Some Mormons say their church needs a culture change, after watching the sex abuse scandal at the Missionary Training Center unfold

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mourners cross temple square on their way to the Conference Center to pay their last respects to LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson during his funeral service in Salt Lake City Friday, January 12, 2018.

On a recording and in a police report both released this week, Joseph L. Bishop agreed that he had molested a young female missionary, said he asked another missionary to bare her breasts and described himself as a predator during his tenure in the 1980s as president of the Missionary Training Center — triggering emotional distress for many LDS victims of sexual abuse.

Some read an initial statement from the LDS Church as undermining the alleged victim who recorded Bishop and of showing disinterest in other possible victims. And the Utah County bishop the woman spoke to in 1987 about Bishop’s misconduct said he didn’t believe her and didn’t report her allegations to anyone.

The disclosures and the perceived dismissals of alleged victims have spurred outcry online and demands for reform — from continuing calls to revise how bishops interview young people to better training for lay leaders and a cultural shift toward believing women.

Some ask the LDS Church to investigate these issues like Brigham Young University did in 2016. An advisory council heard from thousands of victims, experts and others before recommending how to improve the school’s response to sexual assault reports, after students and alumni said its Honor Code was harming and silencing abuse victims.

Montana clinical social worker Sara Hughes-Zabawa says she talked this week to dozens of therapists whose patients reported being retraumatized after hearing the Bishop tape and the church’s initial response.

“It’s been a tender week for my clients,” she says.

The publicity, the Mormon counselor says, is “resurfacing the reality that ‘I’m not believed and my church doesn’t care.’”

Salt Lake City therapist Julie de Azevedo Hanks echoed those concerns for those in her professional care. She was “sickened” while listening to the tape, she says, and “horrified” that Bishop continued to hold positions of power. On the recording, he says he has struggled with a sexual addiction his “whole life.”

“I was extremely concerned,” Hanks says, “for the many other women who may have been victimized over the years.”

The woman who secretly recorded Bishop initially told him she was a writer interviewing former mission presidents, then she confronted him, saying he tore her clothing and attempted to rape her at the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in 1984. He denies her allegation during their conversation, and his son has said Bishop’s statements about other misconduct have been misconstrued.

The Colorado woman shared copies of the tape with several people, she says, and someone gave it without her consent to the website MormonLeaks, which posted it Monday with a transcript.

Hanks, who is Mormon, was struck by the woman’s bravery, she says. “It takes incredible courage to face an abuser and request accountability.”

Weighing words

In response to the MormonLeaks post, spokesman Eric Hawkins issued a statement that said The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints learned of the Colorado woman’s allegation when she told leaders in Pleasant Grove in 2010.

It said leaders “listened carefully to the claims being made and then this was immediately reported to the Pleasant Grove Police Department.” The church then referred the allegation to Bishop’s local leaders, who were unable to verify it and did not discipline Bishop, it said.

The church was silent on the statements made by Bishop on the tape, such as his admission that he had given another female missionary a back rub that turned “frisky” and that he had been a predator.

The spokesman’s statement is “an especially ham-fisted entry in the now sadly familiar ‘If True, Then Troubling’ genre,” says Kristine Haglund, former editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. “The insistent declaration that the church has ‘no tolerance’ for abuse is belied by the casual handwashing … which admits that the church did no follow-up investigation once it had turned the matter over to the police.”

Worst of all, she says, are the “sidelong jabs at the victim” that may signal members to dismiss her story. The alleged victim is described as a “former church member who served briefly as a missionary.” Using “served briefly” in this way, Haglund says, “reinforces the stigma of early return [missionaries] that the church has recently been working to diminish.”

The phrase drew similar reactions online. On Friday, Hawkins said, “Those are the facts. It is not intended to convey disrespect.”

In December, the Colorado woman reported her sexual assault allegation against Bishop to Brigham Young University police, which eventually closed the case because the legal deadline for filing charges has passed. On Wednesday, the department released a report that showed Bishop admitted taking her to a room and asking to see her breasts. He said their accounts differed either because he could not remember the incident or because she was exaggerating.

On Friday, Hawkins issued a second statement — which acknowledged the second alleged victim and said the church is “looking into all aspects of the assertions on the recording of Joseph Bishop,” including “interviewing priesthood leaders, family members, law enforcement officials and others with knowledge of these incidents.”

It said the church had also learned of the second victim in 2010, when she reported that she had been sexually abused by Bishop, and it had offered her emotional support and professional counseling.

It said it had not seen the police report with Bishop’s admission about the first woman until Wednesday.

“We share the anger and distress church members and others feel to learn of incidents where those entrusted with sacred responsibilities violate God’s commandments and harm others,” the statement reads. Such behavior “is repulsive and sinful.”

This is much better, Haglund says. “It is heartening to see change in response to new information.”

The Boston writer hopes that the church will offer the accuser “a full and sincere apology,” she says, and that it will see “how mistaken the initial impulse to shame the accuser and implicitly trust a priesthood leader is in our culture, how pernicious the effects of unchecked power can be, despite all the best intentions in the world.”

What’s next?

A new generation of Mormons may make a stronger push for institutional change. Many younger members are less willing than their elders to tolerate what they see as mishandled responses to sexual abuse, says Jaclyn Foster, 24, who is studying genetics at BYU. They also are less likely to accept attempts to deflect blame for abuse onto a few bad actors, she says.

“People my age, they have a stronger belief that systemic oppression exists and is relevant,” Foster says. “Older generations tend to see any form of injustice as individual, isolated events, and tend not to believe systemic oppression exists in any meaningful way. No matter how many cases come up, people will continue to say it’s just an individual bad apple.”

Part of the challenge may be the Mormon use of a lay clergy, Hughes-Zabawa says, which may leave some LDS bishops with neither skills nor training in how to handle abuse confessions.

No other organization working with children and youths is “making the same choices we do,” said Hughes-Zabawa. “All the others have evolved into safe practices.”

If teens want to meet with a bishop alone, rather than with parents, the interviewees should be empowered to know “what are and are not appropriate questions,” the Billings social worker says. “We need to arm ourselves and our kids with language that maintains healthy boundaries.”

And parents should be free to choose to let their children forgo such interviews, she says — without consequences like missing out on a temple trip.

Sam Young would like to see the LDS Church end sexually explicit questioning of children by LDS leaders. He has garnered thousands of signatures on an online petition against such interviews and has organized a march for next week in Salt Lake City. Registrations for the march have crossed the 1,000-participant line — up significantly since news broke of the MTC allegations.

“We’re seeing a lot more discussions with faithful members of the church,” Young says.

Hughes-Zabawa wonders why the church doesn’t follow the example of BYU, owned by the LDS Church, which changed its policies in the aftermath of a sex-assault controversy. Others have suggested a similar approach.

The Mormon hierarchy should take this opportunity to “allow previous victims to share their stories — uninterrupted and with humility, owning and acknowledging the deficiencies in the system,” she says. “Ask what could have a made a difference in the outcome.”

Lisa Torcasso Downing, an LDS convert in Dallas, wants her church to “create a new system, one that will protect the vulnerable and hold abusers accountable.”

The church should “create an empowered reporting system, independent of the priesthood line of authority, that includes women as responsible, authorized leaders and participants,” Downing writes on her blog, Outside the Book of Mormon Belt.

The Texas mom says she would like to see LDS President Russell M. Nelson rise at the faith’s General Conference and “commit to action that will change the words ‘zero tolerance’ from a catchphrase into a covenant the leaders of the church make [with] its members.”

Reporters Benjamin Wood and Erin Alberty contributed to this story.