It really pains me that there is sexual abuse in the Church, and leadership struggles to apologize, and counteract it in lasting, meaningful ways. It’s fine and necessary for bishops to conduct worthiness interviews, but there is never a good reason to ask prying sexual questions, especially not to children.
I know this is very mild in comparison other people’s stories, but I have been sexually harassed by a bishop at BYU-Idaho. He called me into his office to extend a calling. Immediately after the greetings and niceties, his first question to me was “Do you masturbate?”.
It was completely out of the blue. My upbringing told me that I should be honest with my bishop. I did/do masturbate occasionally. But I still felt that I should say no anyway. I don’t know if I was just sheepish, or if it was the Spirit protecting me. In retrospect, and after having heard of so many similar stories, I am incredibly glad I didn’t tell him. He didn’t do anything else inappropriate, but years later I regret not standing up for myself, or not leaving immediately.
But it’s scary to think that if I had reported him to the stake president, there’s no guarantee at all that I would have been taken seriously, or that the bishop would be disciplined. I could have been shamed for “not sustaining him”. I could have been shamed for lashing out because I felt guilty. The stake president could easily believe the bishop’s word over mine.
A couple years later, I started dating my now husband, also an active, believing member. We made out and fooled around quite a bit, but never had sex before marriage. Everything about our relationship was so good and right, and we knew we would be married in the temple soon. Our upbringing told us that we should confess to the bishop of the YSA ward we went to.
We weighed the pros and cons of confessing vs. not confessing. I was very much influenced by the experience with the pervert bishop from college. Since then, I have been much more wary around male leadership, even though almost all of them have been kind and supportive to me. We both had heard enough stories of shaming, prying questions, and sexual abuse from bishops. We honestly couldn’t think of anything good coming out of confessing to our bishop. We decided it would be better to try to control ourselves and be patient, and be sealed in the temple that same year.
In retrospect, these two decisions to not tell bishops about my sexuality have made all the difference. My husband and I have been married for the last couple years, and have a happy sex life where we feel safe and loved. I have a more healthy relationship with the Church, and a love of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I came to the personal conclusion that masturbation is not wrong, provided it’s not compulsive, or getting in the way of our relationship.
I don’t say this to brag. I say this because it makes me sick to know that I’m lucky, not normal. If things had gone differently, I easily could have a lot of sexual hangups, low self esteem, believing that sex is dirty, that I’ve “almost committed murder”. I even could have thought it would be best to break up with my then fiancee because we struggled to keep the law of chastity. It really saddens me to know that the same church that has been mostly good to me, has been abusive or uncaring to others. It makes me sad that I can’t trust a bishop enough to confess my sins, if needed. It makes me sad that when Sam Young brings up this all too common issue, the church can’t at least talk to him about this, and take steps to make this right. This is wrong, and not what Jesus would want for His church.
I highly appreciate recent measures taken by the Church to counteract sexual abuse, and think they’re a step in the right direction. I also believe that this initiative to stop prying sexual questions in bishop interviews with youth is also essential. But it’s not nearly enough.
I wish there were more initiatives to fight this on the individual, spiritual, and cultural level, such as the following:
– Parents need to be fearless, teaching their children about sex from an early age. Young children should be able to understand good/appropriate touch vs. bad/inappropriate touch. Teenagers and young adults should understand that sexual touch is a sacred decision and privilege, not an obligation, or something someone can take or demand from you. Sheltered, uneducated youth are easy prey for sexual abuse. They don’t know they have the right and the power to say no, regardless of who is asking them.
– We need to teach and practice healthy boundaries. It is not inherently bad or disobedient to say no, especially if something doesn’t feel right. In fact, there are tons of scriptural examples of saying no that we can learn from, such as Joseph fleeing Potiphar’s wife.
– We need to discuss what it means to be mortal, fallible people called of God. Leaders are not all powerful, and they are not always right. We can still respect their callings while realizing that they’re human. Sometimes obeying God and maintaining your integrity/safety means going against the wishes of a fallible leader who doesn’t always get it right.
– We need to show people in the church that there is a support system for those who report and call out sexual abuse. There should be no doubt in members’ minds that we believe and protect those who have been victimized. We may not always understand the situation, but we always need to love. We may be shocked to find out that a beloved and respected bishop is actually a sick predator. But the safety of the victim should always be more important than a leader’s reputation.
– When we talk about sex and sexual sin in church, we need to talk about sexual abuse as the most heinous sexual sin that can be committed. We talk about extramarital sex being a sin, but to me, there is a big elephant in the room. It’s obvious to me and my conscience that sexual violence is much worse than teenagers fooling around. It’s mind blowing to me that it’s not as obvious to the church.
– We need to stop using a narrow interpretation of Alma 39:5 as a weapon to shame those who have sinned sexually. I’m not denying that sexual sin is serious. It certainly is. But in our reading of this passage we tend to disregard the fact that he didn’t just break the Law of Chastity with a prostitute. He also abandoned his/his father’s mission to the Zoramites. He failed and dishonored his father. He boasted and bragged. He misled many Zoramites, distracting them from the Gospel with his bad example. When we read this chapter, it’s only fair to take all of this into account, along with his father’s loving response, teaching his son about the Plan of Salvation in the next couple chapters.
Jesus repeatedly criticized the Pharisees for their self righteous, hypocritical, selective interpretation and application of God’s law. Jesus said (among many other criticisms) that they “strain at a gnat while swallowing a camel”. In this comparison, the “straining at a gnat” is judging and shaming others for violating the minutia of the law. It’s focusing on the specific scriptural interpretations, the dogma, the specific, enforced ways to keep the commandments. “Swallowing a camel” is ignoring the larger truth, the bigger picture, the doctrine that should influence our behavior.
I think that this behavior in church culture has created a harmful environment that enables predators. Here are some examples of “gnats” and “camels”.
Gnat: Using Alma 39:5 as a weapon against those who have sexually sinned. Thousands of people have been shamed, told that their mistake was “almost as bad as murder”. Thousands of people have felt like they were beyond forgiveness, that they could never be whole again, pushed to the point of depression, even suicide. Or they felt they had to leave the church to be safe and healthy.
Camel: The Atonement of Jesus Christ. He has suffered for ALL our sins, pain, and weaknesses, and wants to help us to rise above it. There is nothing we can’t repent of. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Instead of just citing Alma 39:5, we should remember how Jesus treated the woman caught in adultery. We should remember how the Prodigal Son was embraced by his father.
Gnat: Purity culture. Telling young women that their virginity is their most valuable possession, that breaking the Law of Chastity turns you into “chewed gum”, a “nailed fence” and other ways to say that you’re permanently damaged. On top of that, young men aren’t put under the same pressure, or given the same amount of accountability.
Camel: We are children of God, with intrinsic worth. When we repent, God forgives us and remembers our sins no more.
Gnat: We should sustain our church leaders and recognize them as called of God (This is true, but harmful when we take this to the extreme of thinking that they are infallible, or anything they say or do is right. We need to crosscheck their words with the words of previous prophets, the scriptures, and the Holy Ghost.)
Camel: For anyone who offends (hurts/abuses) these little ones (vulnerable people), it would be better if they were drowned in the sea with a millstone around their neck. Abuse is one of the worst sins one can commit.