He was in charge of overseeing thousands of young men and women who came to Provo in the 1980s to train as religious missionaries.
But Joseph L. Bishop admitted that during his tenure as Missionary Training Center president for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he asked to see a female missionary’s breasts and she complied. He has also said he touched another female missionary inappropriately during a back rub.
Those encounters are already publicly known.
But a long sought-after police recording recently obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune offers new details about this controversy, including that Bishop says he immediately told his church leaders about his inappropriate behavior — and still maintained his position of power.
“Did you stay on as president, after you had [confessed]?” an officer asks in the recording.
“Yes,” Bishop responds.
“So you continued with your duties as the MTC president?”
“Mhhmm,” Bishop responds in the affirmative.
This admission came during an hourlong interview with two Brigham Young University police officers who had come to Bishop’s home in December 2017 after one of the alleged victims, McKenna Denson, had reported to police that Bishop had sexually abused her at the faith’s flagship MTC in Provo in 1984.
Bishop’s assertion that he had confessed to his ecclesiastical leaders in the 1980s contradicts an earlier statement from church officials, who have said they first became aware of the allegations in 2010. This admission could have an impact on Denson’s lawsuit against the LDS Church — a legal action that is on the rocks after her attorneys suddenly quit the case.
Church officials declined to comment about the newly obtained recording. Bishop’s attorney did not return requests for comment.
‘The natural man’
Denson reported to BYU police in 2017 that Bishop had tried to rape her when she was a missionary-in-training, saying he had taken her to a small room and tried to kiss her. She resisted, she reported, and he ripped her blouse and skirt while trying to rape her. She pushed him off, she said, and left the room.
After her report, two BYU officers traveled to Arizona to question Bishop. The 85-year-old man welcomed them into his home by greeting them as his friends, according to the recording, and apologized for still being in his plaid pajama pants. He had just been hospitalized for issues with his heart, he told them.
As he sat in a leather chair, Bishop calmly recounted what he remembered about his interaction with Denson. He did not remember any assault, he told them, but he recalled going into a small storage room with her and asked her to expose herself because she had recently had a breast augmentation.
“I wanted to see her breasts, how the operation [went], etc.,” Bishop said. “Couple of reasons. One, just being the natural man. That was one thing. The other thing was I thought maybe that would be a good thing for my marriage.”
The “natural man” is a term used in Latter-day Saint scriptures to refer to people who yield to physical desires over spiritual promptings.
Bishop told the police he doesn’t remember hugging or kissing Denson, or touching her at all — but he acknowledged he should not have been in that situation.
“It was not appropriate for me to even be there with her in that room,” he said in the recording. “She intrigued me because she was experienced and I could talk to her about my lack of fulfillment in the marriage.”
During the interview, Bishop often veered into long stories about the work he did for the church and his spiritual experiences, at times saying it pained him to think that he enjoyed many blessings and yet was “wayward.”
“I’m mad at me,” he explained, “for having felt the spirit so strongly and then acted foolishly.”
The police interview was friendly, with the officers at times referring to the man as “Brother Bishop” and closing the conversation by likening their last question — Was there anything else Bishop wanted to disclose? — to the questions they receive when seeking a “recommend,” or permit, to enter Latter-day Saint temples. Bishop joked that the officers had become like his ecclesiastical leaders.
BYU police officials declined to comment for this story or discuss the investigative techniques used in the interview.
BYU police have refused to release this recording, arguing last year that it was not subject to Utah open records laws because the department is part of a private university. (That law has since been clarified and BYU police are now required to comply.) They have also argued that releasing the recording would be an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
The LDS Church-owned university has since filed three separate lawsuits trying to keep the interview secret, after the State Records Committee ruled last year that it should be public. Those suits are filed against the three parties that have requested the recording: KUTV-Channel 2, the transparency website MormonLeaks and Washington-based lawyer Corbin Volluz. Those lawsuits remain pending.
A secret recording
By the time police got to Bishop’s door, the former MTC leader already had spoken with Denson about her allegations. She had visited Bishop in Arizona, posing as a writer who was interviewing former mission presidents.
During their nearly three-hour conversation, which she secretly recorded, the Colorado woman urged him to admit what he did to her and others. Denson reminded him that during their time at the MTC, Bishop flattered her, took her out of class and told her she was special. He shared intimate aspects of his own marriage, including his sex life, she said, describing specific details.
In the recording, Bishop called himself “an addict,” “predator” and “hypocrite” but said he did not remember the assault she alleged.
He did admit to giving another female missionary a back rub that became “frisky” and acknowledged confessing to other sexual misconduct.
Bishop was the president of Weber State College (now University) in the 1970s, a Latter-day Saint mission president in Argentina from 1979 to 1982 and then president of the MTC until 1986.
MormonLeaks — which now operates under The Truth & Transparency Foundation — published the explosive, taped conversation between Denson and Bishop last March, and BYU police released a redacted police report about her case days later.
The Tribune also recently obtained an unredacted copy of that report, which showed that BYU police had blacked out any personal information related to Denson and the other female missionary mentioned by Bishop, and also redacted any reference to the existence of recorded interviews and phone calls.
The Tribune generally does not identify alleged sexual assault victims, but Denson has agreed to be named.
After the MormonLeaks recording and redacted police report were released last year, church officials said they first learned of both women’s allegations when each had reported abuse to local lay leaders in 2010.
Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said at that time that officials “listened carefully” to Denson’s assertion, then reported to the Pleasant Grove Police Department. A police report, however, shows that report was about the woman’s threat to kill Bishop, which she told an officer was a joke.
The other woman was given emotional support and professional counseling services, the church said. Bishop’s local church leaders were contacted, it added, but he denied the allegations. Local leaders felt they could not pursue church discipline at that time, church leaders said.
Denson filed a lawsuit against the LDS Church and Bishop last April, alleging the church placed Bishop in charge of the training center in Provo despite “red flag sexual improprieties” years earlier.
The lawsuit asserts that those include improprieties with a young woman while serving as a missionary in Argentina and inappropriate treatment of women when Bishop was president of Weber State.
Bishop was dismissed as a defendant last year, along with part of the case against the church, after a judge found the legal deadline for those claims had passed. A fraud claim alleging a cover-up remains pending against the Utah-based faith.
Denson alleges in the lawsuit that the church committed fraud when it held out to the public that Bishop was a “beacon of faith, morality and religious leadership.”
Denson said Friday that Bishop’s on-tape admission that he confessed to church leaders while he was still MTC president is an indication religious officials knew of Bishop’s misconduct and did nothing.
“It just goes to solidify that there was a cover-up at the church,” she said.
Her lawsuit, however, hit a snag earlier this month, when her lawyers suddenly dropped out of the case. The attorneys’ motion was sealed. Her attorney, Craig Vernon, said he could not discuss why they opted to stop representing Denson, saying he was still bound by client confidentiality even though he is no longer her attorney.
The lawsuit is now on hold. The judge has given Denson three weeks to find new lawyers. If she does not, the case could be dismissed.
Denson said Friday that she’s still looking for new attorneys but promised to push her case forward.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “I know what happened in the MTC. I know that he raped me, and I know the church covered it up. I think we have a really strong case.”