This is Part 1 of a two-part story on mission safety in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To read Part 2, click here.
Missionary Camille Junca felt her mother was being ridiculous.
A family friend stationed nearby with National Public Radio had offered to pick up Junca from her mission and take her away, her mother said anxiously in an email, because the Mexican state where she was serving had become too dangerous.
But Junca felt The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would never send a missionary somewhere that wasn’t truly safe. It teaches that each missionary is called to his or her specific assignment by God, speaking through the church’s living prophet.
Junca and her companion had been on lockdown since Sept. 27, 2014, the day after six people were killed and 25 were wounded in a clash between police and students from a teaching college. Fifty-seven students were reported missing, and violent protests erupted after witnesses reported seeing some of them put into police vehicles.
The killings and kidnappings had erupted a mile from where Junca lived in Iguala, in the state of Guerrero, south of Mexico City. The U.S. State Department was warning American citizens to postpone “nonessential” travel to Guerrero, which had been considered Mexico’s most violent state for three years.
About two weeks into the lockdown, all missionaries in Guerrero — about 90 — were temporarily evacuated to another state. Before the end of the year, a few male missionaries were sent back. The rest of the missionaries returned in January.
On Jan. 6, 2015, Junca and her new companion were dropped off in the city of Chilpancingo at their new apartment, on the upper floor of a building behind a locked gate. About 20 minutes later, Junca saw two men standing at their interior hallway door, which had been left ajar to let in some air.
One man began tearing through their suitcases. The other ordered them to lie facedown, covered their upper bodies with blankets and threatened to kill them if they screamed.
The man sexually assaulted Junca and then her companion, and then Junca again. As she and her companion gripped hands, Junca felt certain she was going to die — either killed by the men or suffocated by the blankets that covered her.
‘We’re trying to get better’
As women and men have come forward amid a national reckoning on sexual misconduct, colleges, sports and myriad industries have been spurred to improve their responses to assault and harassment and their support for victims.
Junca and former missionary Maddy Cicotte, attacked in Bolivia in 2016, have been urging the LDS Church to recognize similar gaps in its missionary program, which has more than 63,000 young people serving around the world.
The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not name victims of sexual assault. Junca and Cicotte have agreed to the use of their maiden names.
They contend that the church has inadequately trained missionaries and mission presidents, failed to challenge cultural beliefs that missionaries have special protection, sent missionaries to unsafe areas and offered inadequate care to sexually assaulted missionaries.
The women’s advocacy has coincided with scrutiny of the church’s missionary department by its latest leader, Elder Brent H. Nielson
Nielson, a general authority Seventy, says he realized “pretty quickly” when he took over the department in August 2015 that changes were needed to better serve female missionaries — whose numbers had tripled after the church in 2012 lowered the minimum mission age
from 21 to 19 for women, who serve for 18 months. The mission age for men, who serve for two years, was lowered from 19 to 18.
There were “issues with assault,” Nielson says, and insights from Junca and Cicotte, both part of the surge, have helped the church understand how it needs to reform.
Among changes made or underway: The church created a sister safety committee at the end of 2016, and it has since helped develop a new guide, adopted in January, that instructs mission presidents on what to do when a missionary is assaulted. That includes offering mental health resources, for example, which were not extended to Junca and Cicotte in the days after their assaults and as decisions were made about whether they would return home.
“We weren’t responding well, not as good as we could have,” Nielson says. “We’re trying to get better. That’s our goal.”
Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune
‘Something bigger than yourself’
At 22, Junca had graduated from Brigham Young University. She had a good job as a recruiter for a Provo company. But she felt lacking in one major area: as a member of the church.
It hadn’t been a core part of her life as she was growing up near Detroit. In her student ward, or congregation, in Provo, while others were asked to fill leadership or spiritual roles, her most recent calling was to the waffle committee.
She decided to volunteer as a missionary and was excited to be called to serve out of the country, in an expansive, two-state region of Mexico known as the Cuernavaca Mission.
She quickly grew comfortable speaking Spanish, with the faith’s scriptures, and with the grueling daily routine — rising at 6:30 a.m., studying lesson plans, then teaching or finding people to teach nearly nonstop until lights out at 10:30 p.m.
At moments, she felt lifted by divine help.
Once, two young daughters in a family of recent converts wanted to be in an upcoming children’s performance at church — but their parents couldn’t afford the white dresses they would need.
An hour after leaving the family’s house in Iguala, Junca and her companion walked past a garage sale where two white dresses, just the right sizes, were hanging next to each other.
The money they were carrying was enough to buy both. It was "too perfect," Junca remembers.
"What you were doing felt so hard," she says, but "the fact that you could wake up and do it every day felt like something bigger than yourself was pushing you forward."
Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune
As is the norm, Junca’s mission call had not included political or cultural information about the area where she’d be spending more than a year of her life. She had read the missionary handbook’s general safety instructions — avoid dangerous situations, carry cash to offer thieves, vary your routes. During training as a mission leader, she’d also seen a slideshow several times that said to defuse dangerous encounters by repeating that you’re a missionary, and make it clear that you’re not combative.
She and her companion had been groped and spanked as they were out walking, she says. She knew that murders had happened in her area. But she believed she was where the church, and God, wanted her to be. She felt safe.
The men assaulting and robbing Junca and her companion abruptly stopped.
They said they were going next door to confront a neighbor who owed them drug money. They warned Junca and her companion that if they screamed, they’d be killed.
After hearing nothing for about 20 minutes, the women ran to a market so they could call the male missionary who was their zone’s leader. Their shared flip phone had been stolen during the attack.
The mission president, who lived 115 miles away in another state, arranged for local church leaders to take Junca and her companion to a Latter-day Saint stake center to wait for him. People began arriving with food, but no one called police, offered medical care or seemed to know how to help them, she says.
Junca remembers throwing up and shaking with adrenaline, feeling that neither her body nor her mind could understand how she’d gone from knowing she was going to die to suddenly being in a church meetinghouse.
When they arrived at the mission home hours later, the president took the women into a room with a computer and asked them to tell him what had happened as he typed a report.
They also called their families, were given homemade chicken noodle soup and were told to rest. The mission president and his wife "tried to be as nurturing and as kind as they could,” Junca says.
When she came downstairs in her pajamas in the morning, the president told her she was being sent home.
He’d talked to the stake president at her parents’ ward, her parents and his supervisors in the mission. They’d discussed sending her to meet once a week with a counselor at the Mexico City Missionary Training Center but decided against it.
Her companion, who was from Mexico, was also being sent home.
Junca felt a huge sense of relief that the decision wasn't in her lap — and then "total devastation" as she realized she'd been robbed of completing her mission.
Her flight was not until the next day. During her remaining hours, she was not offered counseling or the opportunity to talk to her parents a second time. Junca says mission rules — which allow missionaries to call home only on Christmas and Mother’s Day — were so ingrained in her that she did not think to ask.
Within hours of Junca’s departure to the airport, more sister missionaries were sent into Chilpancingo, the city where she’d been attacked.
Three months later, after another incident involving a female missionary, all American sister missionaries were removed from the state.
They have since returned, though Guerrero is now on the State Department’s Do Not Travel list. Those who decide to go there should make a will, funeral arrangements and decide child-custody arrangements before departing, according to the State Department’s website.
Junca’s mission president called to check in a few days after she arrived home, while she was on a trip to Costco with her mother.
“I think I sounded totally normal and fine,” she says. "If you don’t have an understanding of trauma and if you’ve never been through something of that nature, you would probably take that and be like, ‘Whew, all right, she’s good, this is great, this is done.’ "
But inside, she felt that her relationship with God, the church and her fellow missionaries was changed forever.
The Cuernavaca Mission had been her entire world. The rhythm of her days was set by mission rules. She felt tightly connected to the missionaries around her, and seen as a valuable asset, someone relied upon not only by members and people considering joining but also by her leaders.
Suddenly ejected, she yearned to hear someone with authority acknowledge that what had happened to her was wrong — to feel recognized as someone deserving of compassion and attention even though she no longer wore a missionary badge.
Junca tried counseling. As an “early release” missionary, she was entitled to six free sessions from LDS Family Services.
But the agency uses religion as a cornerstone of its therapy, and the gospel references and solutions her counselor offered felt hurtful, she says. She was trying to understand why she had been assaulted during a time when she was serving, obedient to the Lord and to church leaders, praying day and night.
After about three months back home with her parents in Michigan, Junca decided to return to Utah to be near her brother and friends.
The weekend she moved, she received a phone call from a volunteer with the missionary early-release department. The volunteer awkwardly referred to the assault and sounded nervous. She didn’t seem to have anything specific to offer or ask.
It made Junca wonder: Was there a file about her assault? What was in it, and who had access to it? Was anyone tasked with helping her adjust after being assaulted?
And if that was what this call was supposed to accomplish, why hadn’t it come far sooner?
About a year later, Junca was contacted by a friend whose father was a bishop in Washington state. A young woman in his congregation named Maddy had just returned home early from her mission after being assaulted. Would Junca be willing to reach out to her?
Maddy Cicotte, the fourth of eight children in an active Mormon family, had seen and heard how the church had improved her parents’ lives. She loved that couples and families sealed in the temple are promised to be together forever. So, at 19, after two semesters at BYU, she decided to go on a mission in 2015 and help others have eternal families.
In Cochabamba, Bolivia, she and her companion initially struggled to find people willing to hear their lessons, she says. But with time, she felt that she was making a difference.
They taught a man whose brother had been involved in a gang and been murdered three years before. He was quiet and depressed, Cicotte recalls, worried that his brother was in hell for eternity. They taught him that the afterlife is a place where people can grow and repent. He was eventually baptized, and he baptized his brother posthumously
in a Latter-day Saint temple.
“It was cool to watch how this message did give some people a lot of hope and happiness,” she says.
They also had some experiences that made them nervous. When Cicotte described these in letters to her family, she always comforted them: “Don’t worry, I could feel the angels around us protecting us.”
Like Junca, she had read the missionary handbook’s warning to “stay away from unsafe areas” and other general tips. Training at her mission home, she says, was limited to how to wear bags to make them harder for thieves to snatch.
In December 2015, a general authority visited their mission and spoke about the importance of the “golden hour” — between 8 and 9 at night, when fathers are home. At the time, missionaries in Bolivia were instructed to return to their homes at 8 to eat dinner, study and be in bed by 10:30 p.m. But the authority promised them if they worked until 9 p.m., they would be blessed and find more families.
Cicotte and her companion started staying out until 9 or 9:30.
Their pensionista — a church member whose house they gathered in for meals — questioned their new strategy. They were out too late, she said, and walking in some dangerous areas. But they felt they’d be throwing away blessings if they came in earlier.
(Courtesy of Maddy Cicotte) Maddy Cicotte on her mission in Bolivia in 2015-2016.
Three months later, in Potosi, on June 17, 2016, Cicotte and her companion had an appointment with an inactive Latter-day Saint. She wasn’t home, but a man wearing a beanie approached. He introduced himself as another inactive member, told them his family was home and asked if they would visit.
That his family was home meant they could go — female missionaries must be with a male missionary, an active member, or be in a group of three, to teach a man who is by himself.
Once they were in his building, though, there were red flags. He led them downstairs into a room where the rest of the family was nowhere to be seen. As he was upstairs checking on tea, she and her companion agreed — they needed to leave.
But he returned and bolted the door; when he turned around, they saw he had two knives.
He told Cicotte to take off her clothes. Shaking with fear, she removed her coat, boots, socks and skirt. Impatient, he ripped off her sweater, T-shirt, bra and garment top, and forced the women into separate sections of the room, divided off by curtains. Then he removed Cicotte’s leggings and garment bottoms.
Naked on a bed, Cicotte could hear her companion praying so loudly she was almost yelling. He left Cicotte to go deal with her — and Cicotte ran to the door, unbolted it and shot up the stairs.
He chased her, but once she made it past a curtain on the stairway, he gave up.
Cicotte ran naked into the street and screamed for help. Several people turned away until a man on a motorcycle stopped and called police.
Cicotte's companion came running around the corner, one of her hands covered in blood. She told Cicotte later that the man had tried to slit her wrists. As she grabbed for the knife to block it, she’d caught the pad of her ring finger on the blade, which sliced her finger down to her palm.
When the man had turned away to chase Cicotte, she had slipped into a room upstairs where a young family member was sitting, and then escaped.
Cicotte’s companion had been wearing two dresses to keep warm; she gave Cicotte the top layer to cover up. Some male missionaries had arrived, as well as police officers, and they all went back to the man’s house. He was gone.
The other missionaries joined Cicotte and her companion at the police department. Then she and her companion went to a hospital, where her companion’s hand was stitched. After a couple of hours of sleep at a sister training leader’s apartment, they met again in the morning with police and flew to the mission home.
Cicotte immediately Skyped with her family. She remembers her father telling her to take her time in deciding whether to come home.
That night, the mission president and his wife met with Cicotte and her companion and asked for a few details about what they’d experienced — he’d already heard a general description from a male missionary who’d accompanied them to police offices.
The next day, after church, she told the president and his wife that she wanted to go home. The president reacted coldly, Cicotte says, replying only, “I wish you wouldn’t.”
His wife was more understanding, Cicotte remembers, comparing Cicotte’s experience to being wounded in battle and needing to recover.
‘She actually cared about me’
Cicotte had been stripped naked at knifepoint. She’d been certain she was about to be raped, and likely killed. After escaping, she’d stood naked and screaming in the street, ignored by passers-by.
But because she had not been raped, she says, her experience didn’t seem to register as traumatic to people in the mission and back home.
Cicotte tried therapy with LDS Family Services. Every available counselor was a man, which made her uncomfortable, but she went twice. It didn’t feel like he understood what she was going through, she says, and he told her she didn’t need more counseling.
About three weeks after she came home, a therapist volunteering with the church’s early-release department called her. She asked about Cicotte’s service, seeming to understand that she would still be in “missionary mode” and missing the people she’d taught and loved.
When Cicotte mentioned in a later conversation that her counselor from LDS Family Services had said she didn’t need more sessions, the volunteer encouraged Cicotte to find a female counselor and keep going to therapy.
“I felt like she actually cared about me,” Cicotte says, “and did know the right things to say.”
Cicotte didn't feel emotionally ready to go back to BYU at the end of the summer, but she didn't want to put her life on hold. She was physically incapable of getting ready, and her mother packed for her.
Back in Provo, she loved studying to be a teacher and felt renewed by that. But it was sometimes overwhelming to be around large crowds of strangers on campus.
Church itself was the most difficult part — in a campus “singles ward,” many are returning missionaries. She felt ill as she listened to story after story about the dangers they’d faced on their missions, told in a casual, comical way to laughter from the congregation, or framed in a way meant to be faith-affirming.
She started attending another ward in Provo, made up of mostly families.
She participated in group therapy through BYU and decided to volunteer with Orem’s Center for Women and Children in Crisis. During her training, she began going to individual therapy on the advice of advocates there.
It was a relief, she says. Therapy at the nonprofit made her response to trauma feel “normal.” She realized many people have experienced sexual violence, and that she wasn’t overreacting.
‘Safety for missionaries. Period.’
After returning to Utah, Junca started a full-time job in human resources and married a man she'd met on her first day attending BYU.
She thought about what happened to her every day — not only the assault but also her transition from a world where she couldn’t imagine it happening, to a life where it had.
Junca hoped she could find closure by getting answers to some of her lingering questions and suggesting ways the church could improve. She also wanted to try therapy again, after not finding the right fit with LDS Family Services counselors in Detroit or Utah. Her parents had told her that the church had offered them unlimited therapy of her choice, but she didn’t know how to arrange for it.
She sent a list of her concerns to the early-release department. Soon after, she was contacted by a secretary who invited her to meet with Nielson in November 2016.
Nielson told her he didn’t know why the police hadn’t been called after her assault, she says, or why more sister missionaries were sent into Chilpancingo.
She had wondered why had she been sent to Guerrero, a state where the police can’t be trusted; an investigation had eventually found that police had turned 43 of the missing students over to a crime syndicate that killed them and burned their bodies.
Nielson explained, Junca says, that mission presidents and their regional supervisors have the most relevant information about safety and where missionaries should be assigned, and that guidance from the U.S. government, while a helpful factor, is not the whole equation.
But he also told her, she says, the missionary department had within the previous two months formed a sister safety committee that was working to finalize new, higher standards for where to assign sister missionaries.
Dennis Perkins, mental health adviser for the department, was in the meeting. He explained that Junca should have been contacted within the first month of arriving home, but the early-release department was understaffed.
Nielson told her he wasn’t sure who would have made the offer of unlimited therapy to her parents and suggested she use their insurance benefits or her own, she says.
Nielson declined to comment on the specifics of Junca’s case.
Junca sobbed on the drive home to Provo. She then decided to update her list of gaps in the church’s handling of sexual assault and send it to Nielson. She was stunned when he referred her to a paralegal who worked in risk management; she felt the church suddenly saw her not as a member to care for but as a potential legal risk.
"At no point was I threatening, and I'm still not,” she says. “At no point have I wanted anything other than safety for missionaries. Period."
In the two years since, Junca and Cicotte have worked together to try to improve the church’s missionary program. The church has moved forward but not enough, they say — and its response to their efforts has shaken their trust.
"The first traumatic event was my assault,” Junca says. “And the second traumatic event was the reaction of this institution that I trusted. And the latter seems to have had more devastating effects on my life than the actual sexual assault."
The LDS Church’s missionary department has made significant changes since a surge in the number of women serving led to “issues with assault.” But former missionaries wonder if the changes are enough to affect a culture that has persisted for decades.