Why it can be so hard to hold LDS men accountable for abuse

“I want my father to know,” says a survivor of alleged abuse, “that forgiveness is no longer synonymous with enabling him.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City is pictured in December 2023. A recent "Mormon Land" podcast focused the what should be the proper role of forgiveness in abuse cases.

Without question, Latter-day Saints — and Christians generally — are commanded to forgive.

But what can seem like a straightforward edict gets complicated when it comes to abuse cases, says theologian Deidre Nicole Green, an assistant professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.

Chelsea Goodrich, a former member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a licensed counselor, learned this firsthand when she came forward with allegations that her father, John Goodrich, had sexually abused her throughout her childhood.

(In a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune, John Goodrich has denied the accusations of sexual assault.)

Chelsea Goodrich, the subject of a recent Associated Press story about abuse in the church, expected support and cooperation from church leaders in pursuing legal action against her father and limiting his access to children. Instead, she said, she was dismissed as “controlling” and accused of denying the power of Jesus’ Atonement by members of her faith community.

In a recent “Mormon Land” podcast, Goodrich and Green discussed how Latter-day Saints and other groups sometimes enable abusers under the guise of “forgiveness” — and why holding someone accountable can be the most loving thing a person can do.

(Deidre Green and The Associated Press) Latter-day Saint theologian Deidre Nicole Green, left, and Chelsea Goodrich, a survivor of alleged sexual abuse, challenge a version of "cheap forgiveness" that, they say, Latter-day Saints and other Christian communities sometimes use to paper over real and, at times, systemic harm.

The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity:

What are Latter-day Saint teachings regarding forgiveness and what goes through your mind when you hear some of the things other church members or friends and family were telling Chelsea?

Green • Forgiveness is extremely powerful. And I think that with anything that’s powerful, it can be misused and abused. And I think forgiveness can be weaponized against victims and survivors in ways that actually do further harm and are really a secondary form of abuse. And that really undermines our ability to heal as a community.

In situations of trauma, and specifically sexual trauma, one of the major problems is that someone’s agency has…been taken from them. To make forgiveness a matter of compulsion just does further damage.

Let’s talk about power dynamics. How do those come into play in the context of forgiveness?

Green • Certainly differences in power, something like ecclesiastical authority matters. Gender differences matter. Racial differences matter. In a case like this, differences in age — a parent and a child — certainly matter.

Part of how we seem to define what it means to be a good Christian woman, for example, or a good Latter-day Saint woman, is how forgiving they are. But that really often boils down to being morally permissive.

Often what is happening is there’s a desire to maintain a sort of status quo within the community. And the victims become sort of the sacrificial lambs, who, by “forgiving,” help the institution go on as it went before. But by doing that, by that sort of cheap forgiveness, we also create a moral vacuum.

Part of forgiveness is naming the moral wrongs that have taken place. If we bypass that step, we miss the opportunity to help perpetrators put themselves in a situation of moral repair. We miss the opportunity, as a community and as an institution, to create a safer space so that these kinds of harms don’t continue to be perpetuated.

And it seems there’s also, in these kinds of cases, there’s a justice element that needs to be served, correct?

Green • I don’t know of a Christian theologian or an ethicist who thinks that forgiveness somehow alleviates the need for punishment or the need for justice. Love and justice are in service of each other. And I want to make this really explicit. Where there’s maybe some ambiguity around forgiveness itself within Latter-day Saint scripture, what is not ambiguous is the fact that God and Christ both embody justice and love and mercy all simultaneously and apparently harmoniously.

In the case of sexual trauma, we use the term “incapacitation,” seeking to make sure that a perpetrator cannot continue to do harm against the victim or future potential victims. All of that is completely consistent with forgiveness with Christian love and with divine love.

Mormonism is a patriarchy. We talked about the gender issue. Did that play into your situation, Chelsea?

Goodrich • Yes, very much so. It took a long time for [my father] to get excommunicated because he was very good friends with the stake president. And my mom and myself, we really were not being heard. And we felt very brushed aside. It was really a heartbreaking experience.

Even after all of that, I did stay in the church for a number of years. And, unfortunately, my eyes were opened to some things at that point that they hadn’t been before. I started to hear the stories of other women.

And then I witnessed and experienced more of this kind of what I would call a systemic issue with not dealing with sexual predators very well at all in the church in general. I’m sure there are many exceptions. But there is a systemic issue, I think, with these men kind of not being in the right head space for how they conceptualize what sexual abuse is within the church, and that these men that have committed it can just sort of like go through a normal repentance and forgiveness process and that that works the same as other types of sins. But if you’re dealing with a pedophile, it’s just a lot more complicated than that.

Deidre, what can you add to that?

Green • Certainly in the case of a hierarchical institution, the more power you have over other people, the more accountability you have to them.

Part of what goes wrong within our very hierarchical and patriarchal institution is that people think about accountability in terms of the priesthood leader above them. They are thinking about answering to the person who has more power than they do and has the power to “promote them” to further advancement in priesthood offices.

What I think is a Christlike model of accountability is to feel accountable to the most vulnerable within your stewardship — children, for example, [or others] who are vulnerable to sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.

And I think part of what is so important in this process of justice seeking, of forgiveness…is that it’s a way of saying there is something worth protecting here. I have been violated. And that’s not OK. I have equal worth to every other member of this community. And what happens to me is not negligible.

Part of what Chelsea is speaking to, and what a lot of people could speak to, is that moral wrongs against us as women, as survivors, etc., are seen as negligible. But that wouldn’t be the case if we had a different sort of body, a different sort of social location, a different level of power.

What is the interplay between forgiveness and that commandment to love oneself and to love oneself as one’s neighbor?

Green • I see it as the most loving thing to make the other morally accountable and help them in their process of moral reform. And the self-love is having the self-regard and sense of dignity for myself that I do not deny what happened. I don’t turn a blind eye. I don’t mitigate it in any way at all. And I call for justice for myself.

Goodrich • When I was interviewed by The Associated Press last year, I could see that they were taken aback when I told them that a lot of why I’m doing this, my main motivation actually is love for my father, whom I absolutely do love. That’s where I am at this point, that I do recognize that I actually want my father, like Deidre said, to make choices that will be better for his life as well and for his soul.

And I think that part of the danger in asking people to forgive outside of the proper context is that it is often part of what was used in a grooming process. That was my case. My father would say, “Oh, I’m so sorry, you should forgive me.” And so that was a time where forgiveness was used to perpetuate abuse. And I just won’t allow that to be a thing anymore in my life. I want my father to know that, for me, forgiveness is no longer synonymous with enabling him.

What role can or should church leaders and fellow members play in this process?

Green • It’s not enough to excommunicate but to make sure that they cannot perpetrate the terms beyond the church community. So that means helping people in legal processes, not discouraging them from participating in them.

Goodrich • I’ve come to feel that justice can even come in the form of simply being heard, simply actually being seen and heard and not dismissed. If church members will just actually listen without immediately, for their own maybe even comfort, going into gospel platitudes and things like that, but just listen without having the answers and let people speak, let them be heard.

I’ve heard from over half a dozen women now who have almost my exact same story and they were LDS, they were abused by their father…and then church leaders knew about it and they kept it within the church. And the family was discouraged from, or at least not encouraged, to seek legal justice. And it led to more abuse. I wish my situation was unique, but it wasn’t. We’ve got to do better as a society and the LDS Church has to do better with handling victims and how they’re treated.

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