CASE REPORTS OF THE MORMON ALLIANCE
VOLUME 1, 1995
Lavina Fielding Anderson
Janice Merrill Allred
Compilers and editors
Salt Lake City, Utah
Trustees of the Mormon Alliance
Janice Merrill Allred
Lavina Fielding Anderson
James E. Chapman
Marti Lynne Jones
©1996 by the Mormon Alliance
All rights reserved. Published annually by the Mormon Alliance. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, the Mormon Alliance, 6337 Highland Drive, Box 215, Salt Lake City, UT 84121.
[Webgofer note: The Mormon Alliance address given here is out of date. Please refer to the Contact Us page for current contact information.]
Individual copies are available for $20.00 from Signature Books, 564 West 400 North, Salt Lake City, UT 84116, (801) 531-1483.
For subscriptions to the Mormon Alliance quarterly newsletter and annual Case Reports, please send $30 to the Mormon Alliance, 6337 Highland Drive, Box 215, Salt Lake City, UT 84121. Subscriptions are for the calendar year.
Lavina Fielding Anderson
The Mormon Alliance was organized on 4 July 1992 to counter spiritual and ecclesiastical abuse in the Church and to protect the Church against defamatory actions. During the next few months, the trustees established a broad range of supporting purposes: providing a comprehensive definition of spiritual abuse, working to reconcile leaders and members who were out of harmony, establishing a Members’ Bill of Rights, providing a forum for a reasonable and tempered discussion of governance in the Church, critiquing general conference, and identifying and documenting cases of spiritual and ecclesiastical abuse. Janice Merrill Allred and I became co-chairs of the Case Reports Committee in the fall of 1992, and this volume has been in preparation ever since.
The Mormon Alliance has undergone significant organizational changes since its inception. Six of the original eleven trustees have resigned for a variety of personal reasons, not least among them being the discouraging reception of our efforts to discuss our concerns with the General Authorities. We thank all six of them for their courage, their compassion, and their contributions, frequently made at significant personal cost. Three of us—Paul Toscano, Janice, and I—were excommunicated, though the immediate grounds cited by our local leaders were various articles, not our participation in the Alliance.
The activities of the Alliance, also developing over time, have stabilized to publishing a quarterly newsletter, which has appeared on time since 1995, publishing an annual Case Reports volume, of which this is the first, and sponsoring four quarterly meetings: in January, April, August, and October. The April and October meetings are scheduled for the first Monday after general conference and are devoted to a lively and far-ranging critique of the general conference just concluded. The August meeting is held in conjunction with Sunstone.
The purposes of the Alliance have also been clarified: to identify and document ecclesiastical/spiritual abuse, to promote healing and closure for its survivors, to build more sensitive leadership, to empower LDS members to participate with more authenticity in Mormonism, and to foster a healthier religious community.
Because of organizational difficulties, the publication of this first volume, scheduled for 1994, was delayed until the spring of 1996. We sincerely thank subscribers who were both patient and helpful during this long wait. As originally conceived, this first issue was to deal with a broad range of types of ecclesiastical and spiritual abuse: intrusive and inappropriate questioning by bishops and stake presidents during worthiness interviews, violations of procedures in the General Handbook of Instructions when disciplinary councils are held, capricious enforcement of the Honor Code at Brigham Young University, unrighteous dominion on the part of mission presidents, secondary abuse suffered by those close to someone who is unfairly punished, the experiences of marginalization experienced by gays, feminists, and intellectuals—the three groups whom Elder Boyd K. Packer has defined as having made "major invasions" into the Church,2 and inappropriate ecclesiastical response to child sexual abuse. All of these topics will be represented in the second volume, which will be published in the fall of 1996, thus getting the publications schedule on time again.
However, the topic of child sexual abuse, without our quite realizing it, swelled until it became book length in itself. Thus, Volume 1 of the Case Reports of the Mormon Alliance is focused on child sexual abuse. About half of Volume I deals with contextual materials: official statements on sexual abuse, reports of how other churches handle sexual abuse, and about thirty cases that have been reported in the newspapers involving criminal prosecutions and/or lawsuits against Mormons involved in child sexual abuse, including the most recent case filed—a suit for $750 million in West Virginia in which the Church is named as a defendant for negligence.
The other half of the book consists of three complex cases from the same ward, two involving bishops as alleged perpetrators; no criminal prosecutions were ever filed but two mothers were excommunicated for "embarrassing the Church" by refusing to be quiet about abuse occurring to children.
Although the terms "ecclesiastical abuse" and "spiritual abuse" are used somewhat interchangeably, they have different emphases. Ecclesiastical abuse occurs when a Church officer, acting in his official capacity and using the weight of his office, coerces compliance, imposes his personal opinions as Church doctrine or policy, or resorts to such power plays as threats, intimidation, and punishment to insure that his views prevail in a conflict of opinions. The suggestion is always that the member has weak faith, an inadequate testimony, and lacks commitment to the Church. Spiritual abuse occurs when a member, through the actions of another, is made to feel limited or lacking in free agency, diminished in value in the eyes of God, unworthy to pray, unworthy or incapable of receiving answers to prayer, outside the influence of Christ’s atonement, and excluded from the Savior’s love and grace.
Seven factors characterize most abusive encounters:
The Church, particularly on the ward level, works amazingly well most of the time as communities of compassion and belonging; but in the remaining fraction, where an ecclesiastical officer succumbs to an appetite for unrighteous dominion, the Church offers no structural safeguards against abuse and very seldom even any recognition that the member’s rights can be violated. In this way, the Church’s hierarchical structure, as manifested in the "priesthood pipeline," is systemically vulnerable to the temptation to inflict abuse. We hope, by documenting cases where benevolence fails, that we can strengthen members as they set about healing from ecclesiastical abuse and also encourage less absolutistic views of authority by both members and leaders.
Numerous individuals, both supporters and helpful critics, have voiced a number of concerns about the publication of the case reports. Such publications as Dialogue, Sunstone, Exponent II, Mormon Women’s Forum Quarterly, and a number of publications devoted to the experiences of gay and lesbian members of the Church have reported the personal experiences of members who have had troubling encounters with insensitive, judgmental, or rigid ecclesiastical officers. For the most part, these experiences have been grounded squarely within a context of faith. They occupy a middle ground between the faith-promoting accounts that appear in the official Church magazines and manuals and the exposés published by opponents of the Church who are seeking evidence against its claims of inspiration.
The case reports, though they have much in common with the stories reported in the alternative publications of the unsponsored sector, are more problematic. They are not hostile in tone or exposés in nature. By excommunicating a number of the Mormon Alliance’s trustees, however, the Church has refused to allow us to speak as Latter-day Saints, although we still claim our cultural and spiritual identity as Mormons. A number of contributors to the case reports have also been excommunicated; more have withdrawn from participation, feeling unwelcome and psychologically unsafe in Mormon meetings. The case reports thus are a voice from the margins, from people who are already over the line drawn by Church officials or who are being pressed in that direction. No precedent exists for such voices to be heard—not as angry denunciations against which the Church must defend itself or to which it responds with simple dismissal—but as voices that still speak with love and faith despite their pain. We hope that the Case Reports will create a middle ground that does not currently exist in explicit terms, a middle ground characterized by love, loyalty, honesty, and a commitment to public discourse on the nature of governance within the Church.
Let me deal here with a number of concerns raised by observers and/or supporters about the project in general and Volume 1 in particular.
First, the most frequent objection to the Case Reports is its mere existence, irrespective of content. The General Authorities, people have told us in a variety of ways, dislike public discussions of problem areas in the Church. Publication will slam the door forever on the possibility of problem-solving discussions, they say. This description, I’m sorry to say, seems quite accurate. Although we hope and work for a day of more open communication and trust among leaders and members, the Alliance's earlier efforts to conduct private discussions and to provide documentation of abuses privately were certainly received without enthusiasm by the First Presidency. (See history in the Fall 1993 newsletter, By Common Consent.) We feel that we quickly exhausted the few channels open to members for working within the system.
Furthermore, although it would be gratifying to believe that General Authorities will read the Case Reports, we do not entertain many illusions on that score. We hope, however, that the audience for the Case Reports includes current and future leaders on all levels, both men and women, who will thoughtfully appraise how they carry out their own stewardships in light of how some behaviors and actions feel from "the other side of the desk."
Second, another concern that has been raised is about the use of pseudonyms in case reports. Is it not possible, these people query, for individuals to pay off old grudges under the protection of anonymity? Interestingly enough, we had assumed at the beginning of the case reports project that we would encounter two problematic populations: those seeking vengeance and those who, suffering from emotional or mental ill health, could not interpret and accept negative experiences in a mature way. On the contrary, we have been impressed with the deep spirituality of those who have come forward to share their experiences. In most instances, these people, in struggling with rejection and marginalization, created a stronger relationship to Jesus Christ that has enabled them to deal with their anger and hurt maturely. Sharing their experiences has been a second-mile journey of hope and healing for them as they offer insights from their own lives in a spirit of generosity and compassion to those who may be suffering in the same way.
Thus, pseudonymity is not a way of hiding from responsibility. Rather, those who have chosen pseudonyms have behaved responsibly to protect the privacy of family members or other loved ones and have willingly signed affidavits attesting to the truthfulness of the material they have provided. They are not anonymous to us.
Another reason why we have been willing to allow pseudonyms is the unpleasant reality that the Strengthening Church Members Committee has, for a number of years, scrutinized publications, highlighted passages the committee has found offensive, and forwarded the material to the author’s bishop via the area presidency and stake presidency. These ecclesiastical officials, although usually receiving only ambiguous instructions, have sometimes felt called upon to act punitively; and a number of writers have been chastised, had temple recommends confiscated, been deprived of callings, been placed on probation, been disfellowshipped, and even been excommunicated. We deplore this covert means of punishment and regulation; a free exchange of ideas where the goal is to persuade is an important element of a healthy community. The imbalance of power between members and leaders is already enormous, and such official actions only increase the comparative powerlessness of members.
Consequently, we willingly allow a broad range of options for writers who wish to mask some or all of the identifying information in their accounts. One of our writers expressed the dilemma tellingly:
Pseudonymity, where desired, is thus an option we will continue to offer those who desire it.
A third concern expressed by some is the need for balance in reports that recount very troubling experiences. We debated for a long time the possibility of requesting ecclesiastical leaders involved to tell the story from their perspective and decided against it for three reasons: (1) The case reports are not investigative journalism nor a court of law, both of which are structured to bring competing views into focus. The case reports are a forum for abused members to share their truth, including the emotional reality of how the experience felt. We hope that readers, particularly those who are reluctant to believe that ecclesiastical abuse happens in a Church they love and feel loyal to, will be able to step into the shoes of the person telling the story and empathize with the feelings of disbelief, anger, hurt, and eventual healing. This goal engages the heart as much as the head. (2) Church officers have numerous forums for telling their own versions of what happened, including letters to members, ward and stake conferences, official instructions, and informal conversations which members pass on quickly as reports, rumor, and gossip. All of these forums have been used on the local level against abused members. (3) Inviting the ecclesiastical leader to tell his side of the story would alert him to the fact that the member is publishing an account of the abuse, which might cause him to further abuse the member.
That being said, we have tried, in collecting, documenting, and editing these accounts to be scrupulously fair to the extent that it is possible to accommodate the official point of view. Members have been remarkably fair-minded, we feel, in not simply blaming, dumping their anger, or stereotyping an ecclesiastical leader. We do not claim that all points of view are represented equally, but we do claim that we have made a good. faith effort to be restrained and fair.
A fourth concern expressed by some is that the accounts also lack balance because, inevitably, Church leaders are usually cast in the role of the abusers. Can there not be an effort to balance the stories about abusive leaders with those of leaders who are genuinely trying to do the right thing? We recognize that leaders also can be abused, becoming targets of gossip, anger, and threats. We fully recognize that many leaders quietly help repair the damage inflicted by less sensitive leaders. We earnestly seek such accounts. We feel that all leaders need role models, yet the stories available through the official literature often are not helpful because the "wise bishop" is shown stereotypically rather than as someone who has struggled and prayed to balance competing principles and has acted inclusively rather than imposing a decision by fiat.
Furthermore, stories of healing-hero leaders are difficult to find. Members who genuinely feel at peace after a traumatic situation are often unwilling, for very good reasons, to revisit the scene of turmoil. Furthermore, when an ecclesiastical leader steps in to protect a member from the wrath or rigidity of another leader, celebrating his courage involves telling the story of the abusive leader. Naturally, the member doesn’t want to expose the nurturing leader to official sanction from someone further up the line. Quite often, these leaders have taken considerable risks to make decisions that they themselves could be punished for.
We would sincerely welcome such accounts, however, and hope that, as the Church matures, it will be better able to accept imperfections on the part of all leaders and all members and deal with them in a more compassionate, realistic, and forgiving way. Denying that they exist obviously creates a situation for which there is no healthy solution.
A fifth concern has been expressed about the topic of this particular volume. Some feel that a concentration on child sexual abuse is too sensational and that it misrepresents the broader scope of our concerns. While we believe that the first two volumes taken together will give a more accurate view of the Alliance’s interests, we hardly agree that child sexual abuse is a topic that can be easily "sensationalized." Few abuses of parental and ecclesiastical prerogatives are more far-reaching in their effects, more criminal in their injustice, and less justified by any gospel teaching than sexually abusing a child in one’s power. After decades of denial, U.S. society as a whole has reluctantly accepted that child sexual abuse, including incest, does occur—and occur on a scale hitherto not believed possible. Public agencies, though frequently overwhelmed and inadequate, are in a position to respond. Therapies are available to intervene with the perpetrators and help with the healing of survivors.
The Church, following its usual course on social issues, has entered this arena reluctantly and gingerly. The first General Conference statement about sexual abuse was not made until 1985 and official counsel has typically remained general and brief. This limited response has been disappointing to many who have expected a more proactive stance from an organization that repeatedly stresses the importance of "the family" from the pulpit.
More disappointingly, the Church’s first line of assistance to victims and their families—bishops and stake presidents—has sometimes failed to respond appropriately, giving rise to conclusions that the male leaders identify with the (usually) male perpetrators and act in their interest, rather than in the interest of the child victims. While no teaching of any Church leader can possibly be construed to provide support for the perpetrator over the victim, the practice of some leaders has indeed been questionable. President Hinckley, interviewed on "60 Minutes," dismissed the idea of inappropriate response on the part of ecclesiastical leaders as "a blip here, a blip there," but his position can only be called unduly optimistic.
Janice Allred’s essay in this volume, "How to Read Bad News," will, we hope, be useful in providing a broad theological perspective from which to view our communal responsibility toward abusive experiences in general, including sexual abuse within the Church.
Although dozens of individuals have been involved in the larger project of the case reports in general, because of the specific focus of this first volume, I bear the responsibility for having compiled and written the information and for working directly with the three families whose stories form the case reports in Part 2. Janice, whose bishop and stake president were engaged in a protracted ecclesiastical action against her that ended in her excommunication in May 1995, has contributed her editing skills; all of the other trustees have read the manuscript and made comments and suggestions.
I hope it will be obvious from the discussion to this point that the Alliance is not interested in bashing the Church or "digging up dirt." Even though Janice and I consider ourselves to have been wrongfully excommunicated, we are not apostates. We love and value the Church. We have testimonies of the Savior, of Joseph Smith, of the Book of Mormon, and of the proper authority vested in the current Church president and other General Authorities. We continue to attend church meetings with our families. We have willingly given the Church years of service. We still willingly obey its rules in our personal lives. We consider ourselves worthy to partake of the sacrament and to attend the temple, blessings which are currently denied us. We regard with irony the fact that many who maintain unchallenged membership in the Church are completely inactive or living lifestyles that violate one or more important rules of the Church.
I have come to the conclusion, as someone who no longer has the privilege of serving through callings in the Church, that the Lord does not make many distinctions between callings in the Church and callings in the Kingdom. This project is certainly one of the latter. It has taken untold hours of time. At times, after talking through a situation with a survivor of ecclesiastical abuse, I have felt grief-stricken and emotionally shattered by their suffering. At other times, I have been awe-struck and inspired by the endurance and resilience of the human spirit. Nearly always, I have felt the sustaining influence of the Savior in those conversations, present and eager to offer the balm of his love and his own suffering unjustly endured. These have been precious experiences. Again and again, the Spirit has confirmed that it is important for these experiences to be told, important for "the least of these" to be heard, validated, and protected where possible, important to bear witness within the household of faith that there are many among us, least able to bear their own burdens, who feel them become weightier, not lighter, as a result of their experiences at church.
Some have asked us what we want. We want the Church to live the gospel. We ask for the embodiment of the Savior’s faithfulness, respect for agency, unconditional love, and unceasing uplift. We want a more empowered membership and a more compassionate leadership. Rather than obtaining compliance by threatening and intimidating members, the Church’s officers should persuade by example and love, seek forgiveness quickly when they offend, and extend forgiveness willingly. Members should behave in the same way toward leaders and other members. We believe that there is great value in the mere act of providing a permanent forum for the voices of those who have been marginalized, betrayed, and repudiated by the Church to which they have given years of their lives, a significant portion of their income, and their deepest dreams and hopes. We believe that when people know better, they will do better; but without knowing, repentance is not possible. We want people to read these stories with intelligence, empathy, and spiritual sensitivity.
Trust is a very fragile thing—more fragile than faith and far more fragile than hope. Once trust is destroyed by abuse, members will never have the same relationship to the institutional church that they had before, even if they remain fully active. In this way, ecclesiastical abuse is like sexual abuse. Something innocent is violated forever. But healing is possible. In fact, it has been our experience that most abused members wish the Church well, hope that what has happened to them really is a local anomaly, and have faith in the essential goodness of the Church. So do we.1 Paul Toscano and I were excommunicated by our respective stake presidents for "apostasy" in September 1993. Paul had spoken at Sunstone in Salt Lake City a month earlier on "All Is Not Well in Zion: False Teachings of the True Church," and his stake president, Kerry Heinz, played this tape to the high councilors at the disciplinary council. Heinz had earlier met with Elder Boyd K. Packer and admitted that the "fair implication" of their discussion was that Paul should be excommunicated. I had published "Intellectuals, Feminists, and Church Leaders: A Chronology," in the Spring 1993 issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. It was awarded the Lowell L Bennion Prize for Essays in Gospel Living. Elder Loren C. Dunn, the area president, had supplied my stake president, Marlin C. Miller, with a copy and he had ordered me to "repudiate it." Janice delivered a paper "Toward a Theology of God the Mother" in August 1993 at the Sunstone Symposium. Her stake president, Carl Bacon, had received a copy of the paper from Elder Malcolm Jeppsen, area president, and continued to pass on materials to her bishop about Janice’s speeches and writings until she was excommunicated in May 1995. Click on your browser's Back button to return.
2 Elder Boyd K. Packer, "Address to the All-Church Coordinating Council," May 10, 1993, photocopy in my possession. Click on your browser's Back button to return.
3 Church leaders are required, according to the terms of the General Handbook of Instructions, to keep the content of interviews and disciplinary councils confidential. This provision is obviously for the member’s benefit, not the leader’s, yet most leaders feel that their confidentiality has been violated if the member chooses to discuss his or her experience, formally waives confidentiality, and/or invites the leader’s perspective. Furthermore, Church leaders obviously discuss the content of such interviews and courts openly with their ecclesiastical superiors, counselors, members of high councils, etc. Perhaps the most troubling, because it is the most hypocritical, manifestation of this double standard on confidentiality is that some Church leaders will refuse to engage in an open discussion of a situation, yet will tell inquirers, "You don’t know the whole story," adding variously, "Sometimes the kindest thing we can do is not tell what we know" or "The Church cannot tolerate immorality." The clear implication is that the member out of favor has violated an important rule of the Church but is masquerading as an intellectual martyr rather than as a common adulterer. Click on your browser's Back button to return.
4 President Gordon B. Hinckley, interviewed by Mike Wallace, "60 Minutes," CBS, aired 7 April 1996; videotape and transcript in my possession. Click on your browser's Back button to return.
We encourage those who feel that their situations can be defined as spiritual or ecclesiastical abuse to contact us. Our procedure in working on a case report consists of three steps: First, we want to listen and understand. Sometimes that alone meets the needs of those who feel unheard. Second, we want to document what happened, and when and where—not only the factual reality but also the emotional reality of what it felt like and what it still feels like. We encourage respondents to write their own stories or, if it’s easier, to talk through their experience with a committee member who will then work with the respondent on drafting the account. When both parties are satisfied with its accuracy, then it goes into the file as a case report. A third step is publication of selected cases. At that point, we return to the respondent, provide the context in which the account would appear, and ask for any updates that might be necessary. The respondent is free to withdraw at that point, to rework the account with whatever assistance is necessary, or to approve the case report as it stands. The respondent will sign an affidavit attesting to the truthfulness of the information contained in the case report, to the best of his or her knowledge.
Those writing their own experiences should be as complete, clear, and detailed as possible. We have found that we usually need to ask clarifying questions on the following points:
Privacy for oneself and family members is frequently an issue because speaking out in the current environment of the Church is fraught with a certain amount of risk. Although we cannot accept anonymous accounts as documented cases, we do offer a wide range of options when it comes to eventual publication, including total or partial masking of names, places, and other identifying information.
Contact the co-chair of the Mormon Alliance Case Reports Committee at:
Lavina Fielding Anderson
Janice Merrill Allred
These stories are bad news and we realize that it will he painful to read them. We know this because, as we have listened to these people tell their experiences, we ourselves have felt some of their pain. We anticipate that the reactions of our readers will range from disbelief to anger to sorrow, which are the natural reactions to pain. Disbelief will come from those who believe that such things could not happen in the Church of Jesus Christ. These people will want to ignore the problem. We feel anger when we recognize that someone has been hurt by someone else. The purpose of anger is to identify the offense and name the offender. Those who are angry will want to do something about the problem. In sorrow we look at and feel all the dimensions of the pain. We empathize with both the victims and the abusers. Those who feel sorrow will want to promote forgiveness and reconciliation.
We cannot escape our own pain, but it requires courage and an open heart to be willing to feel the pain of others. This willingness can be both easier and more difficult if we have had similar experiences—easier because we understand the pain but more difficult if we have not worked through it. Although no one wants to feel pain, pain is not in itself bad. Physiologically the purpose of pain is to warn us that something is wrong with our body so that we can fix it if possible. Mental and emotional pain may be more complex, but behind all pain is a problem or problems that can be worked on if not completely solved. Pain invites us to ask, "What is the problem?" "What is the cause of the problem?" and "How can the problem be solved, ameliorated, or at least worked on?"
We have identified the problem in these cases as spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse, like all kinds of abuse, takes place in a relationship where individuals have unequal power. The principle of human equality underlies the notion that some actions should be considered abusive. Making this assumption explicit, we can state the moral imperative proscribing abuse. Because all people have equal value, whenever someone in a relationship has more power than the other person, he or she should use that power to benefit rather than to exploit or abuse the other person. When ecclesiastical leaders use their power in arbitrary and coercive ways to serve their own or the institution’s perceived interests at the expense of the spiritual needs and rights of the members, they are involved in spiritual abuse. Their action is abusive even if they say—and believe—that they are acting for the person’s benefit and/or growth.
The gospel of Jesus Christ mandates spiritual equality. Spiritual equality does not mean that all are equal in spiritual power or intelligence nor does it mean that all have the same spiritual gifts or callings. It does mean that we are all equally valuable in God’s sight. "All are alike unto God" (2 Ne. 26:33). Through the atonement Jesus made himself equal to every human being and each human being equal to every other human being because he gave his life for each of us. Spiritual equality means that everyone should have equal access to spiritual gifts. Although all members do not possess the same gifts, the purpose of the gifts is to benefit everyone. "To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby" (D&C 46:12). In Section 78 of the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord teaches that, in his church, we must be equal in obtaining heavenly things (D&C 78:4.5). Finally, spiritual equality means that each person is responsible and accountable for his or her own sins and spiritual growth.
How is this spiritual equality to be respected when there are inequalities in the church structure as well as in spiritual gifts and callings? These inequalities do not in themselves constitute spiritual abuse, but they can lead to it. Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants explains how. It says that spiritual power (or priesthood or ecclesiastical authority) is used improperly whenever we use it to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride or ambition or to exercise control, dominion, or compulsion upon any person in any degree of unrighteousness. This means that compulsion can never be used righteously, although it can be exercised in varying degrees of unrighteousness. The powers of heaven operate without compulsory means. They influence by persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, love, kindness, knowledge, and righteous chastisement.
In considering the question of whether or not spiritual abuse has taken, or is taking, place, we need to ask, "Is ecclesiastical or priesthood authority being used to cover the sins or weaknesses of the leader?" "Is a leader using his position to gratify his pride or fill his needs at the expense of the needs of the member?" "Is a leader using any kind of compulsory means to get members to comply with his directives or agree with his interpretations of doctrines or policies?"
We believe that the abuses recounted here are not simply isolated offenses perpetrated by a few bad leaders but that spiritual abuse is systemic in the Church. It occurs because of widespread misunderstanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ and because of mistaken ideas about what it means to be a leader in his Church. Legalistic interpretations of the gospel lead to an emphasis on obeying rules and looking good. Leaders who believe that they are responsible for maintaining performance and appearance often manipulate and control members to make themselves look good or to fulfill their stewardship as they think God wants them to.
Since spiritual abuse is systemic in the Church it must be called to the attention of the entire Church. It is not simply a problem for the leaders to solve. Some readers may be asking themselves why these abuses are being made public instead of being dealt with privately or appealed according to Church procedures. Our purpose in sharing these stories is to call attention to the problem of spiritual abuse in the Church so that the problem can be understood and the remedy applied. They are being given to document the existence of real abuse done to real people. Our purpose is not to embarrass or judge or punish anyone. As you read these stories, we encourage you to empathize with all the people involved and try to understand the beliefs, needs, and feelings that led them to act as they did. These stories are not about bad leaders deliberately acting in abusive ways. They are about leaders who think they are doing the right thing, who act according to their understanding of what their position requires them to do. Yet their actions do not lead to spiritual growth, love, understanding, or peace—the fruits of living the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Some readers may believe that this publication is a criticism of Church leaders and as such violates an important commandment, the commandment to obey and sustain our leaders. However, we are commanded to obey God, not men, and sustaining our leaders does not mean supporting them in unrighteousness or error. One of the signs of an abusive system is having a rule against criticizing or disagreeing with leaders. Evil speaking—shaming, belittling, name-calling, back-biting—speaking for the purpose of hurting someone, is wrong whether we do it to leaders or members. Criticism is not evil speaking. It involves analysis and evaluation and its purpose is to discover the truth and discern between good and bad, right and wrong, and good and evil. It is a kind of judgment that we as human beings must engage in. "For behold, my brethren, it is given unto you to judge, that you may know good from evil" (Moro. 7:15). As Christians we should not judge anyone’s standing with God, but we can in a spirit of love call each other to account for our faults, errors, and offenses. The purpose of making known errors and sins is not to punish, blame, or belittle but to make the truth known, enable individuals to reconcile their differences, repent, and forgive each other.
The scriptures are not silent about the weaknesses, mistakes, and sins of prophets and leaders of the past. The gospel teaches that everyone sins and is in need of repentance. Section 121 says that leaders should not use their authority to cover their sins. This means that leaders must also be open to criticism and it is not wrong to call them to account for any wrongdoing. Since leaders are to use persuasion, long-suffering, and love to influence us, it is not wrong to disagree with them. Using persuasion implies engaging in a process of discourse where the merits of ideas are discussed, where evidence is considered, and where analysis and evaluation are welcomed. Suffering long and loving mean that we continue to love each other even as we disagree and we do not use coercion to force closure. Jesus does not put himself above criticism, and he does not insulate himself from our pain. In dying on the cross, he subjected himself to the judgment of the world; when we pray to him, he makes himself accessible to hear our pain, listen to our complaints, and respond to our petitions.
The Lord told Oliver Cowdery to "admonish … [Joseph Smith] in his faults, and also receive admonition of him" (D&C 6:19). This is the principle of reciprocity; we must be mutually accountable to each other. Jesus tells us that if someone offends us we must go to her and tell her that she has hurt us. This principle recognizes that we do not always know when we have offended someone; it is hard to see our own mistakes, We need each other to liberate us from our egocentricity and narcissism. The one who sees the problem is responsible for reporting it; whoever feels the pain must voice it.
Truth can emerge only when all ideas are open to criticism and people are allowed freedom of belief and speech. In the grace of God’s unconditional love we can have the courage to recognize our problems and admit our weaknesses, acknowledge our mistakes, renounce our false ideas, and confess our sins. Those who are afraid to confront and reveal problems do not understand the power of Jesus’ love to redeem and reconcile us and the power of truth to enlighten and liberate us. They do not have faith in that love and that power. Some people believe that openly discussing problems will hurt the image of the Church and weaken its missionary efforts, but Jesus did not say that his followers would be characterized by their lack of sin or error but rather by their love for each other. Valuing appearance above reality and puffing the needs of the institution before the members’ need for spiritual growth are spiritually abusive practices. Our missionary efforts should be focused on building faith in Jesus Christ and teaching his gospel, not on convincing people that the Church is perfect and its members are righteous.
The remedy for spiritual abuse is the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, we should not think that the problem of spiritual abuse can ever be solved. Section 121 tells us that it is the nature of almost all people to exercise unrighteous dominion as soon as they get a little authority. As long as there are inequalities and differences (and inequality and difference seem to be conditions of life) we must continue to call ourselves into question as we try to love each other and respect each other’s agency.
As trustees of the Mormon Alliance, we have identified twelve principles that we believe are essential to a spiritually healthy Church:
I never thought it was right to call up a man and try him because he erred in doctrine, it looks too much like Methodism and not Latter day Saintism. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their Church. I want the liberty of believing as I please, it feels so good not to be trammeled. It [doesn’t] prove that a man is not a good man, because he errs in doctrine (The Words of Joseph Smith, 183-84).
I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful [lest] they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whisperings of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 9:150).
Moroni accuses the Church in the last days of failing to love one another. He says, "Ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted" (Morm. 8:37). To understand this warning fully, we must interpret it symbolically as well as literally. Moroni uses the symbol of the church building to stand for all aspects of Church structure. "Adorning the Church" can be interpreted as trying to build and enhance the Church’s image. Moroni is thus accusing the Church of caring more about protecting the Church’s image than meeting the needs of its people, of wanting to project the image of a Church of successful, happy people and thus ignoring the real needs and real problems of its members.
Moroni also says, "Why are ye ashamed to take upon you the name of Christ? … [but] ye adorn yourselves with that which hath no life, and yet suffer the hungry, and the needy, and the naked, and the sick and the afflicted to pass by you, and notice them not" (Morm. 8:38, 39). When we put the Church’s programs, procedures, offices, structures, handbooks, and reputation ahead of the people of the Church, we are adorning ourselves with that which has no life and refusing to take the name of Christ upon ourselves, because he died for each of these people, not for any Church structure. His Church is his people. "Whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church" (D&C 10:67).
Followers of Christ will not refuse to notice the afflicted and needy but they will mourn with those that mourn. They will not refer them to "proper Church procedure" nor will they accuse them of bringing their afflictions upon themselves, but they will bind up their wounds and love them.