I’m one of the lucky ones who had only good men as bishops throughout my life and yet I still did not escape unscathed.
I discovered masturbation by about age 4 or 5. My parents caught me and I then got the entire penis-vagina sex talk with a heaping side of the impending fires of hell. None of my bishops ever asked me about masturbation; I think they assumed that only boys do it. But I heard plenty from my parents and in seminary, which I was enrolled in a year early because of my sinful nature.
I suffered from constant fear of hell and fear of the final judgement when I knew my sins would be “shouted from the rooftops” and I would be sent to outer darkness and all my family would loathe the sight of me forever. I was miserable. I hated myself. I was scared. It didn’t help that I was being raised in an abusive home (physical and emotional abuse, as well as a lack of sexual boundaries). I was not able to stop masturbating despite trying everything I could think of. I knew God hated me.
I only confided in my bishop three times about anything. The first time I was 13 and I confessed that my father had a violent temper and that I was scared to tell the truth to the judge that was assessing the custody order. My bishop said I shouldn’t tell lies.
So that was that. (Two years later I attempted suicide because I could see no way out of the hell I was living in with my father. But I survived.)
The second time I was 16 and had just found out from two different family members that my father had sexually abused his younger sisters for years and it had been covered up by my dad’s mission president at the time, who only asked my dad to write home letters of apology. I was also told that the uncle I lived with when I was an infant had been accused of similar things but it too had been covered up by grandparents and church leaders at the time and all details were lost in the veil of “forgiveness.” I had no idea if I was part of the buried secrets. But at the onset of puberty, as I began to get lots of attention from boys, I had begun experiencing ptsd symptoms and detailed nightmares of forced sexual encounters – despite my total lack of experience. I had never had sex, or seen pornography or had any other exposure to adult sexuality. So when I found out about my dad and uncle, I worked up the courage to go to the bishop about the suspected abuse (different bishop this time) and also confess my ongoing masturbation problem. I was 16.
He was a kind man and I’m sure did not know how to respond. He simply listened and told me I was going to be okay and sent me home with a copy of Miracle of Forgiveness – which is a truly unkind and unhelpful book for a sexual abuse survivor, or anyone else for that matter. But he did his best.
The thing is, bishop’s are not trained counselors, child psychologists, or sexual abuse advocates and it is extremely inappropriate and unfair to burden them with problems that should be handled either by law enforcement or by someone with the correct training. We expect too much of them. We assume that their “mantle of authority” gives them a heightened spirit of discernment that qualifies them above people who are professionally trained to deal with sensitive interpersonal issues. This is madness. The lds church teaches that when you have a rash you see a doctor and when you need surgery you see a surgeon; but if you touch yourself or you’ve been a victim of sexual abuse then you speak with a man (who might be a plumber, farmer, accountant, etc) alone, while he’s wearing a suit and people are calling him “bishop”.
The third time I confided in my bishop was after my temple marriage and three children. I had discovered naked pictures left on my computer, thousands of text messages, phone calls, hotel bills, gifts sent via the Internet, etc. I was blindsided. It was obvious there was a fidelity problem in my marriage. I was devastated. My heart was broken. I went to the bishop in tears. He spoke to me in a very kind way and explained that I didn’t have proof that “sex” actually happened and that the best thing I could do was go home and try to be a better wife.
Looking back, the thing that bothers me the most about that conversation is how I felt he spoke for God and so he must be right, and then I took it on myself to fix problems that were not mine to fix. He too was a good man who was way, way, way out of his depth. He was a retired military officer who had no business giving marital advice that would be received as if from the mouth of God.
Please, please, please, let us protect our children, our teenagers, our young adults. Stop the inappropriate one-on-one interviews. Lives are being destroyed.