When a student at Brigham Young University-Idaho reported being sexually assaulted in July, she thought she could not be punished under the Mormon school’s Honor Code.
BYU-Idaho and other colleges owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints promise amnesty from school discipline to students who report sexual misconduct. The 2017 change was part of sweeping reforms that began at BYU in Provo after the university came under scrutiny for punishing victims of sex crimes — expelling them in some cases — if they had broken school rules that forbid alcohol and coffee, restrict contact between male and female students, impose a strict dress code and ban “homosexual behavior.”
Amnesty, the school said, would encourage reporting and keep victims in college.
But the man accused by the BYU-Idaho student told their bishop she had been drinking at the time of the alleged assault. The bishop, she said, characterized the assault as “irrelevant” and revoked her ecclesiastical endorsement, which is required to attend the university.
The school suspended her even though her sexual misconduct complaint was upheld.
The high-profile policy changes at Mormon-owned schools did not address ecclesiastical endorsements: annual reviews in which clergy, usually an LDS bishop, verify that a student is “living by Church standards,” according to instructions on BYU’s website.
Bishops can revoke students’ endorsement at any time, effectively kicking them out of school — a power that critics say pokes holes in amnesty and can be easily exploited by abusers who have compromising information about their victims.
“It sounds to me like the system has a built-in loophole that would facilitate retaliation,” said Steven Healy, co-founder of the campus safety consulting firm Margolis Healy, which often advises schools on sex assault response.
“What’s the message you’re sending to people who want to report that they’ve been assaulted? It says to folks, ‘Don’t come forward because you’re going to be punished — in another system, but nonetheless, you’re going to be punished.’”
LDS Church officials declined to answer questions about whether ecclesiastical endorsements weaken the schools’ promises of amnesty, whether there are safeguards to prevent sex offenders from using the threat of bishop discipline to jeopardize a victim’s education as blackmail or retaliation, or how the church’s lay clergy is trained to respond to such cases.
But in a prepared statement, spokesman Daniel Woodruff defended the endorsement requirement.
“Students who study within the Church Educational System have wonderful and unique opportunities for learning and growth. All students agree to demonstrate high moral conduct, act with integrity and honesty, and adhere to standards of dress and grooming. Bishops have an important responsibility to help them live in this manner and continue to grow spiritually.”
BYU-Idaho declined to comment on a list of questions submitted by The Salt Lake Tribune and said it supported the church’s statement.
‘Did you know I was assaulted?’
At an apartment last month in Rexburg, Idaho, a group of students was lying on the floor, watching a movie, said the BYU-I student, who asked to be identified by the pseudonym Maria. The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify sexual assault victims.
It was no secret that she had been drinking beyond the point where she could reasonably consent to sexual contact, Maria said. Her speech was slurred and she had been stumbling before she settled under a blanket the group was sharing, next to a man she described as a casual acquaintance from her LDS student congregation, Maria said.
She said she was in and out of sleep, facing away from the man, when he began groping her both over and under her clothes. Maria said she tried to tell him “no,” but isn’t certain she was coherent.
“I know sounds came out,” she said.
The man said he also “was in and out of sleep the whole time.” In an interview with The Tribune, he said he woke up to find Maria next to him on the floor.
“I started touching her, and … yeah,” the man said. “I think at the very beginning we thought, yes, it was consensual but I guess I started touching her more how she didn’t want me to.”
When the others had fallen asleep or left the room, she said, the man tried to get on top of her and pull off her clothes. She said she pushed him off.
He left for a while but later returned, she said.
“He explained he’s just not himself when he’s tired, and he’s engaged and he shouldn’t have done that,” Maria said. “I said he knew I was drunk and he had no excuse.”
The next day, Maria told Rexburg police the man had assaulted her. The agency confirmed that her case exists but said it would not release records because an investigation was pending. The man said police have not contacted him.
Maria also reported to BYU-I’s Title IX office, which handles complaints about sexual misconduct and gender bias.
“I asked them specifically, ‘Am I going to get kicked out of school for reporting this?’ Point blank, multiple times,” Maria said. “I made sure it wouldn’t be communicated to the Honor Code Office, that amnesty and leniency would be applicable, before they even started an investigation.”
Two days after he was contacted by Title IX investigators, the man Maria accused met with their bishop in Rexburg.
A detailed confession, the man said, was important so the bishop could help both him and Maria.
Maria said she believes he reported to the bishop to retaliate against her for her Title IX report.
The man denied that.
“I knew I was in the wrong, I knew she was in the wrong,” he said. “I only went to the bishop so I could work on what I needed to work on. I didn’t go with any intentions to report her and retaliate. I was hoping she could work on her stuff, too … so she can be helped with drinking and following the Honor Code.”
Maria was called to the bishop’s office next.
“He said I needed to come in, or my ecclesiastical endorsement would be at risk,” Maria said. She said she told the bishop she didn’t want to discuss the matter because a police investigation was underway.
“I asked him point blank, ‘Did you know I was assaulted?’” she said. “And he said yes, and that it was irrelevant.”
She said the bishop told her the man she accused was remorseful and was working to get his temple recommend — a bishop’s authorization of worthiness to enter an LDS temple for certain ceremonies — in time to get married in August (the engagement has since ended, the man said).
By contrast, she said, the bishop was frustrated she wouldn’t focus on her drinking.
“He told me he wished I would open my heart more and be less ‘bitter,’” she said. “Of course I’m bitter; I was assaulted.”
In a letter, which The Tribune has obtained, the university suspended Maria for two semesters because her bishop withdrew her endorsement.
The bishop, Jay Ellis, would not discuss her discipline. Ellis said he believed her assault allegation, saying, “My heart goes out to her for that” — but he said it was unconnected to his decision.
Three days after Maria was suspended, she received another letter, this one from the Title IX office. Her assault complaint was substantiated and the man also was suspended; he said he also lost the bishop’s endorsement.
Maria said she asked her Title IX investigator for help when her bishop first called her and said her endorsement was at risk.
“He said Title IX [amnesty] protections cannot be applied in an ecclesiastical setting,” Maria said.
‘Could it undermine amnesty?’
In 2016, BYU in Provo convened an advisory council to review its practices after a dozen current and former students told The Tribune they were investigated for potential Honor Code violations as a result of reporting sex crimes — and dozens more said they didn’t report for fear of discipline.
The council, which included faculty and administrators with backgrounds in nursing and psychology, outlined 23 changes that would improve how BYU responded to sexual misconduct. Among its recommendations was providing amnesty from school discipline if someone who reports sexual misconduct had committed Honor Code violations when the misconduct occurred — and “leniency” for unrelated violations that may surface during an investigation.
Those provisions were extended to BYU schools in Idaho and Hawaii, as well as LDS Business College in Salt Lake City.
But some victims said at the time that the reforms didn’t go far enough, pointing specifically at ecclesiastical endorsements.
The council recommended that the findings be shared with the LDS Church. But it did not suggest any new training or guidelines for bishops, who still could revoke the endorsement of any student.
“The withdrawal of a student’s ecclesiastical endorsement automatically results in the loss of good Honor Code standing,” which means a student cannot enroll or graduate, according to BYU-I’s website. At BYU in Provo, a withdrawn endorsement means a student “must discontinue enrollment.”
Benjamin Ogles, dean of BYU’s College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences and head of the council that recommended amnesty, said bishops’ endorsements were outside the council’s assignment to review campus policies.
“We tried to stay focused on that part of it and not to get into the business of telling the church how [to] handle their things,” Ogles said. “We didn't feel like it was our place to tell ecclesiastical leaders how to handle these situations.”
But Ogles acknowledged that BYU’s requirement for bishops’ endorsements could create “double jeopardy” for students who have broken the Honor Code.
“Could it undermine amnesty or leniency [for assault survivors]?” Ogles said. “I suppose it could.”
He pointed to a survey on sexual assault, given to students at the Provo campus in spring 2017, five months after amnesty for assault victims was announced. More than 90 percent of respondents still believed that if they were assaulted, they would be investigated for Honor Code compliance — and 45 percent thought their ecclesiastical endorsements would be questioned.
Healy said he’s “shocked” that the council didn’t take bishops’ power over a student’s enrollment into consideration when it was addressing the issue of amnesty.
“It is a back door to retaliation,” he said. “I would hope that reasonable minds should be able to understand how we’ve set up a system that’s revictimizing victims.”
That’s how former BYU student Colleen Payne Dietz said she felt after she told her bishop she had been kidnapped and assaulted by a man when she was a freshman in 2001. She said the bishop gave her a copy of “The Miracle of Forgiveness,” a now-discontinued book on sin, with a controversial passage instructing the reader: “It is better to die in defending one’s [virginity] than to live having lost it without a struggle.”
Then, she said, he told her he would have her expelled from BYU if she were to become pregnant.
BYU’s new policies for amnesty and leniency wouldn’t have offered her any protection, she said.
“My situation 100 percent was handled by my bishop,” Dietz said. “I was made to feel worthless and unworthy of taking the sacrament. I didn't receive any of the comfort that I went to receive. I received exactly the opposite.”
‘An enormous amount of power’
The authority that clergy have over students at LDS Church-owned schools is rare in higher education, even among religious colleges, said Michael Austin, a BYU graduate who has studied sexual assault responses at faith-affiliated campuses. He now oversees investigations as executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Evansville, a Methodist school in Indiana.
While many religious universities require pastoral references for admission, LDS schools require endorsements to be renewed annually. And they have formal procedures for clergy to withdraw endorsements at any time.
“I don’t know of any other university that does that,” Austin said. “Your bishop can kick you out of school, and if you’re a professor, your bishop can fire you. As a university administrator, to give up that much power is … deeply problematic and at the very least should have some kind of an appeal procedure.”
In 2015, BYU slightly relaxed its rules for exemptions from ecclesiastical endorsements, removing language that had limited exemptions only to “unusual circumstances” and ending a requirement that students seeking exemptions allow school officials to consult with their bishops.
But it’s not clear whether sexual assault is “compelling grounds” for an exemption; the policy change came about amid criticism that BYU was discriminating against students who lose their faith in the LDS Church. The window for appeal is brief — five days after notification at BYU in Provo and two days at BYU-Idaho — and already has expired in Maria’s case.
BYU-Idaho’s website also indicates that a withdrawn endorsement can be appealed to a stake president — a step above ward bishops in the church hierarchy. Maria said her bishop told her he had consulted with the stake president before revoking her endorsement, and that both agreed it was the right course of action.
LDS bishops are lay clergy who are unpaid and aren’t required to attend professional seminaries, Austin noted. A lack of training or expertise can be particularly hazardous in cases of sexual assault, where criminal investigations may be pending, victims may be traumatized and predators may be looking for leverage over victims, he said.
“Ecclesiastical endorsements give an enormous amount of power to an untrained leader who may or may not be understanding about things,” Austin said. “Ecclesiastical endorsements, for both faculty and students … open up the door to a fairly horrific level of possible blackmail.”
In the 2017 survey at BYU in Provo, 6 percent of students who reported being assaulted in the previous year said that their assailants coerced them by threatening to talk to the Honor Code Office or the person who signed their ecclesiastical endorsement.
That’s what one former student said her assailant did to force her to submit to his repeated assaults in 2012.
Julie, who asked to be identified by her first name only, said she was raped by a neighbor whom she knew from her student ward in Provo. Before the assault, she said, the man noticed she was unhappy at church, and she confessed she was losing faith.
For months after the rape, Julie said, he used that information to coerce her to go out with him and let him reach under her clothes, threatening to tell the Honor Code Office about her faith transition if she didn’t submit. BYU did not offer amnesty at the time, so the man didn’t need to threaten to go to the bishop, she said. But he did force her to attend church with him, in a ward where he was well-liked.
“He would take me to go say hi to the bishop in the halls, putting his arm firmly around my shoulders and smiling the whole time,” Julie said.
She knew those interactions would undermine her with the bishop if she ever tried to say the man had raped and coerced her, she said.
“It was a power play, and he didn’t have to say a word,” she said.
Amnesty is a good start, but It would be naive to assume that untrained bishops all will respond to assault appropriately, Julie said.
“Some bishops would breeze through interviews and others would ask detailed, invasive, personal questions,” she said. “Everything was left to interpretation, and my whole life hung in the balance of that interpretation being understanding.”
For now, after suspensions at BYU-Idaho, Maria and the man she accused are deciding what to do while their schooling is on hold.
The man said he felt his bishop and the Title IX office handled the case well.
“I do want to go back,” he said.
Maria, on the other hand, wants to make other plans.
“In all honestly, I don’t even know if I will be going back to that school,” she said. “It’s a terrible place. I don’t feel safe there.”