Commentary: Mormon church needs to train bishops better — and teach them that most domestic violence reports turn out to be true

| Courtesy Jana Riess Jana Riess, Mormon writer and editor.

I’m angry, but I’m trying to understand.

White House aide Rob Porter resigned last week from his job as staff secretary because a story broke that his two ex-wives had accused him of abuse. Despite that, this administration had kept him in power.

Apparently, after the FBI’s investigation early in 2017, it did not grant Porter a full security clearance, and he’s been operating all this time on an interim clearance.

Which means that at least somebody in the FBI, somewhere along the line, actually believed the women, which is more than I can say for the White House.

Or, unfortunately, for these women’s LDS bishops.

To me, what is especially heartbreaking about the story is that so many of the players are or were Mormon — Porter, both of his ex-wives, and also Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Porter’s former employer who initially denounced the accusers as “politically motivated, morally bankrupt character assassins that would attempt to sully a man’s good name.” (Hatch’s follow-up statement was far more circumspect.)

Most painful of all was the fact that both women said they had gone to their bishops in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about the abuse when it was happening, and both had their abuse minimized or dismissed. One article describes the experiences of Colby Holderness, the first wife:

“One summer, when she was interning at a federal agency, she had access to a counselor through her job. ‘When I explained to him what was happening, he had a very different reaction from the Mormon bishops,’” she said. ‘It was weirdly validating to hear that from somebody else.’ Speaking about the counselor, she said, ‘He was very concerned to hear Rob was choking me.’”

That last statement seems to suggest that her Mormon bishop also heard at some point that Holderness was being choked by her husband, and the bishop was not concerned about it.

Let’s pause on that for a moment: Not concerned that Porter was choking. His. Wife.

The second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, gave a long and interesting interview Thursday to CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360. Here is the relevant portion about Mormonism:

Cooper • One of the things the bishop had sort of suggested to you or mentioned to you is, “Do you want to file this temporary protection order, because of the impact it might have on your husband’s career?”

Willoughby • Yeah.

Cooper • How did you feel when that was brought up?

Willoughby • I was taken aback. It seemed … not the priority in the situation that I was discussing. I hold no ill will towards that bishop. I think he was making the decision the best that he could with the information that he had. But, ultimately, I think it shows some of the nuances of what someone goes through when they’re in an abusive relationship, that because I was unable to clearly articulate the fear that I had, and to clearly articulate even some of the more extreme forms of emotional or verbal abuse that I was experiencing, he really didn’t understand the severity of the situation. And wasn’t able to make that as a recommendation.

Willoughby did seem to suggest, though, that the Mormon bishop’s counsel, along with a police officer’s, helped her to ultimately make the decision to file the temporary restraining order against Porter. So maybe it was not entirely one-sided, and the bishop eventually was more of a help than a hindrance.

Listening between the lines, though, it sounds like Willoughby’s bishop was slow on the uptake about how bad things actually were, and was primarily concerned about how allegations of Porter’s abuse might damage the man’s career, rather than the danger Willoughby might be in.

I’ve never seen credible evidence that abuse and domestic violence are more common in Mormon families than anywhere else. But I’ve never seen credible evidence that they are any less common, either.

And I am quite sure, based on what I’ve seen in my church, that Mormon women who are abused are not always likely to be believed, and that bishops are untrained in how to deal with abuse — both of which make women less likely to come forward at all.

Listen again to what Willoughby said: that she was not always able to clearly articulate her fear. That’s actually really common with domestic violence. People who are abused may minimize their own situation or have difficulty initiating conversations about it.

That is why police officers, pastors, teachers and other leaders get trained in precisely this. So they know the kinds of specific questions that must be asked, sometimes repeatedly, to get at the truth.

In Mormonism, our system of lay leadership means that a bishop who is in his daily life an accountant or perhaps a veterinarian is called out of the blue to be in charge of the spiritual and administrative affairs of a congregation of several hundred people. He serves for five years or so and does the best job he can, encountering situations he’s never dealt with before, seeing people at their best and at their worst, making judgment calls.

That accountant and veterinarian weren’t just hypothetical examples: Those are actual bishops I’ve had. And they did a great job. But it’s pretty unfair to expect them to be experts in all things, especially counseling and domestic violence, when they have almost no training.

Recently I was discussing this reality with two friends about my age who are currently serving as bishops. One was telling me about some wonderful training videos the LDS Church has put together recently for bishops to help people deal with a variety of challenging situations — a real step forward, he said.

And then the other one looked at him and asked, “What training videos?”

So that’s part of the problem. What training bishops do receive is on the job — while they’re already serving, not in advance as preparation for this huge calling — and scattershot.

Then there’s the other part of the problem, which is that this is a thoroughly patriarchal system that makes it tough for women to come forward and to be believed as the default response.

Therapist Julie de Azevedo Hanks referred to this in remarks to The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday, saying that Mormonism’s lay system creates situations in which men work side by side with men and might therefore be more likely to know and believe them rather than their partners, particularly when the men seem outwardly devout and caring.

And abusers can put on a really good show, as Porter’s case seems to demonstrate.

The LDS Church needs to do better — not only with training bishops but also teaching them that the vast majority of allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault turn out to be true. True as in, the false reports are in the single digits.

As Willoughby said in the interview:

“It’s important to me, in general, that anyone who is coming forward with a story like that is believed upfront. That it’s not the burden of proof for me or anyone else to justify those claims. And that the conversation around abuse or assault or even misogyny in general doesn’t automatically turn to, ‘Well, he is really great. Could it possibly be that she is exaggerating, or she’s not telling the truth, or it’s not as bad as they’re making it out to be?’ Because there’s very little evidence that any woman would bring that kind of scrutiny upon themselves to share these kinds of details.”

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