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On March 26, 2018 the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced a revision regarding a bishop’s responsibility when dealing with victims of abuse. Mormon bishops are not trained counselors. They do not have years of course work, nor degrees in social work or psychology. When an LDS man is called to be a bishop, he is simply not bishop one day, then a bishop the next. There is no standard training that he receives, although he does receive a handbook of instruction. Consequently, the counseling and advice bishops give to victims of abuse is inconsistent across the Church and is not based on accepted therapeutic practice. Bishops are called to minister to the spiritual needs of their ward members, but it is often difficult for them to distinguish where “spiritual needs” end and “mental health needs” begin. A bishop would not presume to try to heal physical trauma from an injury; he knows that a medical doctor should be consulted for that. However, especially without any training on the subject, it is much more difficult to know when a mental health professional should be called in for emotional and mental trauma.

The most prominent recent example of women receiving harmful advice from their bishops has been in the Rob Porter case [1]. Rob Porter was working his way up in the Trump administration, but had not attained full security clearance because of reports of domestic violence from two ex-wives and a former girlfriend. Both ex-wives had reported this abuse to their Mormon bishops. However, his first wife, Colbie Holderness, found it difficult to talk to the bishop in detail about what she was experiencing because the bishop was counseling the husband and wife together. She didn’t feel free to express the extent of the abuse in the presence of her husband and was advised by the bishop to remain in the marriage. She stated that it wasn’t until she later met with a mental health professional that she realized just how much danger she was in and divorced her husband – against the advice of her bishop. Jennifer Willoughby, Porter’s second wife, was advised by a bishop not to get a restraining order against Porter because it could affect his career. While these are two highly publicized experiences of women with different bishops, I can say that just within my small circle of friends, I have heard many stories from women who approached their bishops about domestic violence and received similar advice.

The new policies written into the General Handbook of Instruction should help prevent many of these problems. First, the Handbook now gives to bishops in the United States and Canada a hotline number that they can call at any time for advice on how to help counsel a person who has experienced any type of abuse. The Handbook states that “The bishop or stake president should promptly call the help line about every situation in which he believes a person may have been abused or neglected or is at risk of being abused or neglected.” For every single situation of abuse, the bishop is now asked to call on legal and clinical professionals through the hotline. This is a tremendous resource for both the bishop and those whom he counsels. While the bishop may not have received any training at the time of his calling, he now has a resource where he will be coached through the interaction he will have with victims of abuse. This constant access to support and advice for bishops on each individual case is so much more effective than could be given in some sort of onboarding training session that bishops could receive. It is individual, tailored to the situation, and continuous. It is an incredible resource that will vastly improve both the spiritual and mental health care that survivors of abuse receive when they turn to their bishops for help.

I have read a number of criticisms pointing out that this hotline is only for bishops, not for victims. However, that gets to the heart of what one expects the Church to do. The LDS Church is not a professional mental health provider. It is not set up to conduct clinical therapy. However, when a bishop calls this hotline, they will have resources and recommendations of local clinical professionals who can provide therapy and assistance to those suffering the consequences of abuse. And if the individual cannot afford it, it is within the bishop’s purview to assist with covering those costs. This way the bishop becomes well positioned to help victims of abuse deal with any spiritual scars that have resulted, and assist the survivor to find those who can help heal the mental and emotional wounds that were left.

In addition to providing a support to the bishop when dealing with survivors of abuse, the Handbook also includes some additional guidelines for bishops. The Handbook clearly states that “Most, but not all, allegations of abuse are true and should be taken seriously and handled with great care.” And, “Church leaders should never disregard a report of abuse.” The fact that every allegation of abuse should be taken seriously and followed up with a call to the hotline is an important new inclusion. Even if the bishop is unsure about the truthfulness, he is to take it seriously and begin steps to help the one who has come seeking help.

Bishops are also now instructed that “the first and immediate responsibility of Church leaders is to help those have been abused … Members should never be encouraged to remain in a home or situation that is abusive or unsafe.” This is a very big change from the way things were previously handled. While bishops are still instructed not to advise couples to divorce (that is a decision that is supposed to be left up to the couple), a bishop may advise a spouse to leave the house or even get a restraining order. In fact, it clearly states that bishops should never “counsel a member not to report criminal activity to law enforcement personnel.” Had these changes been in place, and followed by the various bishops of Rob Porter’s ex-wives, the women would have been supported in gaining the physical safety they needed and finding professional resources to help them with the effects of his abusive behavior.

The second criticism I have heard regarding the new policy is in one comment where it says that “Priesthood leaders should help those who have committed abuse to repent and cease their abusive behavior.” It has been rightly pointed out in many statements in the media that a bishop is not trained, nor should he even attempt, to provide clinical help for perpetrators of abuse – especially those guilty of sexual violence. However, this statement is followed up with the advice that “Professional counseling may be helpful for the victims and perpetrators and their families.” If a bishop is following the guidelines, he will be calling the hotline, staffed with legal and clinical professionals, when he is dealing with a perpetrator of abuse. And since their first objective along with the bishop will be to prevent future abuse, hopefully those providing advice on the hotline will be able to advise the bishop when he clearly needs to refer an abuser to professional help.

Whether these changes result in a clear difference will depend on the skills of those who are answering the hotline and the willingness of bishops to take their advice. Inevitably, as this new system gets up and running, there will be some mistakes and some miscommunications here and there. The Church is also permitting children, youth , and women to ask another adult to join them in a bishop’s interview, which change in policy may help prevent some of this. However, even with those bumps, it is a vast improvement from throwing bishops into a role as spiritual counselor with no training nor guidance on how to deal with situations of abuse. This is a tremendous and greatly welcomed step forward in the ministering and caring for our people.


[1] https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/09/politics/rob-porter-mormonism-metoo/index.html
[Back to manuscript].

Full Citation for this Article: Powers, Emily (2018) "Church Policy Changes Regarding Victims of Abuse are a Positive Step," SquareTwo, Vol. 11 No. 1 (Spring 2018), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticlePowersChurchPolicyAbuse.html, accessed <give access date>.

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COMMENTS: 4 Comments

I. Bob Folkman

While Sis. Powers' optimism is well-founded, and the changes the Church has made to instructions for bishops is a positive step, her last paragraph contains important cautions. There are more than 30,000 wards and branches in the Church and therefore a similar number of bishops and branch presidents. Perhaps a third of these are in the US and Canada, I'm not certain. While it is an over-simplification, isn't it reasonably safe to say that every congregation in the US and Canada may include at least one individual or family experiencing an abuse crisis that would benefit from quality counseling or require referral to authorities? Will the Church's resources be able to handle the volume of calls that might result if word gets around that the hotline services are effective and reliable?


II. Anonymous

My sister had to flee her home six months ago as her husband, who has suffered for many years with mental and physical illness, became threatening. While she can now see and label his actions as abusive, has obtained and enforced a temporary protective order, and is proceeding with a divorce, her bishop really struggles with her need to exit this marriage. While my sister is faithfully seeking and following the impressions she receives, it has grieved her to be acting against her bishop's counsel, or to defend her position to him when her own heart breaks with the necessity of this course.

As a bishop's wife, I know that bishops are just faithful men who didn't ask to be placed in this position. There certainly is a transformation as the mantle falls upon these imperfect vessels. But we're all working through our own paradigms in life and sometimes women get the blunt end of those viewpoints.

Much of the trouble stems from her bishop shutting her down when she started to tell him about the incidents of abuse, saying he didn't want to get into specifics. But if hearing of her husband waving a gun around the room indiscriminately and then laying on the sofa with the same gun on his chest and his finger on the trigger offends her bishop, imagine living it! I think for this reason, he just doesn't see this as an abusive relationship. It is however, unfortunately for everyone involved, quite textbook abuse.


III. Kent Harrison

At the risk of sounding self serving, I wish to point out a resource for abused women and their leaders. In the early 1990's, three of us edited and published a book, "Confronting Abuse." The three were Anne L. Horton, professor of Social Work at BYU, myself, and Barry L. Johnson, also in Social Work and Psychology. It was published by Deseret Book and sold some 20,000 copies before it was taken off the shelf because of concerns about recovered memories. The book deals with abuse in LDS families of many kinds: physical, sexual, elder, domestic violence, etc. I wrote a chapter in the book on advice to bishops. I am sorry that there is still a problem with some bishops in dealing with abused wives; I think--hope--that things have improved since the 1990s.

The book can be found by searching the Internet. There are used copies out there. I have a few copies, but probably would not like to part with them because I would like to save them for my family. But--possibly at the risk of being deluged with requests--I will photocopy my chapter on advice to bishops and other chapters that deal with domestic abuse (including marital rape.) Send me a request at my email address, bkentharrison@comcast.net. What I may do is to type up some of those chapters so I could attach them to an email. There are also online, at BYU Continuing Education, two talks I gave on domestic abuse in 2002. I already have those talks on my computer and could send those immediately.


IV. Dr. Susan Madsen

Because I have written and spoken on the topic of domestic violence for a number of years, I have had several women talk to me about violence they have endured in their own homes. Although it breaks my heart to hear this from such amazing Mormon women, I have also had concerns about the Church’s policies on bishops giving advice and counselor for serious topics without the in-depth training to do so. Emily Power’s article was so useful in helping me understand the new Church policies, and I am so pleased with these changes. I think many bishops and stake presidents have wanted a hotline for years. The constant access to support and advice for bishops for each case is going to help victims in a much more effective way than has been in previous years. I am so glad to hear that “all allegations should be taken seriously and handled with care.” Also, I am pleased to hear that bishops are not to encourage individuals to remain in the home if there is abuse happening. Thanks to Emily for writing this summary. If readers, particularly from Utah, are interested in learning more about related issues more generally, they can access the following Utah Women & Leadership Project reports: Domestic Violence Among Utah Women and Sexual Assault Among Utah Women.