My story is complicated. I was sexually abused by family members when I was 5-7, but I didn’t know that’s what it was and didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t feel shame about the abuse, though I imagine my childhood that was full of anxiety and fear could have been because of the sexual abuse. It’s also possible, I was just an anxious person.
My father was not an angry man, but did lose his temper occasionally and became violent when he did so. We were spanked with hands and belts, but that wasn’t the terrifying part of how we were raised. I never knew what would make him mad enough to suddenly go a little berserk and tackle my brothers and beat them. Or to yell and shame and us with harsh and horrible words in his anger. I lived in fear of making him mad, but also constantly worried about protecting my younger siblings from my father’s anger.
At 8, I didn’t want to go into a room alone with my bishop. I felt uncomfortable, but my parents didn’t give me a choice. It worked out fine – my bishop was kind and loving and I felt warmth from him. At 12, I adored my bishop. He was very kind and personable outside of his office, so I don’t remember it being an issue. I don’t remember feeling uncomfortable with any questions. I still love the man that was my bishop more than thirty years ago, and love when I run into him every few years. He calls him “his Jen” and it feels like a grandfather or an uncle that I love deeply. At 14, In my bishop’s interview, I brought up my fear of my father. He talked to me about the importance of honoring my father. A few months later, my brother was hospitalized with a ruptured spleen after my father beat him. My brother was twelve, and I was terrified he was going to die. He was in the hospital for two weeks and when he finally came home was pretty much confined to the couch for a few more weeks. That didn’t change my dad’s behavior. I went to my bishop again asking for help, and he again talked only about honoring our parents and the importance of the family.
If my parents had been in the interview, I wouldn’t have told the bishop about my parents. So part of me wonders who I would have (or could have) gone to if not the bishop. At the same time, the bishop did not help me, so what would it matter if I could not go to him? Nothing got better at home, and I still lived in fear that one day my dad would accidentally kill my brother, and I had to protect my younger siblings from my father’s rage, and my life did not improve.
At 15, I developed generalized anxiety to all men. I couldn’t be alone with a man without having severe panic. The idea of going into the room alone with the bishop made me so anxious and afraid, I refused to do it. I lacked the words to explain what was going on, so everyone took it as me being a rebellious teen. I would have gladly gone to an interview if I could take a YW leader with me. I was not afraid of the questions – just of being there alone with the man. (This also makes it so the idea of two deep priesthood leadership sounds like an awful one to me. I love the idea of a child-chose advocate to be in the room with the bishop or counselors.)
At 18, I was sexually assaulted while attending BYU. I went to the bishop, but took a friend with me, because I still could not bring myself to go in the room. I’m glad he was open to that, and I appreciate the way he responded. He told me it wasn’t my fault. I wish he had left it at that, but he then spent the rest of our meeting time talking about my need to forgive the man that assaulted me.
At 19, I was married in the temple. He had an affair, and when we went to the bishop to seek his help, the bishop sent my husband out of the room and spent the next hour lecturing me on the importance of doing my duty as a wife. He told me I should be working less, going to school less, and doing everything to keep my husband happy in home and in bed. When I told him I disagreed, he took my temple recommend. A few months later, I apologized, I told him he was right and I would listen to and agree with whatever he told me to do as my judge in Israel.
At 22, I went to a new bishop to tell him I was afraid for my life. My husband had repeatedly threatened to kill me and hurt my younger sister. He’d also tried to strangle me and had been violent in bed. He gave me a book on Communication (Marriage: For better or worse), and never followed up with me again. He never asked me how I was doing and never said another word. I gave up hope that this life would ever be anything but suffering and hoped I could just survive it.
At 29, I had a bishop keep calling me into his office because he thought something wasn’t quite right. I took my husband with me, because it was just easier. After a few months, I went on my own. The bishop had been reading about domestic violence, abuse, eating disorders, PTSD, and more – all hoping that he could do enough research to understand what was going on for me. He helped me get into counseling. He got the church to pay for inpatient counseling. He did everything he could to help me feel like I was worth something to God and to him. He fought for my life in a way I had never experienced before.
When he was released, he spent hours talking to the new bishop trying to help the new bishop understand what I was going through. The new bishop helped pay for an apartment, so I could move out on my own. He continued to have the church pay for counseling services. He gave me his cell number and told me to call him any time. Eventually, he told me not to come to church, because it was upsetting and hard for me to sit in the pews next to my husband and listen to all of the lessons that had been used to justify so many abuses in my life. He arranged to have the sacrament brought to my little apartment by one of his counselors, so that no one else would know where I lived but the two of them.
Then the ward was divided. The new bishop told me I needed to go back to my husband because “temple marriage” was so important, and if I just paid my tithing I would be happy. He also told me he could no longer help me with rent since I needed to be with my husband and not living on my own.
So, I found a roommate and moved across the state. I got a divorce. I’ve worked really hard in therapy. I feel strong and alive and I don’t need the bishop or anyone else to tell me if I am worthy or what I need to do. I don’t go to interviews anymore. I occasionally go to church, but I don’t really feel like that is my spiritual home anymore.
I feel incredibly grateful for the two bishops who worked so hard to save my life. I just wish I had not been taught that the bishops would have so much authority in my life. I wish I had been taught it was okay to not sit alone with a man while he decides whether I am worthy or not. I wish I had not been taught to push away my own thoughts, feelings, and inspirations, and instead listen only to a man tell me. I wish I had never gone through the grooming process with a bishop, so that I didn’t go through it so willingly elsewhere too… I also wish I had never had so many “righteous” priesthood holding men all in good standing with the church do such incredible damage to my body and my mind.
It wasn’t bishops that hurt me, but they sure didn’t help. I wish I had had an advocate there to help me instead of having an untrained man with a calling to be the only one I could go to.