Caring for the Abused As Well As Their Abusers
Updated: Aug 22, 2022
Warning: this blogpost addresses the painful subject of domestic abuse and, in particular, child sexual abuse, and offers my own personal perspective on the abuse help line of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and some cultural shifts that could strengthen our collective response to abuse.
Early this month, AP ran a story about two little girls in Arizona who were repeatedly and horrifically sexually abused by their father. For some of that time, he was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and confessed to his bishop one incident of abuse. The bishop called the Church's abuse help line and was instructed that he must keep the confession in confidence and not report the matter to civil authorities. He tried to get the children's mother to report it and passed the matter on to the new bishop when he was released, but to no avail. The abuse went on for another seven years.
I've seen a lot of commentary excoriating the Church for not protecting those little girls, and other commentary defending the Church against wrong-doing. The Church has provided more information, clarifying that the bishop only knew of one past incident of abuse, that he urged both the father and the mother to report it and to get professional counselling for the father and their children, and for the father to move out of the home. Both parents refused to report or get counselling, but the father moved out -- temporarily. I appreciate this additional information, but I feel like all of the commentary I've seen focuses on the Church's institutional response to abuse and misses addressing a vital point: that there are some fundamental ways our culture interferes with meeting the needs of the abused. On the institutional response, I think there's a need to be forthright about the tension that exists between the Church's role in rehabilitating the sinner and the State's interest in punishing offenders. And on the cultural front, there are things I have been wanting to say for twenty years about how to better support and protect the abused ... since I first fled an abusive marriage. It seems like a good opportunity to communicate them now.
First, I'd like to address the institutional response that kept the father's confession confidential. As far as I can tell from coverage of this case and a related Oregon case (where the Church was sued for reporting the confession of child sexual abuse), it appears that the help line has a policy of directing bishops to report abuse in jurisdictions where doing so is required by law, and telling them not to report, unless there is imminent danger to a child, in places where the law permits clergy to keep confessions confidential.
Why would the church take such a position?
Holding confessions confidential is an ancient obligation, first codified in the year 1215 AD with the words "Let the priest absolutely beware that he does not by word or sign or by any manner whatever in any way betray the sinner" (Canon 21 of the Fourth Council of the Lateran). Catholics refer to this requirement of strict confidentiality as the seal of the confessional. The tradition was carried over into the rest of Christianity on the grounds that those who have fallen into transgression need to be safe to reveal their sins to their spiritual leaders. They need to be able to see their priest, pastor or bishop as an ally, not an adversary; someone they can trust to help them get back on the path. And their confessor needs to see them as a lost sheep, not a lost cause.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, of the Quorum of the 12 Apostles, has taught,
"It is not possible for you to sink lower than the infinite light of Christ’s Atonement shines...there is nothing... that you have done that cannot be undone. There is no problem which you cannot overcome" ("The Laborers in the Vineyard," April 2012 General Conference).
If this declaration is literally true and if it even applies to those who seek to repent from acts of horrific abuse, then leading that penitent soul to believe in and call upon the healing power of Jesus Christ becomes a driving goal of the Church. We don't want our bishops and stake presidents to see that soul as a monster who needs to be locked away, but as a precious brother or sister who needs to be assisted to develop transformative faith in Jesus Christ.
The state and much of society, however, see perpetrators of abuse very differently. They are criminals who have no claim on our compassion and need to be locked away in an admittedly problematic penal system. There, they are likely to become more hardened instead of rehabilitated, only to be released upon the public in a few years, sometimes with a public warning that they're likely to reoffend. From my perspective, that is why the Church would be inclined to protect the confidentiality of confessions across the board, which means even in cases of horrific child abuse.
But the issue is made more complicated by the danger that perpetrators of abuse may work the system, hiding behind the confidentiality of the confession in a way that isolates their victims or prolongs the abuse. I'm reminded of Alfred Hitchcock's 1953 movie, "I Confess". It portrays a devoted parish priest, Father Logan, who takes the confession of his caretaker, Otto Keller. Keller has accidentally killed a villainous local lawyer when caught in the act of robbing him. Once Keller confesses, his conscience is assuaged and he is unafraid of coming to justice because he knows that Father Logan will not betray the seal of the confessional. He is so confident of this, in fact, that he hides the bloodied priest's cassock in which he had disguised himself in Father Logan's things. Other circumstantial evidence points suspicion at Father Logan, despite his widely-held reputation for kindness and faithfulness. Then, when the bloodied cassock is discovered among his things, he becomes the chief suspect who seems fated to hang for a murder of which he cannot clear himself without breaking his vow of silence.
Like Keller, a pedophile who knows that their confession must be kept confidential could tell their clergy about an incident of abuse and then carry on abusing, secure that they had just neutralized the threat of discovery. They might not even confess with that intention. But what bishops may not understand is that habitual perpetrators of abuse are not just lost sheep; they are also wolves. They tend to change back and forth with little warning. The offender might even be genuinely penitent while confessing their sins and seeking spiritual counsel, only to become hardened, conniving and thoroughly malicious when they're alone with their victims.
So, should the Church adjust or abandon its apparent policy of holding confessions confidential (unless required by law to report)? I don't know and I am comfortable leaving that question for the Brethren to pursue with the Lord. But reading about the Arizona case and comparing it with my own experience and that of others, it seems like there were a bunch of ways that the local ward could have responded to protect those precious girls. From my perspective, it looks like that didn't happen because we have cultural problems that get in the way of our response to abuse. I'd like to address some of those.
First, I think we need a better understanding about who are the lost sheep that need seeking after and who are the ninety-and-nine that can be safely left in the fold. It's easy to perceive the abuser as the lost sheep and their innocent family members as the ninety and nine. But that's a perception that doesn't fit with the realities of abuse. An individual who is stuck in abusive habits no longer functions as just a sheep. When triggered, they turn into wolves. Access to their victim is a trigger, just like sitting in a bar would be a trigger for an alcoholic. So that means that their spouse and children are not safely protected in the fold; they are penned in with a sometimes ravening wolf.
My prayer is that as soon as a bishop becomes aware of any abuse, he will recognize that he is dealing with a whole family of sheep that need to be sought after and protected. In fact, I pray that this won't just start when he becomes aware of clear abuse. As soon as he finds out that a spouse/parent in his ward is struggling with pornography, sexual acting out or episodes of rage, etc, he would be aware that the loved ones of this particular lost sheep also need dedicated care because they are in a dangerous fold.
I wish the Arizona bishop had prayerfully called together a team to seek after the imperilled family members. First, he could have requested that the entire ward council retake the abuse prevention training that is required church-wide. There could even be a special review in the ward council about the necessity of calling authorities when a person sees evidence that a child is in need of protection, with numbers handed out and a role play to help people get comfortable with it. Then he could have spoken to the Relief Society and Primary presidents, asking them to take a special interest in the well-being of this particular family. He could have asked that the most dedicated visiting teachers (now ministering sisters) be assigned to them and requested that the auxiliary presidents prayerfully seek to know their needs and report to him about how they were being met.
This kind of delegation would be important, not just because the bishop was prevented from reporting the abuse, but also because in situations of abuse, it becomes exceedingly difficult for one person to support both the victim and the perpetrator. It's hard to work with someone if you aren't willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. But perpetrators of abuse tend to be skilled at twisting the facts and portraying themselves in a better light at the expense of their victims. So you cannot give one of them the benefit of the doubt without giving the other the detriment of the doubt. Delegating special care for the victims to someone who is not working with the offender would, I believe, maximize the likelihood that the victims would be seen sympathetically. Focused shepherding by auxiliary leaders could also result in victims disclosing abuse to someone who is free to report it to authorities.
Another thing I pray can happen in our wards is for leaders to pay special attention to how gospel principles might be misunderstood when they are oversimplified, putting victims in harms way. For example, teachings like that we should always obey our parents or that we should put our spouse ahead of our children are routinely twisted in abusive homes to tell victims they need to cooperate and to shame them into silence. Instead, instruction on honouring parents could include, for instance, the story of when Lamoni disobeyed his father's order to kill Ammon and then was finally freed to govern himself. I pray that discussion of such issues can become increasingly sensitive and nuanced, so as not to support abusive practices in the home.
I pray for adjustments in our collective attitude toward marriage. I believe that sacred covenants are not intended to lock victims in with their abusers, or addicts in with their triggers. I have attended spouse and family support meetings where it appeared that the facilitators understood that it was their role to save the marriages of those who were attending. In one such meeting, a woman finally worked out a plan to escape the marriage where she was in danger. There was that moment when it became real and I was inwardly rejoicing at her readiness to get to safety. And then, one of the facilitators said, "But you would be abandoning your husband." She didn't leave. She didn't have permission. I believe this is common. But I pray that spouse and family support meetings church-wide can become about the spiritual and emotional strengthening and safety of the individual, not the preservation of their marriages. That individuals can understand their personal preciousness to God and claim their stewardship for their own souls and for the needs of their children. Also, that they will feel supported in getting into a position of safety. With such support, I pray that they will seek and receive personal revelation about what they need to do with regard to their marriages.
I pray that everyone seeking to support families in crisis will be able to avoid the temptation to see the innocent spouse as a resource, someone who can help get the wayward spouse's behaviour under control. It is common for victims of abuse to see themselves as a resource to their abuser, so they are particularly vulnerable to such messages from their leaders. I have a friend who was devastated to learn about her husband's sexual misbehaviours. Her trust was shattered. But she was informed that her covenants required her to forgive him and help him back on the straight and narrow. The foundation for a successful marriage was gone, but she got the message that she needed to stay for her husband's sake. For years, his abusive behaviour toward her was blamed, at least in part, on her lack of forgiveness because she didn't trust him. Years after they finally divorced, she learned that he had been cheating all along. She was devastated and felt like a failure. What she needed was reassurance that she mattered and that the Lord cared as much about the abuse she experienced as He did about the scamming that was going on in the temple when he cleansed it with a braided whip. She had heard so much from her leaders about her responsibility to forgive (meaning to stay with him and trust him) that she believed God would be more angry at her for not "forgiving" than he would be at her ex-husband for abusing and cheating on her. Is it even possible to forgive when you believe that forgiving means giving unearned trust and it means coming to accepting God doesn't care about the devastating things that have been done to you?
I have also seen myself and been treated like a resource, whose purpose was to save my husband. I tried desperately to be whatever he needed me to be while wondering, after counselling with my bishop, "What about me? Do my needs matter?" I even ran into that kind of pressure from my LDS counsellor, when he was urging me to return to the husband I didn't trust so that my husband would keep trying. At last, my counsellor admitted that he was so invested in my marriage that he was not able to see my needs and suggested I go to a different counsellor. My next counsellor, also LDS, told me during our first session, "I'm willing to help you on one condition -- that you not go back to him." That was the difference of having someone assigned to working with just me, who saw me as an individual, not a resource.
I believe all of these suggestions for changed perspectives and strategies are consistent with direction from the Brethren. I don't know whether we need additional doctrine or adjustments in Church policy in order to better address the dynamics of abuse. The Lord knows and I am confident the Brethren can receive His direction on it. But right now, we have the power to do better by seeing and hearing victims and potential victims of abuse and prioritizing them in our local ministry. They are not the ninety and nine. They are the sheep that most need our focused efforts to be found and brought to safety. I pray that is how we will see them.