastating and private when so many people (including yourself) think you could have done something different to prevent it. No wonder people don’t come forward. Reading some reactions on BYU’s Daily universe are shocking. I wonder if they will change their tune now that it is being confirmed there are more victims, and the church is changing it’s tone? Their updated statement is so much better. It seems they actually went and read the police report and dug up another reporting of a different victim in 2010.

  35. Anonymous Today says:

    Over the last fifteen years or so I’ve watched my abusive father spend a lot of time and energy trying to use the church’s disciplinary system against his victims. He’s persuaded that my mother is violating her temple covenants to obey him and needs to be called before a church court and disciplined–and he got at least one bishop to believe that he was the victim and she was the perpetrator, although fortunately the last three or four bishops he’s approached about this seem to have been a little savvier and more able to see through his crap. My father also threatened to get a church court called against me because he believes I have not adequately forgiven him, among my many other sins.

    Abusers use the power systems and languages available to them. Religion is a powerful weapon, and if abusers can get church and God on their side–or even if they can just get victims to see God and church as backing the abusers–they inflict profound spiritual wounds.

    Frankly, I’m at a loss as to what church discipline should look like. These are tough issues, and we as a church are obviously not dealing them well. But watching my dad attempt to use church discipline to bully his victims into deeper submission and humiliation has made me painfully aware that abusers can use the systems that should protect victims to inflict a specifically spiritual kind of harm.

  36. jaxjensen says:

    Another reason that an abuser might not confess in a disciplinary council is that the high councilors can be called as witnesses in a legal proceeding. So if a confession happens there, then a those men could be called to testify that they heard him confess to it. That is why (at least in part) disciplinary councils are supposed to be held after legal proceedings have happened; to spare High Council/SP Counselors/Secretaries from being caught up in the matter at that level.

  37. Tai Trent says:

    If you seek to hold an abuser accountable you need to go to a court of law. I’m skeptical about any personal experiences posted, because everyone is biased and there is always 2 sides to every story. Is the priesthood process to prosecute or implement healing and forgiveness for the accused individual whatever process that may be.

  38. el oso: That’s good to know. Thanks for sharing that.

    Anonymous Today: Yes, this is similar to the BYU rape scandals. Abusers will use whatever systems exist to further their aims. Abusers hiding within our leadership ranks are both abusing the individuals, and also abusing the system by using it toward their own twisted objectives.

    jaxjensen: I’m not sure how they avoid testifying except that the Handbook does specifically state in section 6.10.12: “To avoid implicating the Church in legal matters to which it is not a party, leaders should avoid testifying in civil or criminal cases reviewing the conduct of members over whom they preside. For specific guidelines, see 17.1.26. That section just repeats what it says in 6.10.12 with the added caveat that leaders in the US and Canada should call the Office of General Counsel with any questions, and specifically if subpoenaed.

    Tai Trent: While I do agree that going to a court can be helpful for the victim and could (although often does not) result in justice, preventing abusers from gaining access to more victims within the church seems paramount. How do we do this if there is no disciplinary court for the things they stand accused of?

  39. The LDS church cannot protect us from evil people.

  40. The LDS church can do more than it’s currently doing, which is the subject of this discussion.

  41. jaxjensen says:

    Angela, they should try. But if summoned, they can’t just say “no thanks, I’d rather not.” But if the legal cases are settled first, then they can avoid it. So SP’s are told to hold off on disciplinary actions until legal proceedings are finished. Part of that is also the church doesn’t want to have a council and clear the guy, only to have him found guilty in the legal system, with evidence they probably can’t obtain, so it avoid that black eye as well. So how they avoid testifying is by not holding councils until afterward.

  42. Tai – the lds church has a moral obligation to do as much as possible to ensure predators are not able to use Church structure and activities to find prey and to assist and support those who have already been harmed.

  43. I don’t usually comment if I don’t have something worthwhile to add. But in this case, I have to say this is valuable, empowering information for the injured party. So well done.

  44. jaxjensen: Is there a reason that the church couldn’t hold a second disciplinary hearing if someone appears to have lied about their behavior at the first one? There may be a rule against retrying a case, but it might be worth changing if it could provide a better response to allegations of abuse.

  45. jaxjensen says:

    Andy H, I don’t know of a reason they couldn’t do that, but what is the upside for them?

    Imagine they hold a first council, with limited evidence or testimony, and extend no disciplinary action toward the person. Then a courtroom case brings to light evidence of abuse/assault/criminality/whatever. How bad does the Church look then? The black eye would be huge. The internet (including BCC) would explode with comments like “the LDS Church did nothing” and “they were only interested in protecting themselves” and “they only did something after it was made public.” And those might be true. But it’s just better for them to wait. Very few would have the patience to come on and say, “Just wait. now that they have more info they’ll do the right thing.” Those voices get drowned out by the vitriol and hatred.

    It might also be true that the church leaders didn’t have the same testimony that the courtroom did. Without subpoenaed testimony, phone records, etc etc, they didn’t have the resources to find out the whole story. WItnesses might not have wanted to tell a church they didn’t trust, or to let the accuser know exactly what they’d be saying in court at a later date.

    So they wait. After any potential legal proceedings are done, and they can assume any and all evidence has come forth they can make a better decision than afterward.

  46. jaxjensen says:

    *** make a better decision than before hand.

  47. Angela C says:

    jaxjensen: I disagree that a criminal court finding differently than a church court necessarily means a black eye. I assume people would think that evidence available in a criminal court may not always be available to a church court, especially if an investigation was ongoing. But church discipline is not the same as a criminal court, and the procedures section makes that clear. You can be found not guilty in a criminal court and still receive church discipline for the same misconduct. They can also use evidence from your criminal proceedings in a church court.

  48. jaxjensen says:

    ” I assume people would think that evidence available in a criminal court may not always be available to a church court, especially if an investigation was ongoing.” You would hope so, but I just assume that most people online don’t think, period. So I guess that is where we differ. IMO they wont think about the differences, they’ll just open the floodgates of criticism/complaint. You are right that a person could be found not guilty but still face discipline, but the church would still like to avoid the legal process by waiting until it is over.

    Honestly, I didn’t expect a discussion on this point, and don’t want to argue defending the church’s position. I just thought I’d throw out there that having High Council/SP counselors/others called as witnesses is one reason a person might be willing to confess to a Bishop or SP but not be willing to for a disciplinary council. And the church wanting them to avoid such a situation is why the church wants to hold the councils after legal proceedings have concluded.

  49. Who is going to decide if someone has repented or not? A day, a year, 80 years. It isn’t for us to determine.

  50. Tai, it might not be up to us to determine repentance, but just like a sex-offender registry-I think we have a right to know who the sex offenders are among us. Letting Joseph Bishop teach youth Sunday School (like his current calling) is probably a bad idea.

    I can imagine the Christ who threw money changers out of his temple would be okay throwing child/wife abusers and sexual predators out of his churches and temples for life. At the very least, maybe they shouldn’t work with young people again, including home teaching.
    Repentance doesn’t mean dangling meat in front of a dog. Especially when our women and children are the meat.

    No one is entitled to have a primary, home teaching, or Sunday School calling. Make them the bulletin folder for life.

    Also, abusers don’t always look like abusers. The best ones blend in and know all the right things to say, and which victims to target. Victims who don’t have strong advocates, or are already wounded souls,

  51. I don’t think church courts have to be innocent until proven guilty. For civil cases, a preponderance of evidence is enough. I think being pretty sure should be good enough for church discipline in cases of abuse. No one is getting beheaded or jailed here.

    Also interesting, those who are so afraid of the accused being wrongly convicted seem to be the type who want to keep the status quot of Bishops, stake presidents, mission presidents meeting alone with women and children and talking to them about sex and underwear. If you are never alone with a woman or child that you are not related to you will never be accused! It’s like magic.

  52. wondering says:

    My sister was raped by her boyfriend in college. They both attended the same ward. She went to her bishop and was told not to go to the police because she didn’t have enough proof for a conviction. That bishop also told her he couldn’t do anything about her rapist without proof and formal charges from the police. She took his word, moved to a new ward, and that bishop put her through a disciplinary council because she also had consensual sex between. Until I read this, I had no idea a bishop could still do something about rape without proof/conviction.

    Why is the handbook used across the board but only select people can read it?? I have the ability to look up laws and procedures if I’m dealing with the law system in my home state/country. And no one will tell me I don’t have enough spiritual clearance to read and interpret those laws.

    And this brings me to my biggest question: is a formal, shaming, disciplinary system really needed in the Church? I know it’s designed to help with repentance, and keep “bad” people out of our congregation. But I have never heard one single instance where it was actually helpful. This might be because I’m a woman and have never been on a disciplinary council. But it just seems like a broken system that is more likely to cause more trauma to victims and protect predators, than actually help people find repentance and the Savior.

    Am I wrong for thinking it’s not necessary?

  53. wondering, I have personal knowledge of 4 instances in which the Church disciplinary system was helpful — one a relative, one a good friend, one an acquaintance, one in which I was a counselor to the bishop. Those proceedings were not “shaming”. They led to disfelloshipment for a time in 2 cases, excommunication in one (subsequently rebaptized), and a limited probation in the 4th. Still, I suspect those proceedings within my knowledge may be a minority of such proceedings. In some cases, e.g. George P. Lee and Richard Lyman, I expect they are necessary. In many, I suspect they are not. I hope not to be involved with any more such proceedings. It appears from reports I’ve read that there can be quite a difference between a disciplinary proceeding as designed and as conducted. But that doesn’t mean they are never necessary or effective at facilitating or encouraging repentance or at protecting the Church and its members. I wish there were better training of all involved, more effective and appropriate oversight of such proceedings (appropriate is an important qualifier), changes to some of the related policies and especially to some leaders’ attitudes, etc. But none of the concerns I have or have heard expressed can persuade that Church disciplinary councils are never effective relative to their purposes.

  54. Thanks, wondering. I was thinking about chiming in once more on this thread, so in support of your comment:

    For a long time I’ve doubted the wisdom of our punitive system of church discipline. The extreme sanction of excommunication seems like something intended more to create harsh boundary distinctions than to help people repent. The fact that our thinking turns immediately toward excommunicating people who have sinned does not seem healthy to me.

    Mormons have an unexamined cultural belief that sanctions which cut people off from the church are simply to be expected. My best guess is that, from a sociological point of view, in the early days of the church excommunication was a necessary measure to prevent destructive power struggles within the small church community. (Does anyone know of scholarly writing on this question?) In a mature church, routinely excommunicating or disfellowshipping people seems counterproductive. There are better ways to help people repent while protecting the body of members from bad behavior.

    There was a time, long ago, when decisions about excommunication and disfellowshipment were revealed to ward members. This shamed the disciplined member, of course, but it was also a way of protecting members from predatory behavior of various kinds. Nowadays, we have moved to a system of discipline that is almost entirely in the shadows. The church almost never makes public announcements about discipline. That is intended to keep the process of repentance private. However, this secretiveness also has two devastating effects. First, it shrouds the disciplinary process in a terrifying, shameful mystery. Repentance should absolutely not be terrifying. Second, a secret process is ripe for abuse by leaders who are ignorant, lazy, or incompetent for other reasons. Even worse, it can be manipulated by the few leaders who are out to do harm. Public knowledge of discipline was a check on the system that we have now lost.

    I realize that these thoughts are not directly responsive to the original post. What does this mean for Angela’s question about holding abusers accountable? I think it means, as Christian Kimball implied, that the church needs to think very carefully about what its disciplinary system is meant to do and whether that is different from what it is actually accomplishing. In general, the evolution of Mormon Church discipline suggests to me that our tools for discipline are outmoded. We’re trying to use a mousetrap to bake bread.

  55. If a law has been broken go to the police. Our church is volunteer. If you were the bishop and used the handbook and made a decision about someone’s disiplinary action, should I yell, unsatisfactory, unfair, I don’t agree. It’s about assisting the offender through the repentance process. There are circumstances we may not be aware of. Of course the church does all it can to prevent these horrendous assults against all people. But if there is someone who is a preditor go to the police, do all you can to protect others. Is there any system in getting rid of these predators in this country that is full proof or perfect, no because we are not perfect and no system is perfect. I think it comes down to whether or not you have any confidence in the priesthood. It’s all about trying to overcome assaults against us in this world whatever that maybe, forgiveness, love, and finding the grace of God.

  56. A couple of thoughts about the disciplinary system (restraining myself from a treatise, although one is warranted). This is all opinion although there are some citations and some stories in the background) —

    For purposes of repentance (rehabilitation, recovery) the by-the-book system doesn’t work very well. But I have seen it used to good effect by individuals and bishops who managed the system carefully for that purpose. Typically that means that the individual initiates the process and asks for help in his or her own journey. Typically that means that confession is absolutely confidential. Typically that means that the discussion with the bishop is a discussion, is tailored to the individual and circumstances, and does not fit neatly in a Handbook category.

    The Handbook system sort-of makes sense for purposes of protecting the Church and the members from predators, con-men and false prophets, It doesn’t work very well, there are lots of fails, there is systemic bias — all things we are talking about right now. But when I think through the procedures and the rules, and most importantly the need, the Handbook system makes a certain kind of sense.

    Some of the history has been told. Much is left to do (or maybe there’s great work out there that I’d like to know about). My father did some of this work, writing about confessions and the temple recommend interview, notably. He died with work about Winter Quarters unfinished. What he suggested to me is that against a background of basic Christian practice (sin/confession/repentance), the Church disciplinary system has been tested and some would say distorted by hard times. Disputes in Nauvoo, especially over secrets and polygamy and who’s in charge. Winter Quarters, where people were thrown together in tight quarters with nowhere to go and had to deal with theft and adultery and more. Frontier times when there was no other law, when bishops were sometimes forced into the role of civil and criminal court judge. Schisms, including over polygamy. Hard decisions about apostasy, about what constitutes speaking out against the church. (Regarding the history, I also have a theory but with no direct evidence that Elder-now-President Oaks had a heavy hand, back in the 1980s, rewriting the system to be what we see today, as in the OP. I’d love to get behind that.)

    I think we suffer from a mixed purpose process. I would like to see one kind of practice for the sinners (that’s all of us) and a completely separate system for the criminals (that’s the few).

  57. If you are worried about your child being alone with the bishop or what he may ask them, tell your kids what to expect, what is and what not is appropriate, go with them, or let them decide if they even want to do an interview.

  58. For now, it is what it is, people doing the best they can. Sometimes it doesn’t seem fair from where we are standing. “Sinners (that’s all of us) and a completely separate system for the criminals (that’s the few).” Christian, that is the way I see it. Thank you.

  59. Thank you, Christian. Excellent. If you ever stop restraining yourself from a treatise, I will read it.

  60. And since I just looked them up, for anyone interested, here are links to two articles by Edward L. Kimball:

    Confession in LDS Doctrine and Practice:

    The History of LDS Temple Admission Standards:

  61. I don’t understand why, especially in cases involving children, people aren’t released from their callings immediately after an accusation of abuse. What’s the material harm of losing a volunteer (unpaid) calling? Much less than the harm of being abused, surely. It seems like a no-brainer to me.

    If an investigation convincingly clears them (which should be a positive proof of innocence, IMO, again because of the cost/benefit involved), then they can serve in the calling again. Much like many professions that work with vulnerable people have a system for suspending people pending investigation.

    High evidentiary standards and presumption of innocence are for when the cost to the individual is high (imprisonment, losing income, etc) and/or the cost to the community is low (personal sins that don’t harm other people).

  62. Geoff - Aus says:

    Can I request another post or 2 on this subject.
    If the young people protesting can keep up the pressure about gun control until November they may affect the election then.
    If the report to the Bretheren is that this issue has died, they do not have to do anything at conference. The pressure only has to last a week.

  63. Tai – You may want to go back and read your own comments. You are singularly focused on the rehabilitation/repentance of the offender. However, your view seems to have no thought for the abused/offended or for other potential victims. That is a severe problem. Why? Because abusers and sexual predators tend to be repeat offenders with multiple victims – especially those that do not get serious professional help. So you are quick to think about how we can move these people along in the system but VERY slow to think about victims and potential victims. In this way you are mirroring the exact problem that is being raised about our current system. J Bishop confessed to leaders. They moved him along. Yet no one believed the victims and they let him keep position of power with access to vulnerable populations.

    I think of the case in one my former wards where a man was accused of molesting a young girl from the nursery on premise. Do I hope he reforms/repents? Sure. Do I think we ought to be much, much more concerned about potential future victims? You bet. That girl and other children’s/victims souls are worth no less. I know you would probably protest and say you didn’t say they were worth less, but your entire set of comments demonstrates a direct preference for the soul of the abuser. That is worth reflecting on. No?

  64. Do you think the job of the bishop is to put someone on trial. Do you think a bishop can convict someone of a crime that the police can’t even figure out with evidence. When it’s he said, she said I think it would be difficult to always get it right. I feel sorry for the bishops, the sinner and the victim. If someone is molested it should be taken to the police. That way if it’s a little kid against some man’s word, it is investigated, there is a record, a history. It would be a huge help for the bishop in figuring out what happened. I think, unfortunately there are going to be cases like the ones you mentioned. Like I mentioned before it is not a perfect system, but I think the church gets it right more often than it gets it wrong. I know that in no way justifies the crimes committed against innocent victims it just furthers awareness, vigilance and trying to do it better.

  65. Also, despite what you read in the paper, reports on the news, write ups from various sources, I don’t believe any of it. Unless I’m present at a legal hearing and know the facts I would even begin to take sides. Because believe it or not there are always things about the events we don’t know about. Even with evidence and jury the legal system doesn’t always get it right either.

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