I recognize my mother’s voice in another story here, so I think it’s time to share mine. When I was a child, I had a very zealous bishop who thoroughly, searchingly interviewed me 2-4x/year starting around age 11. When I was first asked about subjects such as pornography, masturbation, bestiality, etc. by this bishop, I was grossed out. Up to that point, I had heard the word “pornography” in talks and lessons, and while I knew it was definitely bad stuff to get mixed up with, didn’t really have a clear idea what exactly it was. I certainly didn’t have any idea what sex was or how it worked, let alone masturbation or anything else in that realm of experience when I was being questioned, regularly, by this bishop. At first, I didn’t think it was any big deal — just a “standard” “worthiness” interview that everybody does. When this started, I was so grossed out by the whole subject of sex (on which I was being educated by this bishop, and other YM leaders) that I actually felt a little relieved that I seemed to be completely immune to this terrible temptation sweeping through the Youth of Zion like a plague, so I could go back to playing video games and doing kid stuff. I simply couldn’t fathom why anyone would ever do anything like that yet, let alone feel “tempted” to do it.
Around 6 months after this new routine of frequent, excessively educational worthiness interviews, I encountered pornography at a friend’s house for the first time. It had been so beaten into my head that this stuff is bad news and instantly transforms you into a complete monster, that neither my parents nor the bishop were safe to talk to about it. It would have been helpful to have someone who could help me process that experience, but no one was safe, so I carried it alone, thinking I was a terrible human being, from the time I was a child. Around age 12-13 my development began moving forward, and I felt like I must be some kind of hopeless degenerate because I began to think girls were pretty. It would be a while later before I would purposefully seek out pornography (now easily available via the internet) and develop a habit and a shame cycle like many others.
At age 15, after a lesson on forgiveness in seminary, I decided I wanted to try and get clean. I broke up with my girlfriend (never so much as kissed her on the cheek, but this is Utah, and “dating” prior to age 16 was wrong, according to the value system I was raised in). I picked up the phone and made an appointment with the bishop (which was plenty awkward on its own having to ask for an appointment without wanting to tell the exec secretary why). I had no script for how this was supposed to work. Sunday came. I needed to get over to the church for my appointment, but wasn’t yet old enough to drive. I planned to leave extra early, but my parents, looking out for our safety, questioned why I was headed over to church so early. This is way too early for sacrament prep. Not wanting to compound my manifold sins of pre-16 dating (spending time with a girl, holding her hand), viewing pornography, and masturbation with lying, I told my dad “I’m going to see the bishop.” He asked if it was for a calling or something, and I said “No.” There’s only one other reason people go to see the bishop, you know. He gave me a blessing before giving me a ride over to the church, and though I’m certain it was only well intended, the blessing he gave seemed only to add to how terrible I felt about everything — reconfirming in my mind that I’m among the bottom 5% of people ever to live in terms of moral worthiness.
I got to the bishops office, and laid it out for him. He asked for some details, but I don’t remember exactly what at this point. He then gave me the “sin next to murder” speech and assigned me to go home and read Alma 39-41. He confirmed what I already knew – I was basically Hitler. He forbade me from participating in sacrament for 3 weeks, and promised he would follow up with me at that time to discuss my reading assignment and where things go from here. Passing the sacrament tray along was very shaming that day. But worse still was getting corned by my teacher’s quorum president after church to show up next Sunday and prepare the sacrament because it was my turn. I declined, and was pestered further. With teenage boys having “authority” over other teenage boys like this, it basically placed me in a position of having to confess my sins to another 15 year old. I said something like “Look, take it up with Bishop ___ if you want to know why I can’t do it next week. Or the week after that. OR the week after that! And leave me alone.” As a teenage boy, a relationship doesn’t really recover from something like that. It never did.
In the car on the way home from church, my mother spoke up and said something like “I understand we need to get some kind of a filter on our internet for pornography.” I felt completely betrayed and attacked. I was trying to do the right thing, and be a good, decent, morally clean adolescent who doesn’t commit the sin next to the one next to murder on a regular basis. I felt worthless. Hopeless.
3 Weeks came and went, and I abided by every condition placed on me by the bishop– break up with your GF (which was already done), no sacrament (which came at the cost of shaming by the other 14-15 year old boys), and stay away from pornography and masturbation (which I thought was a confidence that would be kept by the bishop, but did not seem to have been). I don’t remember if my parents lectured me about it — I was numb at this point. Whatever miracle of forgiveness was supposed to happen, I wasn’t feelin it. The bishop must have forgotten, because round about week 5 I stopped him in the hall and reminded him that my whole status was still indeterminate, and that we’d never had our follow up discussion. We spoke for about 15 seconds — he asked if I had read those chapters, which I had, and then he asked if I had had any further problems in those areas, which I had not. He cleared me to re-commence participating in sacrament, but I didn’t feel any different.
I thought in a “repentance process” you were supposed to learn about the worth of a soul, and the love and grace of God. Instead I learned never to trust anyone. And if you’ve got a problem, deny it and keep it to yourself. I had developed some unhealthy habits (staying up all night to avoid detection viewing pornography) that I could have used some help getting my arms around, but there was no help to be had, so again I suffered in silence for several years. I learned to lie and put on a Mormon mask, and never let anyone know the truth of who you are. Instead of feeling the extent of God’s love, I felt like I was personally responsible for crucifying Jesus Christ. Thinking this way about myself impaired many normal relationship developments, and had lasting consequences.
My story could continue for quite a while longer yet, and crosses other boundaries of ecclesiastical overreach that are not all directly relevant to protecting children; but to be brief in writing, my story has a happier ending than most. I am happily married, and have beautiful children. I’ve found healing and forgiveness, both for myself and for those who participated in this abusive, destructive system that negatively impacted my life. My goal in repeating some of these things is not to stir people up to anger against my former bishops or anyone else, but to let something good come of all that I experienced. I want those mistakes to be learned from, and no longer repeated. I want my children, and yours, to feel safe talking to their parents about what they experience during their adolescent years. I want our children to be safe going to church. I want bishops to be safe from false accusations of abuse. I don’t want the good men who serve as bishops to continue doing terrible things because they don’t know any better. It’s time to know better. It’s time to do better.