Chapter 1
Home Up

VOLUME 2, 1996

Chapter 1
Anonymous Voices

In the summer and fall of 1993, soon after published announcements that the Mormon Alliance invited individuals to share their experiences with ecclesiastical or spiritual abuse, a number of anonymous letters came in. (Later announcements included the information that we could not accept anonymous or pseudonymous accounts, although writers could use pseudonyms for publication if they wished.) These letters made it clear that: (1) Many members related immediately to the term "ecclesiastical abuse" and had experienced it; (2) They did not feel safe talking about it under their own names; (3) They had little confidence (often no confidence, based on experience) that "going through channels" would resolve the difficulty; and (4) Based on this sample, women were more likely to report (and perhaps to experience) spiritual and ecclesiastical abuse. Women also seem to be more vulnerable to abuse because of their social and religious conditioning. The two examples of women who suffered financially because of bad advice from trusted male Mormon authority figures reveal the deplorable dependency and lack of training in self-reliance of women in society in general; and (5) Even though many more of these anonymous reports have come from women than from men, women as leaders can also be abusive and authoritarian.

Excerpts from these letters appear below as a one-time report and as a one-time exception to our no-anonymous accounts policy. Where addresses or partial addresses were provided, we attempted to find the writer to get permission to publish the contents. All identifying information (names, places, and dates) has been removed from the accounts to preserve the writersí anonymity, but we would be glad to be in contact with any authors who wish to contact us.

The women in our singles ward were helping with a youth conference one Sunday. The next Sunday, our ward newsletter contained thirteen awards created by the male members of the class with the names of the "winners" (here omitted). These awards were: best dressed, longest legs, grade-A pedigree, biggest smile, strongest testimony, quickest wit, largest trust fund, chief scriptorian, premiere cook, most spiritual, highest earning potential, #1 manicure and nails, highest I.Q., the "Leah Award (most tender eyes)," "the Sarah Award (still hoping for a boy)," and "Mary Magdalene Award (???)."
In the first six weeks of my Institute class on "Teachings of the Living Prophets," the teacher has pronounced the following opinions: (1) Birth control is Satanís way of saying, "Go ahead. I win." (2) If you French kiss, you should see your bishop immediately. (3) You shouldnít hold hands with a date during sacrament meeting. (4) AIDS is Godís plan to limit the earthís population but ensure that all the spirits come to earth. (5) Women should major in elementary education, nursing, or teaching. All other majors are worldly and do not prepare women for motherhood. Their children will be scarred for life and adopt "alternative lifestyles"ógays, lesbians, etc. (6) The best place to "pick up women" is in the celestial room of the Provo Temple. (7) The only materials that should be read on Sunday are the standard works and the Ensign. (8) Sex between a husband and wife is only for procreation. (9) In the next life, anyone not sealed in the temple will be a eunuch. (Women, too?)
I have been Mormon all my life. My ancestors came across the plains with the pioneers, but they werenít the "important" people. Two of them came in the handcart companies because they were too poor to buy oxen and covered wagons. I was born and raised in the Mormon town in which I still live. Everyone still knows who the "important" Mormon families are. All my life, I have seen Church officers defer to and play up to these. They change the rules for them. My sixteen-year-old daughter is dating one of the boys from these families. The bishop is actually flattered that this boy comes to church at all. So when the eldersí quorum president happened to catch my daughter and this boy making out in his car, who do you think the bishop called in, and who do you think he didnít call in? Right and right. My daughter. Not the boy. He told her she was "a temptress" and that she was trying to corrupt one of the "royal priesthood."
Our bishop refused to let the nonmember grandchildren sing a song they had written in memory of their grandfather at his funeral. The bishop said that it wasnít in keeping with the guidelines from Salt Lake. I was shocked and appalled. The children were in tears. Their parents were deeply hurt and angry. So much for compassion!
I am a male teacher in our ward Primary. The Primary president insists that I address her as "President ____" at all times and in all places (even the hardware store); has accused me of not sustaining and supporting my priesthood leaders; has imposed a strict dress codeówith the silent treatment given to those who violate these standards; has told me that I had an "attitude" because I brought tofu and bean sprout salad to our stake meeting instead of cookies or brownies; has called me a "liberal" and a real "piece of work"; has tried to get me released by volunteering me to head the ward magazine drive and submitting my name as a stake missionary; has demanded that I utilize only Church-approved publications and threatened to confiscate any that I brought onto church premises that were not. She is a bank personnel officer and keeps threatening to "write me up" and "put it in my file." What file? Does the Primary keep secret files? Who sees these files? What do they do with them? Will these files follow me to my next calling? My next ward? Does CTR stand for Crushed by Terrorist Rule? Incidentally, our Primary president is divorced; her husband left her for a younger woman.
I am a single woman who joined the Church five years ago. I am the only member in my family. I was raised with four brothers and a younger sister. We were raised to be confident, assertive and risk-taking. Each of us has excelled in academics and sports. When we work, we work hard and do our best. When we play, we play to win. Frankly, I donít know any other way of doing things. Iíve always achieved and have been admired for doing so. I didnít expect things to change when I joined the Mormon Church.
Having lived in three wards, Iím now on my third bishop. The person may change, but the counsel is the same: "Youíre a pretty girl. (How old do I have to be or how many children must I have before I become a woman in this Church?) Youíll make someone a wonderful wife. You just need to flirt a little more (I donít do it at all; why should I do it more?), be a little less competitive (Make that "deferential." The real issue is being more compliant and acquiescent), let men be right (even when theyíre not!), and donít give the answers even if you know the (For this I went to college for six years?)."
I have never asked for this counsel and I certainly donít know what to do with it. When I was interviewed for baptism, no one asked me my level of competency at flirting, nor did they inquire about who my skills at playing dumb. Is this what membership in this Church is all about? My sisteróthe scholar/career woman Catholicódoesnít have these problems. Someone should tell bishops that there is more than one way to be a Latter-day Saint woman, that we come from diverse backgrounds, and that we have wide-ranging interests and goals. I believe these bishops are living in another era or projecting their own needs on me. I certainly donít think they understand the impact of their words. And how could I live with myself if I followed their directives?
My mom is a wonderful person, as good and as faithful as they come. Recently she was called in by her bishop as a warning and told that she has four months before her temple recommend expires. He told her that he did not feel right about signing her temple recommend because he felt she was violating the Word of Wisdom. My mom is overweight. The bishop told her that he had done some calculating and that in the next sixteen weeks he thought she could lose forty pounds. He told her that this should be a goal and that he knew she could do it. He said he thought it was essential to her worthiness. Well, my mom was humiliated. Sheís so embarrassed, she wonít even tell my dad. (I know sheíd never tell the stake president.) I found her in tears and she couldnít hold back her anger. Can this man do this?
Brother Q (not his initial) is the counselor in the bishopric over Scouting. He is very big on the whole program, says it "turned his life around," and talks about it every time he bears his testimony. He is also in charge of organizing the administration of the sacrament and has created some "unwritten rules" about gets to bless and pass the sacrament. If you donít attend your troop meetings or arenít advancing at the rate he thinks you should, you donít pass the sacrament. If you arenít an Eagle Scout, you arenít asked to bless the sacrament. He calls the priests "our Eagles" and "this weekís role models." Many boys just skip sacrament meeting. Some parents are angry, some feel guilty that they havenít helped their boys more with rank advancement, and others are proud that their sons are "good" examples.
When my husband said that the practice was unkind and insensitive, Brother Q said he was just doing his job. He wanted the boys to have good examples before them and that he honestly didnít believe he should select those that were not doing their best. Our son has never been particularly interested in Scouting. He enjoys art and music. He said that he will get his Eagle if it is important to us, but he resents the pressure from the ward. He wonders why the bishop doesnít do something. We wonder the same thing. When my husband talked to the bishop, the bishop said that Brother Q is a wonderful man who is "learning and growing in his calling," that we should be loving and patient, and that he has a personal testimony that Brother Q loves the youth. My son thinks Brother Q hates him.
My bishop cancelled the Relief Society aerobic or fitness class, refusing us permission to use the cultural hall or the VCR. It was a wonderful class and helped many of the sisters. We took turns watching each otherís preschoolers so that no one would have to stay home. Many of the women cannot afford to join a gym. Our Relief Society was trying to help women young and old. Even some men came to the class. The bishopís reasons were that "the music was too loud and pulsating" (he was wrong), that the clothing was immodest and inappropriate for temple recommend holders (we do not dress immodestly), and that we should not have men in the class seeing us dressed like that. He told us we should learn to can fruit, quilt, or have cultural refinement lessons instead.
I have been married for nineteen years. I joined the Church five weeks prior to our marriage. We were sealed after eleven years of marriage. Unknown to me at the time, Steve [pseudonym] was unfaithful to me during our first decade of married life. I have learned to forgive and have overlooked a great deal in our years together; yet he still has a wandering eye and accompanies his glances with specific, anatomical, suggestive, and demeaning comments about other women. He makes these statements in front of me and our teenage children. While I find ogling and leering inappropriate and inconsistent with temple covenants, Steve thinks that I am "extreme" and repeatedly tells me, "I look but I donít touch. As long as I am faithful to the letter of the law, I am upholding our marriage vows. Besides, there is nothing wrong with admiring a pretty girl." I asked Steve to meet with the bishop to discuss this behavior. He refused: "I know Iím not doing anything wrong. Why should I talk to the bishop." I made an appointment, confident that the bishop, given Steveís history, would recognize my concerns and see the negative impact of his behavior on our marriage.
Such was not the case. The bishop repeatedly told me how far Steve has come, that his past involvements should be forgotten, and that I should learn to "cherish" him and make him feel "manly." He said I was "too touchy" and "overly sensitive" and that Iíd "swallowed too much womenís lib drivel." He spent most of the time asking about my grooming and hygiene and whether I "satisfied" Steve. He then suggested that he and I continue to meet weekly to see what I might do to be a "more supportive wife."
Needless to say, I was stunned. I left feeling degraded and disgraced. I am now angry at both my husband and my bishop. It takes every bit of self-restraint not to slap Steve when he makes suggestive comments in public. My children are embarrassed and disgusted at their fatherís behavior. I know they can see the hurt on my face. I have never seen myself as a feminist. Iíve always felt that they were just unhappy women who hated men. I am now reconsidering that decision as well as many others.
I am a widow of nine years. I was not prepared for my husbandís death in any wayóemotionally, physically, socially, financially, etc. I turned to my bishop for help feeling that he had the strength I lacked and could make financial decisions when I was unable to. He seemed so confident and self-assured. It wasnít difficult for me to follow his advice. He kept telling me that everything would be all right. Well, I listened, and itís costing me plenty. I really trusted him. He told me to pay off the mortgage with my husbandís insurance payment, to buy shares of a certain over-the-counter stock (he knew someone in the company) with our savings, and to invest my husbandís pension in a real estate partnership. Today, my house has decreased in value over 40 percent. I canít sell it without taking a financial loss. Iíve had to hire a lawyer at $225 an hour to defend me against a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation for insider trading. The real estate partnership has seen law suits pending for failure to conduct and disclose an environmental impact report. Needless to say, my bishops didnít explain the difference between a partnership and a limited partnership; thus Iím fully liable for all decisions/judgment of the court. The SEC investigator said I was the most gullible person he had ever encountered. Since my bishop didnít buy stock or invest in the real estate partnership, he doesnít have any of these problem. I have decreasing assets and mounting legal bills. Iím unable to sleep. My lawyer says I should declare bankruptcy. What a sorry state Iím in!
I guess Iím just dumb, but I hope I can stop someone else from making the mistake I made. When my father died, he left $20,000 to each of us children. My sisters gave the money to their husbands to invest, and my brother made a down payment on a house. Iím not married and I wanted to be independent from my family, so I didnít ask them for help. I know that Iím not trained to make good financial decisions; I used credit-card shopping as a way of making me feel better and got seriously in debt. I was slowly paying the charges off, but barely staying ahead of the interest. I told my home teachers about the inheritance, assuming they would tell me to pay off these billsóthe decision that seemed logical to me. Instead, one called me the next day and suggested that I invest in two stocks the he "knew were going to be sure things." Since my home teacher does this for a living and is very successful professionally, I followed his advice, including buying on margin, hoping in a reasonable time to achieve financial security. Instead, the stock dropped by a third in value. I got a margin call from Merrill Lynch. My home teacher said heís really sorryóhe had no idea this would happen. I canít face my family with this news. My mother would just tell me Iím irresponsible and should find a husband. Iím now working a second job at McDonaldís, surrounded by teenagers who have more money and fewer headaches than I do. My bishop and stake president still tell me I have the best home teachers in the Church, only theyíre not the ones stuck with the bills!
For my entire term as Primary president, I was at loggerheads with Brother G. [not his initial], the counselor in the bishopric assigned to the Primary. In our ward, members of the bishopric rotate in greeting the Primary children in their Sunday meeting and giving them a short message. Brother G. invariably spoke about topics inappropriate for children or addressed acceptable topics in inappropriate ways. For example, after the death of a prominent ward member, he talked to the children in ways that dwelled upon the morbid aspects of death and bred unnecessary concern about the certainty of their own deaths. He has also addressed such topics as adultery, hell, the terrors of the last days, etc. I felt that he was intentionally drawing out the childrenís fears as visual aids for his own teaching. As a presidency, we told him how we felt and asked him to consult with us about future topics. The children were our stewardship and we understood their needs. Brother God absolutely refused, and said he would speak "as the Spirit moved" him on any topic he chose. I told him he did not have my permission to do this while I was Primary president. His parting shot to me was, "Donít make me use my priesthood on you!" They shouldnít call women to preside over the Primary unless they trust their judgment. I know Brother God and others like him would not treat a male presidency with this lack of respect.
As part of a Sunday School lesson on apostasy in early Mormonism, the teacher identified the root problem as the roles of Adam and Eve. Eve had, he announced, acted out of disobedience, selfishness, and worldliness; she was more willing to follow Satan than Heavenly Father; she betrayed both the Lord and Adam; had she been obedient, another means would have been provided for her and Adam to replenish the earth; the sorrows and problems of mortality are not inevitable but are a direct result of her shortsightedness and willfulness; she usurped Adamís priesthood and manliness by deciding to strike out on her own; Eve will always be remembered for sin and disobedience, not faith and valor; disobedience and willfulness are the root of all apostasy. Eve was the worldís first apostate and this was the legacy she left for her children. Many early Church leaders were influenced by willful or disobedient wives, among whom were Emma Smith and Dolly Harris. He warned the men to beware of their wivesí counsel. The men in the class literally cheered out loud. The women were stunned. Some tried to speak up, but he smilingly identified them as Eveís willful daughters who had inherited her desire to upstage the priesthood. One woman pointed out that Eve and Adam were equally yoked as our first parents; he said that Eve was Adamís yoke. Our Relief Society president said that Joseph F. Smith had seen "glorious Mother Eve" in his vision of the redemption of the dead and praised her and "many of her faithful daughters who had lived through the ages and worshiped the true and living God" (D&C 138:39). The teacher dismissed her comments and said that the story of the Fall teaches the importance of priesthood leadership and authority in the home, and the consequences when we do not follow those called by God to lead. In my heart I know that these things are not true. I donít have the knowledge, understanding, or skills to counter such ideas. Many women have merely stopped coming to his class. Others sit with their husbands and are just discouraged. All the men are constantly telling him what an outstanding teacher he is. This all seems like madness to me! When will it stop?
Our ward newsletter is edited by a total misogynist. He butchers the articles submitted by the Relief Society, young Women, and Primary presidents. Those organizations are lucky if thy get three complete sentences, but not a word is changed when the High Priest group leader rambles on about their latest social or the Scoutmaster drones on about an Eagle project. Then to introduce a new ward member to us oldtimers, he ran this ad in the last issue: "Wanted: The Perfect Woman. Recently divorced man (my wife left me after thirteen years of marriage because she was tired of being married. She has the kids) seeks the ideal wife. Looking for eternal companion who will accompany me to the Celestial Kingdom. Qualifications include: Long, shiny hair (prefer blonde or redhead). Likes country music. Sustains and supports priesthood leaders, especially in the home. Great cook (must cook Italian, Chinese, and American). Wears perfume well. Enjoys spectator sports (football, basketball, hockey). Current temple recommend holder. Musical (sings, plays piano and at least one other instrument). Has submitted four generations of family history and wants to work on mine). Enjoys yard work. Never wears red fingernail polish. Voted for Ross Perot. Makes cakes and pies from scratch. Good legs (wears heels) and attractive smile (very white teeth). Keeps a tidy house. Good health history (produce evidence). Experience with handicapped children a plus." This is just one of a string of inappropriate and sexist articles published by our ward newsletter editor. When we complain, he just laughs and says itís all in good humor. YUCK!

Although these anonymous voices should not be generalized to represent more than their own experience, some conclusions seem obvious.

  1. Members need forums in which to express their concerns safely, without feeling badgered, put down, or in fear of punishment. One of the letters concluded, "I guess thereís nothing you can do, but I feel better just writing this letter." Listening to a problem is not the same as fixing the problem, but it is a start.

  2. Perhaps because the Church has trained members to think in authoritarian terms, every disagreement in which a leader is involved can turn instantly into a power struggle in which the leader construes the issue as a challenge to his (or her) authority. Leaders do not need to feel required to be in charge of everything, have an answer for every question, or validate every activity that takes place under ward auspices. Conflict resolution training would help relieve leaders of this unrealistic need, would establish a set of procedures that would help members feel safer in bringing up their concerns, and would share both problems and solutions more widely.

  3. There is a widely perceived need for a neutral third party to help resolve conflicts. As some of these accounts report, an appeal to higher authority frequently results in a second injury as the higher authority acts to sustain the authority of the lower authority. The Church has no system of arbitration, no mediators, no ombudsmen, no consumer advocates, etc. As long as the current system of vesting virtually all power in the hands of priesthood leaders is retained, then abuses certainly will occur. If maintaining this structure is important to the Church, then building in a system of safeguards for members should be a high priority.

  4. The experiences of women in the Church need immediate attention on the highest level. No doubt many women feel contented, fulfilled, and valued by their Church experiences; but these reports shows that at least some womenís experiences at Church and with other Church members hurt them and make them feel devalued. What does it mean that any bishop would feel that it fell within his prerogative as a Church officer to restrict access to the temple for an otherwise worthy woman because of her weight or that a Sunday School teacher would label Mother Eve as the worldís first apostate? The underlying attitudes are profoundly misogynistic. These incidents show a hostility toward women that is chilling.

An important area that needs more study is the patterns of vulnerability in the Church. Are Mormon women more vulnerable to ecclesiastical and spiritual abuse because they are women or because they are not leaders? Are men in the Church perceived more frequently as domineering and insensitive because they are men or because they usually hold leadership positions and ultimately always hold higher leadership positions than women? Is ecclesiastical abuse primarily a gender issue, a power issue, or both?

The official Church response to complaints from women about their status is usually two-pronged: General Authorities speak in the womenís general meetings and in general conference to assure women that they are respected and admired and to remind leaders to consult them on ward decisions. Both prongs still leave women without a voice in solving the underlying problem. First, women have no channel by which to respond to the "we admire you" messages. They have no way of saying whether these messages in fact make them feel admired or whether these messages even address what women themselves perceive as the problem. Second, telling male leaders to consult women more often still leaves the male leaders in charge of setting the boundaries and controlling the time, the place, and the degree of the consultation, not to mention whether the women participants feel that their input is valued, respected, and followed. It also provides no channel for women who have suggestions, complaints, or insights but who are not members of the ward council.

And obviously, the solution to this problem cannot simply be to train leaders to be more benign and sensitive, desirable though this goal is. Even if leaders were "perfect," the appropriate role for women in such a system would still be passivity. (This description also applies to children and to men without leadership callings, of course.) The current system is terribly out of balance: leaders have too much power; women have too little. Abuses are inevitable. If sensitivity and inclusivity training are in order for leaders in the Church, assertiveness training is in order for members.

Any lasting solution must involve members, not just leaders. Any change for women must involve women themselves. The Mormon Allianceís purposes are directly relevant here: 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.