My response to CNN’s article with the same title.
As soon as I read that Rob Porter was a former aide to Orinn Hatch, I thought: Please, please, please don’t let this guy be LDS. But he is. He’s LDS, or Mormon. And oh boy, I’ve got some thoughts.
For those of you who don’t know who I’m talking about, Rob Porter is the disgraced White House aide who — it was revealed this week — was emotionally and physically abusive to his two former wives and a former girlfriend. The guy’s a monster. Grotesquely abusive, aggressively vindictive, an all-around bad dude. The accounts from these women are horrifying and heartbreaking. The White House’s efforts to protect this guy are disturbing as well, especially since John Kelly and others have known about the abuse for months and continued not only to keep Porter on staff but also considered him for advancement, this despite the fact that the FBI knew about the abuse as well and were thus reluctant to grant Porter proper security clearance.
What breaks my heart further is this report, wherein the former wives reveal that they both approached their LDS bishops regarding the abuse at the time it was occurring, and neither woman felt they received the counsel they needed from their bishops to escape the relationship and get help. This will likely infuriate a lot of people, both in and out of the Church. And rightfully so.
It’s worth noting — as does the article — that the Church’s position on abuse is very clear: zero tolerance. Inexcusable. Indefensible. Abhorrent. Wrong. And grounds for Church discipline and excommunication. It is not tolerated. At all. Or at least it’s not supposed to be. That’s the direction that is given to all leaders in the Church, men and women, including bishops. Abuse of any kind: no way, no how. Physical, emotional, psychological, whatever. NO!
We don’t know if Rob Porter faced Church discipline, and unless he or his ex-wives reveal that information, we likely will never know. If he had been excommunicated, I think the Church spokesman would have said so.
The obvious questions here are: Why did these women remain in these abusive relationships for as long as they did? And why didn’t their bishops (or other Church leaders) do more to rescue them?
The first question is hard to answer because only the former wives can speak for themselves, but I can tell you how critical the doctrine of marriage is in the Mormon faith. It is, well, everything. Marriage is at the center of Mormon theology. We marry not just until death do us part, but for all time and eternity. Marriage, we believe, continues beyond the grave. Our spouse is our equal in all things, for the rest of our existence. When we commit to someone, it is ironclad. It’s stone. To abandon that marriage, to divorce is monumentally consequential. For some, it feels like a failure of faith as much as a failure of love. They think: I made a commitment to help this person obtain salvation. They are linked to me. I am responsible for them. I have a vested interest in seeing them reformed. And if they don’t reform, I have failed.
Yes, Mormons believe we all have our agency. Yes, Mormons believe that each person is solely responsible for their own salvation. Yes, Mormons believe that we are not accountable for the sins of others, including our spouses. But I have been an LDS bishop. I have spoken with people considering divorce, and the guilt and shame they feel at approaching that decision is catastrophic. It is consuming. They feel like they failed, not only their spouse but God.
They generally don’t think: Whoa, I made a terrible decision. What was I thinking? I better get out of that fast. They think: Oh no. I made a decision I CAN’T go back on. I made covenants with God. I committed to do this. This is who I am now.
And I won’t even begin to discuss how abuse complicates those feelings. People far smarter than me who understand the psychology of the abuser and the abused will explain much better than I can how complex that relationship is and how difficult it can be to escape from because of, well, shame and guilt and embarrassment. Abuse is a bear trap. Those of us outside looking in think, “Well, duh, get out. Run. Go!” But of course it is not that easy for those on the inside, as anyone who has suffered from abuse can tell you.
And while I am relieved that these women eventually did end their marriage and did acquire a divorce, I am saddened to think that they may have felt trapped in the relationship because of their understanding of Mormon theology.
Here’s the deal. God does not want you in an abusive relationship. Ever. God does not want you to stay in an abusive relationship in the hope of one day working it out. Ever. God wants you safe. God wants you well. God wants you to feel peace of mind. God wants to remove you from any threatening situation. That’s what God wants. Does he want marriages to succeed? Of course He does. But not at the expense of abuse. Ever.
Oh how I wish every bishop of the Church would cement that in their minds. The counsel should NEVER be, “Well you DID make a covenant to be with this man. You did promise to cherish him and help him. So . . .”
No! No! No!
The response should be. “Oh my gosh! I’m so glad you came to me. We need to get you safe. If you don’t feel safe at home, we need to find you and your children someplace safe temporarily while we seek legal counsel. I would never forgive myself if you left this office and I didn’t do all I could to protect you and your children and prevent this from every happening again.”
Sadly, the bishops of these women, didn’t say that. One of them — allegedly — even suggested that the wife should overlook the abuse because it might hurt her husband’s career.
Um, what? Um, excuse me?
I can’t even . . . I just . . . no.
As a former bishop, I can state unequivocally and without reservation that bishops don’t know what they’re doing most of the time. Or at least I didn’t. And other bishops I’ve spoken with have expressed the same. It’s not because we don’t care. And it’s not because we’re unfamiliar with Church policy. It’s because bishops are lay clergy. They didn’t go to a theological school to study doctrine and seek pastoring as a career. They don’t even ASK to be bishop. It’s not something you volunteer for. A higher church authority brings you into his office and asks you to do it for free in your spare time.
And there’s very little training. You’re basically handed an instruction manual and told, “Good luck.”
And what follows are experiences and concerns that you feel wholly inadequate to address. I have never had serious marital problems. I have never been addicted to pornography. I have never been abused. I have never dealt with same-sex attraction. I have never gone hungry. But from day one as a bishop, the members of the Church who DO struggle with these challenges expect you to be able to offer guidance and help. And because you love these people, and because your heart breaks for them, you desperately WANT to help. You’re just not sure how. At least, not 100% sure.
And here’s the other challenge. Bishops are generally really, really nice guys. They hate conflict. They hate confrontation. They hate telling people: You’re bad. You’re dangerous. You’re wrong. That makes them very poorly equipped to address abuse.
Bishops want to hug. Bishops want to reassure you that all will be well in the end. They’re care bears. Not body guards. And in the instances of abuse, the person across the desk doesn’t need a care bear. She needs a body guard. Played by Dwayne Johnson. With a bat and a bazooka and some steel-toed shoes. And bishops aren’t great at being that guy. They’ve never been that guy. They’re in a suit. They’re programmed to be nice. Sometimes they’re old.
I remember once as a bishop I was dealing with an instance of abuse. The abuser lived out of state. I contacted the bishop and stake president of this abuser because I wanted Dwayne Johnson in steel-toed shoes. I wanted action. The members of the church needed protection. But since the abuser was not an “active” member of the Church, the stake president and bishop did nothing. Nada. Not a darn thing. I was profoundly disappointed. No, that’s an understatement. I was royally ticked off. Sorry, dudes. I know what I’m asking will make you uncomfortable, but shouldn’t we do everything we can to protect the innocent? Shouldn’t we drop the hammer in this instance? Christ didn’t politely ask the moneychangers to leave the temple when they were done. He drove them out. He was ticked.
And what did he say about those who abused children? Oh yeah, that it were better if a mill stone were draped around their neck and they were dropped into the sea. The Lord don’t mess when it comes to abuse. And so neither should we.
I’ve known many bishops. They are good men. They’re doing their best. They didn’t sign up for this. They’re not experts. But I hope as a church we can do a better job of protecting those in abusive relationships and helping them get help and get safe. We can’t shy away from it. We can’t simply pray for the abused and hope heaven cleans up the mess. We have to put on our steel-toed boots. We have to say what the abused needs to hear. We have to comfort and show sympathy. We have to direct her to the people who can help her in all the ways she need help: therapists, the police, lawyers, family, whomever.
What we don’t need is the bishop who says, “I got this” and who tries to solve this by sharing a few scriptures. Nope. What we don’t need is the bishop who says, “There is no excuse for divorce.” Because (A) that’s wrong and (B) that’s dangerous to say. What we don’t need is the bishop too timid and tepid to tackle abuse head on, who turns the other way, who looks out for the abuser before the abused. What we don’t need is the bishop who doubts reported abuse. Or who is slow to address it. Or who — again for emphasis — gives the slightest consideration to the abuser’s career!
And what we certainly don’t need is another wife who feels trapped in an abusive situation without a priesthood leader she can turn to to help.
I love our doctrine on marriage. I love our good bishops. I love the Church’s position on abuse, that it cannot be tolerated in any form. I salute these women for their courage and their strength. I hope they hold to the belief that the Church is a safe place, that the counsel they received from previous bishops is not okay and not the norm and that it, like the abuse itself, won’t be tolerated.
We all have to be care bears, yes. We all have to be nice. But in God’s army, there are times when our inner Dwayne Johnson needs to come out roaring and swinging and running to the rescue.