Tribune editorial: Church still not providing safe haven for assault victims

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU-Idaho in Rexburg, Wednesday January 17, 2018.

No woman should ever be afraid that she will be punished for reporting to any authority — secular or religious — that she has been sexually assaulted.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seemed to have grasped that when it went through a long process of soul-searching that led to a change in the way Brigham Young University and other LDS schools handle such cases.

Or maybe it didn’t.

BYU changed its rules last year so that anyone reporting that they had been assaulted would no longer have to worry that, in making such a claim, their own conduct would be thrown back in their face. The school, after a lot of pushing from some of its current and former students, decided that the victims of assault would no longer have to fear that they would risk being tossed out of school if the circumstances included some behavior on the part of the victim that violated the school’s Honor Code.

This amnesty recognized that if the victim of an assault had been doing something the school forbids — most often in these cases either drinking alcohol or being in a place they weren’t supposed to be — the victim might fear making a report. Or, worse, the attacker might threaten to report the victim’s Honor Code transgression as a way of keeping her quiet.

A large and dangerous loophole in this new policy is now apparent after a female student at BYU-Idaho was suspended from school because her bishop withdrew his endorsement. And he withdrew his endorsement because she — and her attacker — discussed with him not only an incident of sexual assault but the fact that both of them had been drinking.

The victim was assured by the appropriate school officials that she would not be punished for making her report to the BYU-I Title IX office, which by federal law is responsible for investigating such claims and for ensuring a safe environment on campus. And, technically, she wasn’t. At least not by the Title IX officials.

But the result, being tossed out of school for being honest about the circumstances that surrounded her dreadful experience, was the same.

An atmosphere where women are afraid to report that they have been assaulted is hardly unique to the LDS Church or its institutions. A great many women in that situation have been challenged by men of all faiths, or none, in religious and in judicial settings, accused of lying, of leading their attacker on, made to feel that it was all somehow their fault.

All of society is, or should be, moving away from that.

Religious institutions, which are supposed to be a comfort to the afflicted, should be leading that effort. Not struggling to catch up.