Mormon bishops told ex-wives of former Hatch, White House staffer to consider his ‘career ambitions’ when they reported his physical abuse, they say

Washington • The LDS Church declared Thursday that it has “zero tolerance” for abuse of any kind but couldn’t speak directly to allegations by the ex-wives of a former White House official who reported they received no help from their Mormon clergy when they were being abused.

Jennifer Willoughby and Colbie Holderness — former wives of Rob Porter, who resigned as White House staff secretary this week — said their LDS bishops either didn’t believe them or didn’t step in to help when they alleged Porter had physically abused them.

Porter has denied the charges.

When I tried to get help, I was counseled to consider carefully how what I said might affect his career,” Willoughby wrote in a blog post last year, adding later, “Friends and clergy didn’t believe me. And so I stayed.”

She also told The Intercept that when she went to her bishop about Porter’s anger issues, he cautioned that it could hurt Porter’s image. “Keep in mind, Rob has career ambitions,” she recalled the local LDS leader saying, according to the online news outlet.

Holderness, who gave the Daily Mail a picture of her with a black eye she said Porter gave her, told the British newspaper that the Mormon clergy was of no help when she needed it.

It wasn’t until I went to a secular counselor at my workplace one summer and told him what was going on that he was the first person, and not a male religious leader, who told me that what was happening was not OK,” she told the Daily Mail.

Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said Thursday he couldn’t speak to the individual circumstances of the allegations. But he issued a statement that abuse is not tolerated.

“It is difficult to speak to specific circumstances without complete information from all involved, but the position of the church is clear: There is zero tolerance for abuse of any kind,” Hawkins said. “Church leaders are given instruction on how to prevent and report abuse and how to care for those who have been abused.”

But these men are lay leaders, Julie de Azevedo Hanks, a Salt Lake City therapist, pointed out Thursday, and may have little idea “what to do when domestic abuse is disclosed, especially when the perpetrator denies it.”

And it does not surprise her that LDS bishops might side with men, especially those who seem so competent and caring at church and in public places.

“Since it is more likely that the bishop knows the husband (because they’ve been in church classes together, maybe even served together in callings),” Hanks said, “it is more likely that the bishop will sympathize with the male.”

As a Mormon and a professional therapist, Hanks warns LDS leaders against “taking sides or giving advice to couples where there is physical violence.”

These men “should believe the victim and validate her (or his) experience,” she wrote in an email, “give the victim information for domestic violence helplines, refer to professional counseling immediately, and hold the perpetrator responsible for his actions.”

At the same time, Hanks argued it is “unfair to expect a lay clergy to know how to handle every possible family situation without training.”

Often friends and family, she noted, “don’t even know how to help the couple or to support the victim.”

Porter, who attended LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo for a year before transferring to Harvard and who served a Mormon mission in London, resigned from the White House, though he says the allegations are false.

“I took the photos given to the media nearly 15 years ago and the reality behind them is nowhere close to what is being described,” Porter said. “I have been transparent and truthful about these vile claims, but I will not further engage publicly with a coordinated smear campaign.”

Porter was a former chief of staff to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who made public statements alternately condemning the “vile attack on such a decent man,” and later saying he was “heartbroken” by the allegations and denouncing domestic violence as “abhorrent.”

Porter also had previously worked for Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who declined comment.

Meanwhile on Thursday, the White House said that Porter was working on a temporary security clearance while his FBI investigation continued. Porter, as Trump’s aide overseeing all paperwork the president sees, would have had access to classified information.

Raj Shah, the principal deputy White House press secretary, declined to say how many other White House officials were on temporary clearances but noted that Porter hadn’t been denied a permanent one before he resigned.

Shah also said the president was “surprised” by the allegations, though chief of staff John Kelly was aware of some of the details before the story broke in the Daily Mail.

“He was surprised,” Shah said of the president. “He, like many of us, did not see that in Rob Porter, did not see what these allegations have brought forward.”

And Shah acknowledged that the White House had fumbled a bit in responding to the news.

Kelly’s initial statement said that Porter is a “man of true integrity” and that he was “proud to serve alongside him.” He later said he was “shocked” by the allegations and added that, “There is no place for domestic violence in our society.”

“It’s fair to say,” Shah said, “we all could have done better the last few hours, the last few days.”

Reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack contributed to this story.