There is no acceptable place for sexual abuse or sexual assault. But when it takes place in a religious community—and especially when that community takes steps to cover up the abuse—victims may feel doubly betrayed.
In recent years, a series of lawsuits against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints—also called the Mormon church, after its Book of Mormon—alleged that church leaders routinely cover up allegations of sexual abuse among members. This permits abusers to eventually find new victims, the plaintiffs say, and prevents victims from healing or remaining full members of the LDS community. It can also create a social backlash against accusers, who may be accused of provoking the attack with immodest dress or behavior, or instructed that a good Christian must forgive the attacker.
About the Church and its Lay Leadership
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a uniquely American religion. Mormons believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ just like Protestants and Catholics, but they also believe in additional material that the religion’s founder uncovered in the late 1800s, which says a lost tribe of Israel settled in the Americas and worshipped as Christians.
Latter-Day Saints were forced by prejudice to flee to Utah in the 1800s, and, as a result of their isolation, developed different cultural practices that observant members still follow. These include a ban on coffee, tea, tobacco, and alcohol; a very strong emphasis on family; a commitment to emergency preparedness; and a tradition where young adults do one to two years of missionary work. (Mainstream Mormons have not practiced polygamy since 1890, but polygamy is practiced in some fundamentalist LDS splinter groups.)
LDS worship has a slightly different structure than mainstream American Christianity. As the church itself explains, local religious leaders are adult males in good standing with the church and are not ordained. The presiding priest of the ward is called a bishop, and does the job for about five years on a volunteer basis, even though he performs some of the same functions as an ordained priest, minister or rabbi. Those include conducting services, church administration, and counseling church members with spiritual or practical needs. Full-time church leaders exist higher in the church’s hierarchy.
Coverups of Sexual Abuse Among Latter-Day Saints
Unfortunately, the practice of putting untrained volunteers in charge of spiritual counseling can lead to potentially catastrophic reactions to reports of sexual abuse. For example, a 2018 lawsuit from a 55-year-old woman says that church leadership knew for years that her father, a church employee, was raping her and her sisters, but never reported it to the police. Instead, the Huffington Post reported, the church simply moved the family to a new city after each report.
In another case filed in 2018, covered by the Salt Lake Tribune, McKenna Denson says Joseph Bishop, the head of the LDS Missionary Training Center, tried to rape her in 1984. Denson says she told church leaders several times, starting in the late 1980s, but church leaders merely covered it up while promoting Bishop repeatedly into positions where he had access to young adults. Bishop denies the allegations but has confessed to other sexual improprieties; he told police that church leaders kept him as Missionary Training Center president after the confession.
One of the most thoroughly covered cases of sexual abuse among Latter-Day Saints involved Michael Jensen, a man who was convicted of sexually abusing two young boys in 2013 and sentenced to 35 years in prison. As ABC News explained in 2019, Jensen is the son of a prominent Mormon family in Martinsburg, West Virginia; his grandfather is a church leader in Utah. As a juvenile, he was convicted in Utah in 2004 for groping two girls under 14, after which the family moved to West Virginia. In 2009, Michael’s mother asked the local bishop to send Michael to live with a farmer because she couldn’t risk “our other children.” Michael was kicked out of his parents’ home in 2010 for sexually assaulting his 12-year-old sister.
Nonetheless, his parents frequently offered him as a babysitter to other LDS families in the area, including after kicking him out of their home. He was convicted in 2013 of molesting two boys under 5. Other plaintiffs from the lawsuit have similar stories; one woman’s four-year-old cried when he heard Michael was going to babysit him, because “he makes me suck his privates.” That family went to their local bishop in 2008, but the bishop ultimately didn’t go to the police. The same bishop testified in the families’ lawsuit that he never spoke to the child’s mother and was not aware of any abuse.
Why Does Abuse in LDS Communities get Covered up?
The family accepted the bishop’s decision at the time, in part because Mormons believe church leaders have a “gift of discernment” that help them sort out competing stories. But regardless of whether bishops have such a gift, it’s clear that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has a policy of trying to avoid the police in sexual assault cases.
As Vice News notes, the church has a help line, and documents published by a sunshine organization once called MormonLeaks—now the Truth and Transparency Foundation—show that calls about child sexual abuse are to go directly to its outside law firm, Kirton McConkie. Another document from that law firm, Kirton McConkie, says the firm opened six investigations into sexual abuse within the church between August and October of 2012. In one of those cases, a missionary was accused of abusing an 8-year-old, but the firm’s summary said neither missionary leaders nor local stake leaders took any disciplinary action other than sending him home.
There can also be consequences for people who report abuse. The woman who sued the church for covering up her father’s years of abuse said she went to the police as a young woman, but was chastised by the church for involving secular authorities. Another woman was excommunicated from the LDS Church in the 1990s for publicizing abuse by church leaders, and denied re-baptism (which would welcome her back to the LDS community) in 2019.
Gender politics can also play a role. Religion writer Jana Riess, who has studied Mormon life extensively, wrote in 2019 that because women are excluded from church decision-making, church leaders are naturally inclined to believe men over women, especially when the accused is someone they know and like. Pacific Standard magazine reported in 2014 that because Mormons are taught that women are responsible for controlling men’s sexual desire, young women are sometimes blamed for provoking their own sexual assaults with immodest clothing or behavior. That article details one case where a bishop forced a rape victim to repent “her part” of her rape for nine months.
How Does Sexual Abuse in the LDS Church Affect Victims?
The Pacific Standard article says several of the women it spoke to left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints after they were blamed for their assaults. Another stayed with the church, but told Pacific Standard that her experience provoked a spiritual crisis for her. A 1998 study of Mormon victims of sexual abuse found that they generally had more negative concepts of God and less spiritual well-being than Mormon women without a history of abuse.
The effects were more immediate for the young children abused by Michael Jensen. Mothers of affected children described their kids regressing in their development, with potty issues, separation anxiety and night terrors. A 1997 study of adult women who were sexually abused as children says they were typically less emotionally mature, more depressed, had lower self-esteem and had less stable interpersonal relationships than women who had not been abused.
Vice says at least two of the mothers of Jensen’s victims separated from their husbands after the ordeal. Those mothers also say they were ostracized by the LDS community in Martinsburg, whose members told them they had to forgive Michael, or that the Jensens were good people who couldn’t have raised a molester. That story is echoed in other victims’ accounts. A 2006 article from the Salt Lake Tribune says one family was shunned by their community after telling the police that a then-bishop had repeatedly molested their son. The man was excommunicated, but he was still welcomed at religious services. Meanwhile, out of the victim’s ten-person family, only their father was still going to church.
What can Victims do?
There is an active movement within the Latter-Day Saint community to push for more responsiveness from the church. The Truth and Transparency Foundation exists partly to reduce abuse in religious institutions; groups like the Feminist Mormon Housewives push for a world where faith can go hand in hand with respect for women. Riess, the religion writer, reports that while millennial Mormons are often observant (and are the most likely of all age groups to tithe), they’re “troubled” by their church’s sexism and response to criticism.
Even if generational changes don’t bear fruit for a long time, victims of sexual assault may also look into a lawsuit. Airing allegations in open court puts the community on notice about a molester or rapist. If the church was responsible for covering up allegations against someone who went on to assault again, going to court can also force it to acknowledge its own role, and perhaps make changes. There is no statute of limitations for rape or sexual abuse of a child in Utah, and thanks to recent legislation, the deadline to sue (statute of limitations) over childhood sexual abuse has been extended in at least 20 states and Washington, D.C.