Sometimes we can learn from the mistakes of others. That’s why I’m hoping that those in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with authority far more than my own can take to heart advice of the sort offered in a recent article by Catholic journalist Pete Vere in Patheos.
In his article, Vere wrote about the faith struggles he faced in 2002 when news broke about sexual abuse among Catholic clergy within the Archdiocese of Boston. Similarly, he wrote, “each of my Mormon friends is feeling a range of emotions over reports breaking in the secular media” over allegations by a one-time director of the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah.
Range of emotions indeed, and I have felt many of them: Surprise, disgust and anger are certainly among them. These days, it is mostly outrage — although I must say that my outrage isn’t directed so much at the perpetrator but by the lack of outrage I sense from my fellow coreligionists toward the Church’s weak (at best) response to the allegations.
Why is it, I wonder, that when the allegations first became public and the Church issued a statement that focused in part on discrediting the victim that the strongest outcry came not from Church members but from the secular and even anti-Mormon types? I have heard it said so often from people that they think Mormons are a bit loony but that they admire Mormons for their strong values. But this time, it is the Mormons who tend to display the lack of values, or values that aren’t as strong as those seen outside the Church. I pains me to be this harsh, but I’m accurately describing how I see things as someone who attends church every Sunday and generally does those things I’m suppose to do as a good church member.
Suppose a major U.S. corporation came out with a statement such as this after allegations of rape toward one of its previous employees:
These allegations are serious and deeply disturbing. Because we don’t have the power of subpoena, we haven’t been able to find out the truth in this matter involving a former short-time employee of our company who is now working for one of our competitors. We did talk to the purported perpetrator, and even though we have been given an audiotape of him acknowledging improprieties while in our employ we have continued to keep him on as a consultant for our local organization involved in the teaching of teenagers. Although the statute of limitations has passed, we are confident that the legal system, if called upon to do so, can determine the merits of the claims. We will continue to ask the alleged perpetrator about his actions while our attorneys continue to compile evidence to discredit the person making the claims.
Sadly, this isn’t much hyperbole if seen as a parallel to the Church’s first public statement on the incident. To its credit, the Church has since improved several of the recommendations it makes to local church leaders — leaders are, for example, now told that those claiming to victims are usually telling the truth and that they shouldn’t be advised to continue living with an abuser — but these are steps that most organizations have been taking for a decade or more. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the positives steps taken have been underreported.
But there is no apology for those, such as two ex-wives of White House ex-aide Rob Porter, who were told by their bishops (the LDS rough equivalent of a pastor) to downplay the abuse of their husband.
And this is where the advice of Vere comes in. He suggests three steps that the LDS church should take, based on what his church has experienced, and they’re all on target:
- Don’t treat victims as the enemy. The new guidelines mentioned above are a step in that direction.
- Focus on the victim’s pain, not your pain. Again, the new advice could help in this regard. But so far, the official statements in the MTC case sound more like they were written by lawyers than those most concerned about the victim’s pain.
- Transparency. Bingo. The LDS church is arguably the most opaquely run major denomination in the country, and that’s not helping when it comes to cases of alleged abuse.
And if I could offer a fourth piece of advice, it would be this: Be willing to explicitly acknowledge when church leaders make mistakes, and to publicly make amends. One reason many victims feel like they won’t be heard — aside from the fact that they often haven’t been — is that many church members grow up believing that church leaders have a direct pipeline to God that isn’t also available to them. Certainly an overwhelming majority of the church’s leaders, international and local, are decent, honorable people. But from an early age, church members need to be told, explicitly, that it’s OK to say no to a bishop — or an MTC president — who makes unreasonable (or worse) demands. The overwhelming “leaders are infallible” culture (it’s not doctrine) of the Church makes that very difficult to do.
Certainly, thanks in part the #metoo movement (which, surprisingly, was praised in the Church’s most recent General Conference), further allegations will be coming, if not regarding this former MTC president, then from others. When those allegations come, my hope is that the Church’s official response is more constructive than the last one was.
Photo “Rape” by Valeri Pizhanski, CC BY-SA 2.0.