Sexual assault and abuse statistics in the United States continue to be appalling. One in three girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted. More than one-third of the perpetrators of these children are family members. What is even more atrocious is that Utah’s statistics are double the national average which gives Utah the horrendous distinction of leading the nation in child abuse cases.
Isn’t it interesting that these higher than average statistics are present in a state with such a strong Mormon population and influence? One would think that a religion that values family unity and perfection wouldn’t have such a disproportionate level of abuse. Not that LDS communities are the only breeding grounds for abuse. News stories of sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests over the years and covered up by the Diocese have brought to light the danger of trusting clergy without question or even common sense. And yet, that level of trust continues to put children at risk in religious organizations where strict obedient to church leaders is mandated.
Evidence shows a greater incidence of abuse in societies with a strong patriarchal hierarchy. Mormonism is no exception. Reports of abuse tied to the LDS church continue to make headlines; the most recent related to the Lamanite Program of the sixties and seventies. I could fill this blog post with stories of abuse where perpetrators share the same last name and family ties with high ranking church authorities, where children have been blamed and perpetrators excused, and when protecting the reputation and assets of the church always supersede what is in the victim’s best interest.
Talks given from the pulpit in General Conference regarding the evils of abuse have little to no effect on the perpetrators of such vile acts. However, talks addressing the importance of obeying church leaders and priesthood holders without question are influential in keeping many victims silent.
There is an obvious disconnect between the words of church leaders and their actions. While the PR department issues comments that sexual assault or abuse of any kind is not condoned, the church has definitely created a culture of victim-blaming and shaming within its organization.
The October 17th, 2003, Deseret Morning News headline reads “90% of Provo rapes not reported to police.” In the report, a BYU police officer explains that religious beliefs are the reason: [BYU Police Officer Arnie] Lemmon said most Provo residents are religious and have a tendency to stigmatize discussion of sexual assault and sometimes to demonize the survivor.”
A number of female BYU students have come forward in recent months and shared their stories of punitive actions against them by the “Lord’s University” when they reported being raped. These students were accused of Honor Code violations that ended their college studies at BYU. Instead of supporting these victims of violence, they are violated once again by the college and the church. In one of these public cases, the rapist continued his college pursuits on that private campus while his rape victim was denied continued enrollment.
These may seem like isolated cases, but they are far more common than Mormons want to believe. I’ve had women share with me their personal stories of assault that rival my own. The responses we’ve gotten from church leaders are also similar. I was nearly 15 before the lifelong abuse I’d endured came to light. I only remember one comment from the meeting I had with my bishop following the disclosure. He said that little girls shouldn’t be in the same bed as their fathers after the age of three. He may not have intended to place the blame on me, but that was the message I received. And it’s a message I’ve heard through the years by a number of “priesthood” leaders.
Consider the damaging effects of this talk by Mormon apostle Richard G. Scott: “The victim must do all in his or her power to stop the abuse. Most often, the victim is innocent because of being disabled by fear or the power or authority of the offender. At some point in time, however, the Lord may prompt a victim to recognize a degree of responsibility for abuse. Your priesthood leader will help assess your responsibility so that, if needed, it can be addressed.”
Elizabeth Smart, a young LDS woman kidnapped from her bed at the age of 14 and forced to endure repeated rapes over a nine month period before her rescue had this to say: “I was raised in a religious household where I was taught that sex only happened between a married man and a woman. After that rape, I felt so dirty…can you imagine going back into a society where you are no longer of value? Where you are no longer as good as anybody else?”
A teacher of hers compared women who had sex before their wedding to chewed gum. Elizabeth went on to say, “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum. Nobody re-chews a piece of gum. You throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth. You no longer have value. Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.”
“You can never judge a child or a victim of any crime on what they should have done, because you weren’t there and you don’t know and you have no right just to sit in your armchair at home and say ‘Well, why didn’t you escape? Why didn’t you do this?’ I mean, they just don’t know,” she said.
And yet, all too often, that is exactly what happens. Bishops, stake presidents, BYU officials, and many members of the church pass unfair judgment of victims, while passing over the responsibility to protect the innocent and hold the perpetrators of these crimes accountable. Shame on them…NOT on the victims.