Jana Riess: What will it take for Latter-day Saint women and girls to be believed?

The faith’s men seem no more prone to abuse than men of other faiths. The failure comes after abuse is reported.

I was one of several women interviewed this week for NPR’s “On Point” program about women and domestic violence in Mormonism. The catalyst for the conversation was the gruesome January murders of a family in southern Utah’s Enoch, all of whom were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Police in the small southern Utah town say the father, 42-year-old Michael Haight, shot and killed his 40-year-old wife, Tausha; all five of his children, ranging in ages from 4 to 17; and his mother-in-law, who was staying with Tausha and her children after Tausha filed for divorce in late December. Michael Haight then turned the gun on himself.

I remember where I was and what I was doing when my husband first told me about the story. My immediate sinking feeling was that the family had been LDS. Utah is becoming less LDS over time, especially in Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County. But rural southern Utah, where Enoch is located, is still heavily LDS.

“What was the last name of the family?” I asked him.

When he spelled it out for me, I suspected they at least had Mormon heritage; Haight is a storied name. In recent years, David Haight served faithfully as a Latter-day Saint apostle. But this month’s shocking news story is more reminiscent of the violence perpetrated by another Haight further back in southern Utah’s history: Isaac Haight, an early convert who was a leader in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, our religion’s darkest day.

And always, amid the sick feeling of horror at Michael Haight’s killing of his family, there was another question: Had his wife or another woman tried to alert a church authority that there was violence in the home and been dismissed?

I asked that because I’ve seen this story play out too many times not to wonder.

Apparently, the police opened an investigation of Michael Haight in 2020 and learned that he had by that point already engaged in abusive behavior toward at least one of his children — his oldest daughter, Macie, then 14. According to The Associated Press, he had assaulted Macie several times and attempted to choke her at least once, causing her to report to the police that she thought he was going to kill her.

As far as I’m aware, there’s no evidence that someone from the family tried to get help from a Latter-day Saint bishop or other church leader. But in a small southern Utah town of 8,000 people, where more than two-thirds of the residents are Latter-day Saints, the lines between community and church can get pretty blurry. It’s statistically likely that some of the police officers investigating the case, perhaps including the ones who dismissed it when Macie’s mother, Tausha Haight, decided not to press charges, were members.

In this week’s radio interview, guest Donna Kelly, an attorney who has worked for three decades helping abuse victims in Utah, noted that when Macie Haight spoke of choking, that should have been a red flag. The fact that police ignored it — and seemed to accept the father’s explanation that he was stressed and his teenage daughter was inappropriately “mouthy” — is disturbing.

Another guest, writer Meg Conley of the “homeculture” newsletter on Substack, reported that after she wrote about the murders earlier this month, she began hearing from a lot of women in southern Utah. They were shocked by what happened … yet also oddly not surprised. Female voices are not always welcome in conservative Latter-day Saint spaces, Conley said, especially if they’re “mouthy” or considered disruptive.

I brought up the high-profile case of Rob Porter, a former Trump staffer who failed to receive security clearance after the FBI interviewed people from his past, including his two ex-wives. Both of them reported to the FBI that he had abused them during their marriages.

Hauntingly, both women had gone to their Latter-day Saint bishops to report that he was physically violent with them. When the first wife told her bishop that Porter tried to choke her, nothing happened. It was only when she discussed it with a colleague who was a therapist that someone affirmed to her the gravity of her own circumstance.

“When I explained to him what was happening, he had a very different reaction from the Mormon bishops,” she said in an interview. The counselor “was very concerned to hear Rob was choking me.”

Porter’s second wife echoed many of the same themes, providing photos of her face after he had punched her and documentation showing she had obtained a restraining order.

But her bishop didn’t do anything to help her either. In fact, he seemed primarily concerned with protecting Porter’s political future, she said, asking whether she had considered that filing a temporary protection order could torpedo her abuser’s career.

I want to be clear that I’m not aware of any research showing that Latter-day Saint men are more likely to be abusers than any other men. Utah ranks almost exactly in the middle (24th of 50) of U.S. states in terms of the percentage of women who have been victims of domestic violence. As I’ve said, “Utah” is not an exact proxy of “Mormonism,” since the state’s population is growing less LDS with every passing year. But it’s still the majority religion, so it seems reasonable to expect that Latter-day Saints are not outliers in terms of the frequency of abuse.

No, where Latter-day Saints seem to fail is in what happens after abuse has been reported. I’ve written before about the ways the church’s structural sexism creates a fraternity of men who serve together and know one another well. Since women are excluded from the vast majority of leadership callings, they don’t develop that kinship or have personal access to friendship with local church leaders.

This elevates the chance that when a woman goes with fear and trembling to report abuse to her bishop, the bishop is going to greet her allegations with caution or even suspicion: Wait, that guy? Brother Goode? Oh, sister, I know you’re sad about something, but that just can’t be true. You must be exaggerating. Brother Goode could never do that.

This kind of denial was on display most painfully and tragically in the obituary Michael Haight’s remaining family members wrote after the murder-suicide he perpetrated. Nowhere did the obituary (which has since been removed but can be seen via screenshots) even mention the fact that Haight had killed his wife and children. Rather, it portrayed him as the consummate father. He saw each child as “a treasured miracle” and “made it a point to spend quality time with each and every one.”

In a way, Haight’s surviving family did us a great service in publishing that insanely laudatory encapsulation of his life. It teaches Latter-day Saints what we manifestly do not want to hear: that the abusers sitting with us in the pews can look like amazing men. They may be returned missionaries, Eagle Scouts, successful business owners. And loving dads who make it a point to spend quality time with each and every member of their family.

Michael Haight was like that, too. That is, until he put a bullet through each one of them.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)