When their LDS leader falls, Mormon abuse survivors struggle to keep the faith

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

If a Mormon leader is a stand-in for God as shepherd of an LDS congregation, what happens to believers when that person sexually abuses a member of his flock?

An emotional bomb goes off in the community of believers. The news generates headlines, hand-wringing and bureaucratic headaches as well as humiliation for the perpetrator and his family.

But the long-term spiritual fallout among Mormons affected by such actions is often more subtle, even invisible, as the abused, family, friends and fellow congregants are left to grapple with the question: Can I still believe in God or this church after being betrayed by deity’s trusted representative?

Many can’t.

McKenna Denson says she lost her LDS faith after being sexually assaulted as a young “sister” missionary by Joseph L. Bishop, who was president of Provo’s Missionary Training Center, in 1984.

Denson, who recently sued Bishop and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, says she told several authorities in the Utah-based faith on multiple occasions, but no action was ever taken against the former MTC president.

She says she continued to participate in Mormonism after the alleged assault — even marrying in an LDS temple — because she was in denial about what happened at the MTC.

“I tried to separate him being a predator from my faith in the Lord, but I never recovered spiritually from that,” she says. “I felt unworthy and unloved and dirty.”

After confronting the now-85-year-old Bishop last fall, Denson stepped away from the church permanently. “I’m so far gone now that it wouldn’t matter what the church does at this point.”

Some sexual assault or abuse victims, however, have held onto their Mormon faith — though it may not be easy.

After LDS authorities learned in 2014 that Philander Knox Smartt III, then a Mormon mission president in Puerto Rico, had unspecified misconduct with multiple young female proselytizers in his mission, he was immediately excommunicated and sent packing.

The church said it provided “ecclesiastical and emotional counseling” to the sister missionaries “who had been deceived and victimized.” That response apparently proved effective. All of the young women finished their missions.

So, after being abused, what makes the difference between losing trust in God — or at least in the LDS Church — and retaining it?

The simplest answer seems to be the ability to distinguish between God and man.

| Courtesy Jennifer Finlayson-Fife Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, an LDS psychotherapist in Chicago.

Confirming ‘godly power’

Chicago therapist Jennifer Finlayson-Fife knows a case of a young teen whose Mormon bishop asked progressively more intimate — and, the girl felt, inappropriate and unsettling — questions during a one-on-one interview.

The girl grew anxious, Finlayson-Fife says, and somewhat disillusioned.

Several years later, that bishop was convicted of possessing child pornography. He was disciplined by the church as well.

“She didn’t lose trust in the church because the church figured out the situation and backed up her intuition through its official response,” the therapist says. “It was saying in essence, ‘We won’t support a man who is doing this even though he was supposed to be representing God.’”

Healthy spirituality requires that believers make a distinction between male priesthood holders who are trying to live righteously, using “godly power,” she says, and those who simply hold an ecclesiastical office.

Mormons have to learn not “to give de facto trust to anyone who is a leader,” Finlayson-Fife says. “We have to be better at discerning if this person is seeking wisdom on our behalf or if he is self-serving.”

Only victims who make that distinction, she says, “would let themselves trust again.”

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Kristin Hodson, founder, executive director, left, and Mary Stanley, clinical director, art therapist, run The Healing Group, a counseling center that focuses on sexuality and intimacy as well as postpartum depression.

Trauma management

When any religious authority violates a believer’s trust, it leaves the victim feeling betrayed and traumatized, says therapist Mary C. Stanley of The Healing Group in Midvale.

The effects on the brain, she says, are like any other trauma — like dog bites. It is natural for a person who has been bitten to generalize that all dogs are a threat and to stay away.

But those who have had meaningful, even profound dog interactions are more likely to distinguish between safe and dangerous dogs.

Same goes for religious betrayal.

“Faith communities can be extremely helpful and healthy for people to connect to one another, to feel that they belong and are accepted,” Stanley says. “But when abuse happens, the brain has a fight, flight, submit or freeze response.”

The experience changes victims and the way they interact with their environment, she says. “A lot of therapy work for trauma is re-establishing a sense of safety.” Their resilience is dependent on whether they already had a meaningful relationship with God and their church.

“Some of the individuals who have continued relationships with God and want to be part of a system in which a representative harmed them,” Stanley says, have done so because they have received “a lot of validation from people in that system.”

It is vital for fellow believers and leaders to be willing to acknowledge that the abuse happened, she adds. That allows survivors a space to express their loss and their sadness without pressuring them to forgive.

Such acceptance helps victims have a “more peaceful resolution and healing,” Stanley says. “[The abuse] becomes something that happened but doesn’t rule over them for the rest of their lives.”

A survivor’s perspective

Mormon activist Tresa Brown Edmunds is a survivor of child abuse and sexual assault. She told her story to three bishops before anyone believed her.

“The single most important thing a church leader can do to help a victim is to believe her,” the Sacramento, Calif., mother says. “Take her pain seriously, and help her find resources to aid in her healing. Coming forward with these experiences is so costly that there is vanishing little incentive to make something up. And when someone does share their experiences, remember your role is to aid them in healing through the power of Jesus Christ.”

The LDS Church’s revised guidelines for its lay leaders stress those very points, noting that “most, but not all, allegations of abuse are true, and should be taken seriously and handled with great care.”

Edmunds adds with emphasis: “You are not the judge or jury.”

The problem for many Latter-day Saints, especially many young people, she says, is that “there is a straight line between God to the prophet and then right on down through the priesthood hierarchy to their bishop and often even beyond.”

When any man in that system abuses a member, Edmunds says, “that entire hierarchy comes crashing on the victim’s head. Their faith is corrupted and manipulated into a tool to easily submit to further abuse. They can believe that God himself has ordained the abuse. It is a type of spiritual violence that can take a lifetime to overcome.”

Abuse, sadly, is common enough that there is likely to be a survivor at any gathering of Mormon congregants, she says. “Let that inform how you talk, how you plan your lessons, what jokes you tell, what principles you teach. We cause so much pain by not thinking how what we say sounds to someone with different experiences than our own. Be a safe person to come to by already showing through your actions that you are.”

As an institution, the church needs “to establish a hotline for victims that doesn’t depend on the priesthood line of authority,” Edmunds says. It needs to include women in the process and “puncture the veil of authority that allows these abuses to happen.”

There is no easy religious fix for abuse survivors, she says. “Each person victimized will choose his or her own path.”

Faith is “an important part of healing from a trauma and many do find a way to use the faith they have in the religion,” Edmunds says, “even while they live with the hurt caused by the institution.”

She found a “great deal of healing in the scriptures and in my personal relationship with God and Jesus Christ,” she says. “I found support in my friends and ward family that sustained me during a lot of hard times.”

Mormon beliefs and practices can help people heal from abuse, Edmunds says, “but only if the church doesn’t get in the way first.”