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“I shouldn’t be at BYU. … I wasn’t worthy to be there.”
That’s what a 2019 Brigham Young University graduate recalled being told when she first confided to a friend that she had been sexually assaulted.
She was 17 and in her first months at the school. They would also be her last, if her Latter-day Saint bishop agreed with her friend; she needed his recommendation to stay enrolled at BYU. The school, which is overseen by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, requires students to obtain yearly endorsements from clergy, confirming they are following BYU’s strict code of conduct — including its “chastity” rule.
But when the student “confessed” the assault to her bishop, she said, he waved off the intimate details and immediately asked two questions: “Did you say yes, and did you want to?”
No, she said. She didn’t.
Her bishop told her she did not need to repent and put her in touch with a therapist.
That’s exactly how clergy should handle “confessions” of sexual sin, say mental health and criminal justice experts who have pushed for more training in Latter-day Saint settings on responding to sexual violence.
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Bishops who “have a better understanding of how victims of sexual assault really react” might be more able to recognize red flags of abuse and avoid exacerbating feelings of guilt that survivors often feel, said Julie Valentine, a dean in BYU’s nursing school and a longtime sexual assault nurse examiner.
Valentine in 2016 served on a faculty committee that recommended sweeping reforms to how BYU handles sexual assaults after a series of reports by The Salt Lake Tribune showed the university was investigating, and sometimes expelling, sex assault survivors for breaking rules like the dress code, visiting hours and the school’s “chastity” requirement.
The committee found that “reporting sexual violence to ecclesiastical leaders has led to varied experiences” and urged the school to forward its report to church headquarters.
Since then, multiple students have told The Tribune that they, too, have had “varied experiences” with bishops after they were assaulted.
But nearly all said their bishops’ responses were a major factor in how they healed.
Two bishops, two approaches
Before the 2019 graduate spoke with her bishop, she already felt immense guilt over consensual contact that happened before the date turned violent, she said.
In fact, she said, when her assailant warned her that he planned to confess to his own bishop, it was already something she felt obligated to do — even though it could get her kicked out of school. The church teaches that “some mistakes … require confession to the bishop before you can receive the Lord’s forgiveness,” and that includes sexual sins.
But the man wasn’t planning to confess to assault, she said. He was going to admit only to breaking the “law of chastity” — implying that the whole encounter was consensual, she said.
“We need to hold each other accountable and tell our bishops,” the woman recalls him telling her. The Tribune generally does not identify victims in sex crimes.
Not all bishops are savvy to sexual assault — and the woman soon learned that her assailant’s bishop wanted the man to report her to the Honor Code Office.
“Luckily, my bishop was able to talk him out of that,” she said.
In the coming months, as multiple students reported that their bishops were the ones who initiated their discipline after they were assaulted, the woman felt she’d dodged a bullet.
BYU ‘has confidence’ in bishops’ decisions
BYU “has confidence in the ecclesiastical endorsement process,” said Carri Jenkins, spokeswoman for the university.
“As a matter of practice, BYU does not intervene in ecclesiastical matters or endorsements,” Jenkins wrote in an email. “If a student feels their endorsement has been withdrawn based on circumstances that may qualify for amnesty under the university’s Sexual Harassment Policy, the student may petition ... to allow an exception to the ecclesiastical endorsement requirement.”
Asked how the church trains clergy to recognize and respond to sexual assault, church spokesman Chris Moore wrote: “Bishops respond with compassion and empathy and provide support and spiritual counseling to help people overcome the destructive effects of abuse. They take action to protect victims, those who support them, and others as soon as possible.”
Bishops also are instructed to call a “confidential help line” to reach counselors and legal professionals when they discover abuse, Moore said — though some victims have criticized the hotline, arguing that it connects clergy to attorneys who are hired to protect the church.
Victims don’t always recognize abuse
The problem is that victims of sex crimes often do not immediately identify what happened as assault.
“They have a hard time wrapping their head around, ‘I was victimized. I was a victim of sexual assault,’” Valentine said.
That was the reaction of a 2020 graduate who asked to be identified as Kay. The Tribune generally does not identify victims in sex crimes.
Kay, who is nonbinary, said they did not immediately recognize an encounter with a teaching assistant as abusive, even though they said the TA threatened to withhold help in a difficult class after Kay refused a sexual favor — and TAs aren’t allowed to date their students in the first place. Kay didn’t recognize the abuse even though, they said, they told the man “no.”
Instead, Kay said they felt “dirty” and “guilty.” Images from church object lessons on sexual purity cycled through their mind: To be unchaste was to be “a chewed piece of gum or a crumpled-up dollar bill,” they said.
These thoughts and feelings seemed to be spiritual promptings to repent to a bishop. So that’s what Kay did.
“Being a 20-something person, in a room with this old man and having to tell him about sexual stuff you did while he’s watching from across the desk and taking notes ... It’s a really uncomfortable thing,” Kay said.
Unlike the bishop who quickly recognized abuse in the confession of the 2019 graduate, Kay’s bishop took them at their word and forbade Kay from taking the sacrament as part of the repentance process.
Kay didn’t argue. They hoped being disciplined would lift their crushing feelings of guilt and dirtiness.
“I think that’s probably common not just among BYU students but a lot of youth in the church,” Valentine said. “... They will think, ‘How do I get rid of this self-blame?’ and they go into repentance. If they go to an ecclesiastic leader and present what happened to them in that frame of reference, it’s going to be interpreted that way,” Valentine said.
More training needed
Some situations like Kay’s likely could be avoided if bishops were better taught to proactively identify abuse, rather than expecting victims to describe their trauma in a way that very few of them actually do, said Julie de Azevedo Hanks, a Salt Lake County therapist and owner of Wasatch Family Therapy.
“A lot of people who are assaulted for a long time think it was their fault: ‘I chose to be there so I chose whatever consequence happened,’” Hanks said. “Bishops probably aren’t prepared to tease out those complex feelings. Bishops aren’t trained to ask questions that get to, ‘Was this consensual or not?’”
Hanks said “a lot more training” for bishops would be an improvement but wondered if the problem runs deeper.
“This goes to: Should they even be talking to somebody about sexual issues in the first place? Is confession or repentance to a priesthood leader appropriate in the first place?”
The 2019 graduate was torn; her bishop not only had avoided the mistake of requiring repentance after she was assaulted, he had helped her secure professional counseling and protected her when her assailant’s bishop wanted BYU to investigate and potentially punish her.
But even after that optimally handled confession, she said, she still was wracked with guilt.
“Because my bishop was very quick to tell me it wasn’t my fault, I felt like I didn’t really repent,” she said. “I still felt guilty and responsible because there wasn’t a punishment or consequences.”
That wasn’t something one bishop could fix. It was something she had been taught, she said: to heed the sense of “sin lingering.” Sexual violence, she explained, “is often taught as very black and white. There’s rape and there’s consent. One’s a sin, and one’s not.”
To come out of an assault feeling guilty must have meant she was on the “sin” side of that fence, she said.
“It was very much a moral [and] spiritual issue,” she said. “I believed that morally, I was in the wrong, and I needed to repent. It wasn’t until [years] later I was able to separate that guilt from the assault, where I could ‘hold myself accountable’ up until the line where I consented.”
She said other victims might fare better if church teachings on sexuality prepared members for the “nuance” in how sexual violence often plays out: with contact that is initially consensual.
But that would require a significant shift in how the church approaches chastity and sex, Kay said. In a faith tradition where “fornication” is met with the same level of discipline as attempted murder and embezzlement, they said, it may be hard for members to internalize the idea that condemnation might be suspended when consensual contact precedes assault.
“Unless the Mormon church changes their doctrines or practices,” Kay said, the experience of assault survivors “probably won’t change that much.”