Last week, a 35-year-old woman, who was adopted as an infant by a Mormon couple, discovered her name in an unexpected place: It was in the first item on a list of damaging information an LDS Church-hired attorney had compiled about her birth mother.
That mother was the one who has alleged she was raped in 1984 by Joseph L. Bishop, then the president of the Missionary Training Center in Provo, while she was an LDS missionary.
And the extensive list revealed the lawyer’s efforts to assess the accuser’s credibility, an aggressive response that some say could scare away other sexual assault victims and prevent them from stepping forward.
Suddenly, the adoptee, who lives in San Diego, found herself drawn into a case that has rocked Mormonism since the release last month of a secret recording during which Bishop, now 85, admitted to being a “sex addict” and molesting at least one female missionary during his MTC tenure. Though he denied raping the Colorado woman, Bishop did tell Brigham Young University police he had asked her to bare her breasts.
The LDS Church turned to Salt Lake City attorney David Jordan to investigate the woman’s allegations and to communicate with her Idaho lawyer Craig Vernon, who was seeking a financial settlement on her behalf.
Jordan, who did not return a request for comment made to his office, launched an inquiry. In a nine-page letter to the woman’s attorney, he notes “inconsistencies” in her story and details a string of episodes in the accuser’s life, ranging from the church discipline she had previously faced to her criminal record, and from failed relationships to lawsuits, even job firings.
A bulleted timeline begins with the woman’s teenage pregnancy and includes the name of the daughter she gave up for adoption.
Seeing her name in the file on her birth mother was troubling on several levels, the adoptee told The Salt Lake Tribune this week. “It has given me a lot of anxiety.”
She asked not to be named because she is not part of the case her biological parent has made against Bishop and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The California woman does not see why the Utah-based faith would mention her birth and adoption as something to be used to undercut her mom’s credibility.
The daughter’s adoption — conducted through an LDS Church agency — was closed. She said it took intense sleuthing on her part to find her birth mom.
Though this daughter is not close to her biological parent, she supports her efforts to confront Bishop.
“What she did was brave, and I am proud of her for getting him to confess,” the younger woman said. “Regardless of her past and whatever she’s done, this is a separate issue — and there’s a lot of validity to her [assault claims].”
The Tribune generally does not name victims of sexual assault.
Jordan shared his letter with Bishop’s son, Greg Bishop, who is acting as his father’s attorney, to use in any settlement efforts. Jordan did not share his letter with reporters, but Greg Bishop, who declined to comment for this story, copied some of the information about the victim — omitting mention of the adopted daughter’s name — and sent it to various news outlets as a way to defend his dad.
The full letter has since leaked out.
For its part, the LDS Church said its “work to address this matter has included the work of outside legal counsel to interview and investigate the facts and allegations.”
“This requires access to membership information,” church spokesman Eric Hawkins said. “During this process, it is customary and acceptable for outside counsel to correspond with the attorneys representing other parties, including sharing information that may support or refute their claims.
“But it’s also important to not confuse the legal and ecclesiastical lines,” he added. “Attorneys are doing the legal work, and that has contributed substantially to what we understand about this case. But ecclesiastical decisions about church members remain in the hands of local leaders, whose responsibility it is to determine how to minister to, discipline and care for the members in their stewardship.”
Chilling effect • Revealing an adopted daughter’s name in the midst of an investigation that has nothing to do with her should not have happened, said Utah therapist Julie de Azevedo Hanks.
Even if that name had not been mentioned, the list, which has been circulating in Mormon circles, could have a chilling effect on other victims sharing their own stories of abuse, harassment and assault.
“Seeing the MTC case unfold in the media … and knowing that the church’s attorneys can put together a list of your past legal mistakes will make it even less safe for victims to come forward and tell their story,” Hanks said. “The church’s initial statement used language that served to undermine the victim’s credibility … showing that coming forward publicly may put your own reputation and credibility at risk.”
Some Mormon victims don’t speak about abuse they suffered at the hands of clergy “because it is often viewed as an attack on the church,” the therapist said. “Many victims hate that they were abused, but dearly love the LDS Church and its teachings.”
Currently, there aren’t “systems and processes in place within Mormonism to support and minister specifically to victims of clergy abuse,” Hanks said. “It takes incredible courage to come forward. Because victims know that they might not be believed and that they may not find an advocate in their bishop, or others in the church community, they may remain quiet.”
Another reason victims don’t come forward is because they have been abused by “someone in power who is beloved in the community,” Hanks said. “The victim is in a position of powerlessness against the social capital of a church leader.”
It is time to end such silence, she said, and she hopes it will.
“We as church members need to do whatever we can to expose perpetrators wherever they are,” Hanks said, “to support abuse victims and to prevent future victims.”
A legal response • Jordan “did extraordinary research on this woman … to make it clear that the church was not going to settle,” said Salt Lake City attorney Greg Skordas. “I am sure he did not intend for Greg Bishop to share it [or part of it] with the media.”
But none of the parties did anything “unethical, illegal or improper,” Skordas said. It is reasonable for all three parties — the LDS Church, the accuser’s attorney and the alleged abuser’s lawyer — to share information about the case.
There are various ways of defending against these kinds of allegations, said University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell, a longtime advocate for victims’ rights and a former federal judge.
An attorney for an abuser might go on the offensive and attack the accuser, he said, but an organization, like a church, typically would start by expressing concern and compassion for the victim while it examined the allegations.
Cassell believes Greg Bishop’s response, especially his initial statement challenging the Colorado woman’s claims, was done in haste.
“I was surprised to see this maneuver executed so quickly,” he said. “‘Trash the victim’ is the last option an organization would typically employ. It may be the least successful tactic, used only after all other options have been exhausted.”
Once you go there, he said, “you can’t put the cat back into the bag.”
As for naming the adopted daughter in the investigative papers?
“There is no reason,” Cassell said, “to make unnecessary enemies through collateral damage.”
Correction • April 5, 2018, 9:15 p.m. • University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell believes Greg Bishop’s response to the sexual assault allegations against his father, Joseph L. Bishop, was done in haste. An earlier version incorrectly stated that Cassell was referring to another party’s response.