My story is not one of overt sexual abuse by my priesthood leaders, but I feel it represents the sometimes subtle but deep shaming and overall damage that is done to a developing child during one-on-one priesthood interviews. At any rate, the damage done to me is something I’m still working to heal from now 20+ years later.
The earliest memories I have are of being sexually abused and raped by my older brother. I don’t know exactly how old I was when the abuse started or for how long it persisted, as this brother has yet to admit to any of it or provide further details, but from what I can recall I was around 4 years old when it happened. My older brother would have been about 10 years old. I never told anyone what happened to me until I was about 22 years old, and I didn’t more fully understand the ramifications of what happened to me until I was in my late 20’s.
When I was young I never really blamed myself for what my brother did to me. Thankfully I was able to understand that it was not my fault. I did, however, blame and shame myself for my behaviors that resulted from the abuse. I also blamed and shamed myself for things that happened to me throughout my childhood and teen years – things that I now understand were also related to my early abuse and not my fault. Those behaviors and actions include struggles with masturbation from about ages 4-18, sexually acting out with a neighbor boy around age 4-5, being sexually assaulted by a 24-year-old man when I was about 12 years old, sexual behavior with boyfriends in my mid to late teen years, being raped by my boyfriend when I was around 17 years old, and other sexual assaults. While I have done a lot of work to heal from my abuse and its ramifications over the past 10 years, I still have more work to do.
As I mentioned before, I never told anyone about my abuse when I was young. I also never told anyone about my struggles with masturbation. This was a particularly huge shame issue for me. I grew up in a very strong and active LDS family. I had been taught and I fully believed that masturbation was wrong. I desperately wanted to stop but I continually struggled to do so. I was too ashamed and scared to talk about it or to ask for help, so I kept everything hidden and suffered in silence.
When I turned 12 and it was time for me to start interviewing regularly with the bishop I was terrified. Every interview brought on intense feelings of fear, shame, and anxiety. I was so ashamed that I didn’t feel like I could EVER talk about my struggles with masturbation. Also, if masturbation wasn’t bad enough, there was absolutely no way I could ever talk about it when it had the potential of shedding light on my past abuse. That information was locked behind steal doors and I was prepared to take it to my grave. So, when questions of my worthiness and my sexual behavior came up in bishop interviews, I lied. I hated to lie, but it was much safer for me than telling the truth. But the lying brought with it more and more shame. From a very young age I carried around the constant weight of knowing I was bad, sinful, not good enough, and not worthy enough. These shame stories were only amplified by the worthiness interviews I had with the bishop. Because I was so young when my abuse and sexual activity started I do not ever remember a time when I was not carrying the weight of shame.
I remember having worthiness interviews with my bishop at least once a year between the ages of 12-20, as well as having interviews for callings or to get a temple recommend to be able to do baptisms for the dead with my Young Women’s class (I always felt pressured to participate or else I feared I’d be “found out”.). I don’t remember too many specifics about what was said and done during my bishop interviews. But I do remember feeling scared and extremely uncomfortable. I hated those one-on-one interviews, but I always blamed myself for feeling that way. I thought I felt that way because I was lying about my worthiness. I told myself that I’d feel better about those interviews if I was better or more worthy. I thought that any uncomfortable moment I had in church was my fault because I believed everything about the church was true and perfect. So anything that felt off had to be my fault.
I also remember being asked questions about my worthiness in the interviews with my bishop, including questions about masturbation, and I remember lying about those things. I already felt shameful and unworthy since early childhood, and having the bishop routinely interview me alone and ask me personal questions about my worthiness only reinforced and amplified my shame. It’s one thing to believe something about yourself. It’s another thing entirely to have someone else, especially someone else in authority over you, confirm those beliefs. I tried to tell myself that what my bishop said didn’t bother me, but deep inside I felt that his worthiness questions only validated my unworthiness and over the years those interviews continued to dig my shame hole deeper and deeper.
Looking back on all of this, after many years of therapy, personal study, and working hard to connect with myself body, mind, and soul, I understand now that my masturbating and sexual behaviors were completely understandable. I know now that not only is masturbation a natural thing for children to explore, but I know that my sexual behaviors, along with what others did to me, were all a direct result of my early childhood abuse/trauma and a result of the systematic undermining of my own personal authority in favor of priesthood authority. If I would not have had to face those interviews scared and alone, if my bishop would have never asked me those very personal, inappropriate, and sexual questions that exacerbated my fear and shame, if I would not have been put in these situations where what God/the bishop wanted was more important than my own safety, if my worthiness was never brought into question, and if my feelings would have been considered, I know I would not have experienced the same amount of shame and feelings of unworthiness that I felt and that I still feel today.
I have worked very hard over the years to learn how to set healthy boundaries, to regain my voice and personal power, and to try to regain my self-worth. I believe this constant state of shame I’ve been in has kept me from being able to better develop emotionally, spiritually, and personally. I also believe my shame has kept me from better connecting with myself, with others, and with God. I still struggle being able to feel God’s presence and His love.
I don’t know if I will ever be free from my shame, but I’ll always keep trying. I cannot change the past, but I will do everything I can to make sure that these worthiness interviews will no longer hurt and shame the children in the LDS church. There is nothing that one-on-one worthiness interviews can gain that is worth sacrificing the safety of our children.