Mormon bishops are told to ‘believe the sisters’ when they learn of marital abuse — but they don’t always do so

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Two LDS chapels built adjacent to each other on Angel Street, in Kaysville. Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014.

When Mormon women make the brave but agonizing decision to tell their LDS bishops that their husbands are abusing them, these volunteer clergymen have one initial obligation:

“Believe the sisters.”

That’s the advice coming from lay Mormon leaders and LDS activists, from outside experts and rank-and-file members.

In practice, though, that doesn’t always happen.

In the past week, a number of women have shared traumatic stories of domestic abuse and of LDS bishops who failed to believe them or take action to protect them.

Much like a former White House staffer’s ex-wives, who alleged their lay LDS leaders either didn’t help them or cautioned them against hurting their husband’s career, other women say their bishops were similarly insensitive.

They instead were told, they said, to lose weight, dress better, please their husbands more, read scriptures together, go more often to an LDS temple, fix their own behavior, repent and forgive their husbands.

Some were called liars and homewreckers. They were accused of being cold, sexually unresponsive and indifferent to their husbands’ needs.

Despite fears for their safety, these women report being counseled to stay in dangerous relationships, preserving their marriages at all costs.

Spousal abuse is a daunting problem in Utah, said Jennifer Oxborrow, executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition. And it’s hardly limited to Mormons.

Domestic violence is present all along the religious and socioeconomic spectrum, Oxborrow said, but because Mormonism is Utah’s predominant faith, LDS couples make up the bulk of the Beehive State’s cases.

Some cultural factors, she said, may contribute to the problem or prevent women from seeking the help they need.

Mormon couples have more children than the national average, Oxborrow noted, and Utah has one of the nation’s largest gender-wage gaps. Those forces can increase financial strains in the home and spawn more marital strife.

Doctrinal teachings also come into play. Mormons who are “sealed” in LDS temples view their marriages as meant to last forever, so couples — and the bishops they consult — may decide it’s better to persevere in destructive relationships.

Given the close-knit Mormon community, there is a fair chance “a victim’s ecclesiastical leader knows her abuser very well,” Oxborrow said. “That makes it tough to come forward.”

Domestic abuse also can include sex, a subject some Mormon women may hesitate to discuss with their male bishops.

“We’ve worked extensively with the LDS Church,” she said. “We have developed very specific training for faith-based leaders to recognize risk factors, especially for lethal domestic abuse.”

Even some therapists, Oxborrow pointed out, have a “tendency to minimize and normalize and not fully appreciate how dangerous [these factors] might be.”

Dealing with marital abuse is difficult and complex in any circumstance — not just for Mormons and their volunteer clergy.

“I’ve worked as a therapist for years,” Oxborrow said, “and I’ve said the wrong thing many times.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jennifer Oxborrow, executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, discusses domestic violence legislation being presented during the 2018 legislative session.

The bishop’s role

It’s not uncommon for couples with marital woes to turn to their pastor, priest, rabbi or other spiritual shepherd, many of whom have received college-level schooling to handle such challenging conversations.

But West Valley City resident Alice Faulkner Burch, who leads the all-female Relief Society in the Genesis Group for black Mormons, cautions women against seeking abuse advice from a lay LDS bishop.

“When it comes to very delicate and sacred things that happen in the marriage, you need to go to somebody with the training to counsel you, to get you that safety you need [to explain] what your options are,” Burch said Wednesday on The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast. “Not every person who is a leader in the LDS Church has the gift of counseling wisely.”

Besides, she added, it’s “not the bishop’s responsibility to save a marriage. … I see this [attitude] with a lot of [LDS] women, that they rely so much on the bishop to make their marriage good ... to make their husband do things.”

David Cook, an attorney in upstate New York who was a Mormon bishop in his 30s before rising to stake (regional) president, mission president and area Seventy, disputes the notion that most of these male leaders offer insensitive, shallow and stereotypical responses to women’s needs. Or that they favor men.

There are more than 30,000 bishops who oversee congregations in the nearly 16 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The vast majority, he said, try to be fair and honest in how they deal with domestic abuse accusations.

“I never saw a situation where I thought the bishop was leaning toward the husband because of their relationship” in all-male priesthood quorums, Cook said on “Mormon Land.”

Speaking for himself and not his church, Cook agreed that the Mormon ideal of eternal marriage instills “greater desire or commitment by LDS couples to try to save their marriages. ... At the same time, I don’t know that once they have given their all” that Mormons are more inclined than anyone else to stay in a bad relationship.

Schooling the bishops

Training for LDS bishops is essential, a tool the Utah-based faith says these lay leaders are provided.

“The position of the church is clear: There is zero tolerance for abuse of any kind,” spokesman Eric Hawkins has said. “Church leaders are given instruction on how to prevent and report abuse and how to care for those who have been abused.”

Cook emphasized such training in his ministry.

“We tried, in our stake, to provide some fairly extensive training with our bishops [by bringing in] a lot of outside experts and counselors.”

For starters, Cook said, LDS leaders need to believe the women when they divulge stories of abuse.

“Believe the sisters,” he said, “just believe them inherently.”

Mormon Women for Ethical Government, a grass-roots group focused on transparency, accountability and justice, applauds that approach.

“We stand with all women and hold in the highest regard those who seek help or counsel when they are being harmed in any way,” the nonpartisan organization said in a news release. “These women must be heard, and they must be believed.”

The most immediate concern for these women, Cook stressed, should be their safety.

“In the one instance I had as a bishop, I just asked the sister how she felt about her personal safety, apart from her husband, without her husband being there,” he recalled. “Once that issue was raised, I separated the interview so that the sister would not feel in any way limited in her ability to share with me, and I assured that what she said to me remained confidential.

“If she had immediate issues of safety or concern, we would immediately invite the Relief Society president to be involved in finding alternative housing for her.”

Cook also reminds bishops not to offer expertise they don’t have and urges them instead to defer to professionals. “Don’t ever be afraid to say, ‘I don’t know and I’ll see what I can find out,’ or ‘I’ll refer you to someone who does [know].”

He said the faith’s hotline to LDS Family Services “is a tremendous resource.”

When change doesn’t happen

Davis County resident Anne Blythe, who married in 2008, initially did not think her husband was abusive. He had a porn addiction and anger issues, but she thought the rage would vanish if he gave up porn.

When Blythe (not her real name but a pseudonym she uses online when discussing her abuse to safeguard her safety) went to see her LDS bishop, the leader said her husband was stressed because he was out of work.

“I know lots of men who are unemployed,” she told him, “but they aren’t this angry.”

As the threat of violence escalated, the bishop, she said, told her “to stop asking my husband so many questions” and to “drastically change” or she might be facing a divorce.

“You need to focus on all the things you are doing wrong,” Blythe recalled him saying. “I said, ‘I’m not doing anything wrong.’”

The bishop insisted he was trying to stay “neutral” but, in doing so, he “sided with my abuser.”

In 2015, Blythe’s husband pushed her against a cabinet, spraining several of her fingers. When she went for medical treatment, doctors called the police, and he was arrested.

The couple, who have three children, divorced in 2016. A year later, she launched a website, Betrayal Trauma Recovery, or btr.org, to help other women find resources.

Blythe remains a practicing Mormon and continues to embrace teachings about forgiveness and redemption for abusers.

“I truly believe that people can change if they work at it, are willing to be humble, accountable and honest,” she said. “I don’t think divorce has to be the only option.”

Her advice to LDS bishops?

Don’t be neutral. Take action to protect a woman’s safety and implement religious action to hold abusers accountable.

“No man who abuses his wife or children is worthy to be a member in good standing in this church,” then-church President Gordon B. Hinckley said in 1998. “The abuse of one’s spouse and children is a most serious offense before God, and any who indulge in it may expect to be disciplined by the church.”

(Tribune File Photo) President Gordon B. Hinckley, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in October 2001.

When it works

There are countless instances, of course, when turning to Mormon bishops proves not only beneficial for abuse victims, but also lifesaving.

Some 27 years ago, Mormon mother Dianne Klabechek in New England was married to a man she calls her “starter husband.”

“He wasn’t a very nice person,” Klabechek said this week. “He would beat me up and lie about a lot of things. He came across as charismatic, but was very, very controlling.”

The couple had three children, but she endured miscarriages that she blames on his physical abuse.

He decided whom Klabechek would talk to and whom she couldn’t. Because he was in the military, the family moved a lot. He repeatedly told her she was “a worthless piece of garbage.”

When the couple moved to Rhode Island, she found a sympathetic Mormon bishop.

One day at church, Klabechek’s husband grabbed her by the throat, leaving marks on her neck.

The LDS leader called her into his office and told her, “I cannot advise you to get a divorce, but there are things worse than divorce.”

At that moment, she said, she finally was ready to hear it.

The bishop helped her move out, get food, set up an account to pay her rent and ensure she was safe. His successor did the same.

The two exemplified Christlike qualities, she said. “I always felt I was safe, watched out for and somebody had my back besides Heavenly Father.”

These days, Klabechek is remarried and in a successful profession, teaching math and science in New Hampshire.

“Never in a million years did I think I would be where I am today,” she said. “I have even forgiven my starter husband. It’s between him and God now.”

Managing editor David Noyce and reporter Bob Mims contributed to this story.

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