Holly Richardson: Making changes in the wake of the Mormon #MeToo Moment

My heart is with the victims who have been unheard for too long.

FILE - In this Jan. 16, 2018, file photo, shows President Russell M. Nelson, center, as his counselors Dallin H. Oaks, left and Henry B. Eyring, speaking during a news conference, in Salt Lake City. The Mormon church, announced Monday, March 26, 2018, is making significant changes to its guidelines for how local leaders are supposed to handle reports of sexual abuse and one-on-one meetings with youth amid heightened scrutiny over sexual abuse from the #MeToo movement and one week after a former prominent church missionary leader was accused of sexually assaulting two women in the 1980s. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Since allegations of abuse against a former president of the church’s Missionary Training Center have become public, more people have come forward with their own stories of abuse. People have shared their stories with me, others have shared with Salt Lake Tribune editors, with therapists and undoubtedly there are others sharing their own Mormon #MeToo stories with friends and family.

Where do we begin to make institutional change that will protect potential victims but also leadership?

First, let me say I am heartened by two very recent statements by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Do not counsel people to stay with an abuser and, now, there may be an additional person present for ecclesiastical interviews. I think those are both great strides in the right direction. I also know there are great leaders who are listening and are advocating for victims right now. Thank you.

There are also some misconceptions that need to be addressed and overcome. First, we cannot assume that every leader will always be able to discern when an abuser is lying. Typically, abusers are skilled at lying and manipulation. They’ve been working on their cover story for years.

Next, there’s a misconception that victims always have perfect recall, that they always understand what has happened to them and how they should react and that if they did not flee, yell, or fight back, they are somehow culpable or even complicit.

Let’s begin by believing. That doesn’t mean every allegation is true. Of course they aren’t. But, false reporting — believed to be between 2 percent and 8 percent — is the exception, not the rule. Let’s start with the believing the overwhelming majority of reports that are true.

The West Valley City police department has an impressive campaign to "Start by Believing.” From their website we read:

“There is no shame when a loved one dies. When your car is stolen. When you’re diagnosed with cancer. Friends and loved ones gather around you for support. They don’t blame you for ‘bringing it on yourself.’ It should be the same with sexual violence.”

Amen. This applies to people, organizations and institutions.

I think the concept of two-deep leadership needs to go beyond Boy Scouts and Primary.

These guidelines must also extend to the highest levels. They protect both the interviewee and the interviewer. False allegations, although incredibly rare, are also destructive.

I believe it’s time for intimate conversations to stop. A leader can ask youth and adults alike if they are keeping the law of chastity without delving into details that can tip over into the lurid and inappropriate.

I believe leaders need training on abuse, trauma and dealing with members suffering from mental illness. At the very least, there should be some sort of annual video training to address these topics. I like the idea of a hotline for victims. I like the idea of women being in key roles to counsel with women who are victims and help them receive the appropriate help. Women leaders could also be trained in recognizing signs of abuse and how to respond appropriately when abuse or assault is disclosed.

I believe the church could do a better job of vetting those it continues to call/promote through the ranks of leadership. A full decade before the incident at the MTC, Joseph Bishop was president of Weber State College. Warning signs were ignored. Jan Tyler was the Dean of Women’s Affairs. In an oral history interview given in 1980, she describes the atmosphere on campus under Bishop. “I felt that he was a person without a sense of morality, of what was right and wrong. He was almost amoral.”

In her words, he was “malicious,” mocked people, lied deliberately, kept an “enemy” list and even wiretapped her office. She sued the school based on discrimination and settled out of court. By the time of her 1980 interview, four years before the MTC incident, many of the problems with Bishop had become public knowledge. Yet he continued to advance within the ranks of the LDS Church.

My heart is with the victims who have been unheard for too long. It is also with the church I love. I have hope that the LDS Church will not shy away from the Mormon #MeToo Moment and will make lasting institutional change. For all our sakes.

(Photo Courtesy Holly Richardson)

Holly Richardson is a Salt Lake Tribune columnist whose default position is to believe.