Imagine you are young child. You are being sexually abuse by a member of your family. You seek help from you church leader and your family. Instead of finding help and relief, you are shamed and guilted into silence. Then you find out this abuse is widespread within your family. Your world is shattered. Your faith shaken. Your safety sacrificed to save someone else’s reputation.

What happens when church clergy fails you? What happens when church leadership refuses to set boundaries against an abuser or predator? Why does this happen and what can be done?

A recent study found that “38% of women were molested before turning 18 years old, but only 5% of child sexual abuse had been reported to law enforcement.” (ReligiousNews). The statistics are alarming but speak for themselves. But is it different within communities of faith? Yes, as studies suggest that “sexual abusers within faith communities have more victims and younger victims” (ReligiousNews.)

When Church Leaders Fail To Protect Against Abuse

Liz states her experience was similar, “I gave every chance for my leaders to believe me and for my abusers to be held accountable and to change.”

Anne, “I was emotionally abused by a bishop and it was devastating. No matter what path anyone chooses after abuse as far as church membership, it is most important to remain safe and set boundaries in order to do so.”

If a crime is being committed in the case of physical or sexual abuse, it is important that victims report this to proper authorities first and foremost. Many times, victims feel that they want to seek assistance from the church leaders because of cultural norms or that is a safe person they can see as a first point of contact. But being let down by church leaders especially in situations where physical and emotional safety are being violated is traumatizing. There is a reasonable expectation of safety and protection that members have when they seek guidance from their spiritual leader. It can be spiritually abusive when that expectation of safety and protection is not upheld by religious leaders in which they have placed their trust in. This spiritual abuse compounds the trauma that victims already feel, often adding a devastating layer to the damaging effects they experience.

Why Abuse Is Enabled Within Faith Communities

Continue below for the transcript of this interview:

Anne:  About 15 years ago I went to China. I went on that trip with Liz and her mother. At the time I perceived Liz and her mother as the “typical Christian family” who went to church every week, obeyed the commandments (or so I thought), and I’ve reconnected with Liz this summer. She told me what was really happening in her family. It’s a very typical story of watching other people and thinking they have it all together when that is not the case at all. It is also a story of Liz’s mother who is unwilling to set boundaries or face the reality of what she is living in.

Betrayal Trauma Recovery is interfaith. We have a new coach, Coach Joi. She is Christian-LDS. The rest of our coaches are of other faiths. At BTR we have women who are agnostic, women who are atheist, Catholic, Evangelical, Baptist, Jewish; women from all different faith backgrounds and philosophical backgrounds. You are welcome here! Our number one goal is to get every woman to safety. I appreciate your patience with me when I share from my own religious perspective. It’s simply to share my own story and how I am feeling. I honor the choices that you make in your own religious backgrounds.

Church Leaders Protecting Sexual Predators Is A Problem

This being said, because Liz is LDS, as she shares her story there will be some terms and concepts that you may need to know about to understand the story. First of all, LDS congregations are led by a volunteer. That local volunteer is called a Bishop. Every congregation is part of a group of congregations called a Stake. There is also a Stake President who oversees all the Bishops in the local congregations, similar to the Diocese with the Catholic church where there is a hierarchy of local leaders and regional leaders and then a world-wide leader. This is how the LDS church is set up. The names we are going to talk about today is the local leader which is the Bishop; and the Stake President who is the man in charge of a group of congregations.

The Bishop’s job is to make sure the congregation works well. He calls individuals within the congregation to different jobs. Everyone volunteers, making sure the congregation runs well. The Bishop also has another job. That is to judge the safety of individual members. Within the Church there is a system set up for a bishop to interview someone to see if they are honest, to see if they obey the law of chastity, to see if they have any dealings with their family that are illegal or immoral. If they are not safe, if they are lying to other people, if they are using pornography, if they are cheating on their spouse, the Bishop is capable of setting limits on that person unless they repent and change their behavior, in order to protect the people around them.

Sexual Abuse Exists Everywhere, Even Within Churches

Every two years, a member of the LDS Church goes in to talk with their Bishop and does a temple recommend interview. In the story Liz is about to tell, she is going to outline how her brother and her father repeatedly lied to clergy–LDS Bishops and Stake Presidents–throughout their lives. She is also going to talk about how she approached the LDS Bishop and Stake President in order to attempt to stop the abuse and infidelity and the porn use and hold her brother and her father accountable–and it was not done. Within the LDS Church, there is also a system of accountability. The scriptures say that a witness to a person breaking the commandments can go to their Bishop or Stake President and they can have a disciplinary action–meaning they can disfellowship the person or they can put them on probation, in order to keep the victim and congregations safe. You don’t want someone volunteering in your church, praying, and teaching Sunday School lesson who at home is abusing his wife or who is looking at pornography or who is committing adultery. There is a plan in the LDS church to keep people safe. This is a story of how this plan failed and what Liz decided to do about it.

Our new coach, Coach Joi is active in her faith. One of her specialties is helping women who have been traumatized by clergy, who should have helped the victim–who should have reported it to the police or held the perpetrator accountable in some way and failed to do their job. If you have been traumatized by your clergy, I encourage you to schedule an individual session with Coach Joi. I am active LDS and Joi is active LDS and you can totally be active LDS, standing for truth and righteousness and also acknowledge that some victims are further harmed and not protected by culture in general, by police, or by clergy of all different denominations. This is what we are talking about today.

Abuse Has No Place Being Covered-Up By The Church

I didn’t ask Liz during this interview why she didn’t report the sexual abuse going on in her family to the police. I don’t have an answer for you now about this. If you are in this situation and you are wondering what to do and there is a crime that has been committed–sexual abuse, someone has taken pictures of you without your permission and they have posted them on the internet, other various crimes–I recommend you report it. It is extremely important to report crimes.

The consequences of that reporting may be dire. For example, when I went to the doctor to see if my hand was broken and the doctor called the police and they went to my house and arrested my ex, I did not expect this consequence and I was surprised. It helped me greatly though. In order for someone to truly repent, they do need to feel the true consequences of their actions. You are already feeling the consequences of their crimes. Now they need to. I want you to keep this in mind as we talk about this today. I am not exactly sure why Liz did not report but this is the type of scenario where reporting is very important.

The Destructive Pattern Of “Don’t Tell” About Sexual Abuse In The Church

Liz: I’m the youngest of 4. From all appearances, I had a normal LDS upbringing. When I was about 12 I was praying that if what had been happening to me wasn’t right that my oldest brother would not go on his mission. For about a year to a year and a half, there had been sexual abuse. I thought that maybe I was kind of crazy, that I was making things up. I didn’t dare tell anyone because why would I say something like this about my older brother.

Then he left on his mission. At that point, I decided that I must be crazy and that God didn’t care about me. It totally put me on a really intense and destructive internal trajectory for my teenage years. When I look at the statistics about what happens to girls who are sexually abused and the paths they take, I was not a sexually promiscuous teenager. I did not do drugs and alcohol. I did not do self-harming. But I was completely unmoored. I had no idea where the foundation was to stand on.

Sexual Abuse That Is Not Reported By Church Clergy Is A Crime

A lot of the teachings of the Church–eternal families and we are a happy family–and all of that, I didn’t know what to think or believe any more because I was either making something up or this was huge and awful and why wasn’t anyone noticing? I finally told a few of my friends what had happened and at that point my brother had come home from his mission and my two siblings in between us where off to college. He was going to college while living at home. It was me and him in the home together. While there was no sexual abuse, he hit me a few times and there was a lot of physical intimidation–like picking me up and dangling me over the stair well. He was big enough that he could pick me up and do whatever he wanted. He had a lot of anger.

Of course my parents just told him to stop bothering his sister. I told my friends after my brother beat me because he bruised me pretty good. They told me I should tell someone and I finally decided I was going crazy and would write it all down. I left it in a pile of things on my desk in my room. It wasn’t hidden away but my mom searched my room that day and I came home to a typewritten letter from her. In the letter, she told me that my brother had come to her before his mission and she told him not to go to the Bishop…for whatever reason, she told him not to…because we were a “church going family” on the surface.

Spiritual Abuse Comes From Not Being Protected From Abuse By Clergy

The one real thing that they said that I distinctly remember was, “What will the neighbors think?” I remember wondering if this was this was about. I grew up with my mother telling me I was her baby girl. Growing up with this message from my mother and then finding out when I was 16 that her pride and fear were more important was extremely devastating to me. When I was 16 I quit going to church because I couldn’t see a point–my mom didn’t care and God must not care.

The rug had been ripped out from underneath me and my whole world was completely in turmoil. I barely graduated from high school but I was still able to get into college. At the time, I got accepted to college–which was my way of getting out of the house–this is when my oldest brother transferred to that university so I ended up going to my first year with him, on campus. From what I understand, he did talk to a Bishop. As we understand it in our doctrine, repentance includes restitution.

Anne: I do think they can make restitution. In 12-Step it’s called Living Amends where a person lives in such a way that you are indebted to this person and throughout their life, you are making their life easier through any possible means. It takes acknowledgment and humility. It takes honesty and accountability. It doesn’t sound like any of those things have happened.

Church Clergy That Enables Abusers

Liz: No, and at one point I do remember my mom sending my brother into my room to apologize to me. I remember her telling him when he was in the kitchen that he should apologize to me. He came to my room–which was the last thing I wanted–him in my room. This was the dynamic. I still felt like I was crazy.

I went to one year of college with my brother and I ended up dropping out because I was not emotionally prepared to be a college student. I did not have the skill set, academically or emotionally, to do what I needed to do. I believe that at this point my sister was preparing to go on a mission. We hadn’t seen a lot of each other. I was downstairs and she came down; I do not remember what the conversation was about but it turned into an argument. All of the sudden she said, “You’re not the only one who’s been abused.” Of course my world dropped out from under me again. She told me that at about the time my brother came home from his mission, my dad began to abuse her.

Parents Who Do Not Protect Their Children From Abuse

My mother, from my perspective, treated my sister like the other woman–like my dad had had an affair, and she did not protect her children as a result. When my sister dropped the bombshell, I didn’t know what to do with myself and my parents had told me that I couldn’t go back to college until I could pay for it myself, due to me dropping out to begin with. So instead I became a nanny in California. I wanted to have the Gospel in my life again. I came back to Utah and to college and came back to the LDS church. Even in the turmoil in the years since then, I have realized that even with doubts and anger, I have the peace and joy that I need in my life, that I wouldn’t without the LDS church; I know this because I’ve tried the other way. In the process of coming back, I didn’t really bring anything up with my family.

I just tried to be a good daughter and a good sister and a good church member. I was married and after a not-too-lengthy infertility road, I was blessed with two children. We ended up living in the neighborhood I grew up in. When my daughter was about to turn 1, I kept trying to talk to my mom about the abuse in our family. Her only real response was that she was sorry and she couldn’t change the past.

So when my daughter was about to turn one, the statistics hit me: 1 in 3 or 4 girls will deal with abuse of some kind–sexual abuse or assault. There was an interaction with my brother where he had been fighting with his wife on the way to our family home and he ended up yelling at me. It totally rattled me. It took me back to his anger after his mission. I realized that I was possibly allowing my children to be groomed for abuse with the contact to my family.

Anne: And also still being abused by your brother because him screaming and yelling at you is another abuse episode.

Ties Between Abuse And Pornography Must Be Recognized By The Church

Liz: Yes, and I walked in on my dad and saw him looking at celebrity bikini shots–which some people would bat their eyes at and say it was nothing–but a 60-something year old man who is an active, “faithful” Church member would have no reason to be looking at something like this. I remember going home and writing about it in my journal, talking to my husband about it, trying to somehow reason it away. Four years later I caught my dad looking at some pretty serious porn on his computer. I knocked on the door, rang the doorbell–my dad wears hearing aids–I went into the house and walked down the hall and there he was on the computer. He hurried and clicked out of everything.

But my husband is a computer guy and for a while he put a tracker on the computer; but then he said he didn’t want it anymore. We saw some serious stuff. I went to their house and took all of the things that were mine that were still there–photos of me, of my children, anything I had given them. My husband and I had discussed it. We got ready to put our house on the market and move out of my parents’ neighborhood. I agonized, I cried, I felt bad that I was taking away my parents’ grandchildren…but I knew I just couldn’t do this anymore. My family was not willing talk about it or put into place any safe guards. My parents have 12 grandchildren and would watch them overnight, unsupervised.

When Saving Face Is More Important Than Safety In A Church Setting

Anne: And also, this is not in the past. You have two abusers, neither of which have taken accountability or restitution or been honest, accountable, or humble, and still using porn and still abusing you. This is not in the past!

Liz: But this is how my family sees it. At the time I was also in my parent’s congregation, not just their neighborhood. I went to the Bishop and to the Stake President to talk to them about my family’s history. Both of them were unimpressed with what I was saying about my dad. They called him in and talked to him; in retrospect, it felt like a “good ol’ boys network.” They said that he took care of everything 30 years ago. Because my dad abused my sister and not me, I think they also blew me off. They did not see a connection between the pornography and the abuse.

Anne: Especially if you can’t talk about it, if there has been no restitution whatsoever, you know things haven’t changed. It has to be out in the open, it has to be something your family is willing to talk about, it has to be something that he will look you in the eye and acknowledge that you saw him viewing porn and, “these are the things I am doing to recover and I am sorry about the pain I have caused.” There must be this or there is no way to recover.

Minimizing Abuse Is Classic Deflection In Religion Systems

Liz: The only conversations that I ever had were with my mother. The room would freeze over. What infuriated me most was when I really pushed on it, the only thing my dad told my siblings was that he had looked at some pictures. He did not tell my brothers that he had ever abused my sister. He just said that he had looked at some pictures.

Anne: Minimizing it.

Liz: Yes. At this point we cut off all contact with my family. We put our house on the market and I was so angry that there was no way to be able to talk to my family without literally exploding. I did tell my parents I would like mediated counseling sessions; I would like my dad to go to 12-Step and personal counseling. None of this happened so about 6 months after I discovered my dad on the computer, we had sold our house and moved. We didn’t move that far but we did not tell them where we moved; we just moved out of the city they were in and went on with life.

Setting A Boundary With Abusive Family Members

It’s been over five years since then and I still struggle at times with thoughts that I am a horrible daughter. About six weeks ago my mom called and left a message to tell me that my dad was in the ICU; my middle brother sent me an email saying that now was my chance to make things good. I thought, “I don’t want to be a callused jerk. I feel bad that my mom is so upset that my dad is so sick. I feel bad about all of this, but I walked away five years ago knowing that I was essentially walking away from everything–ever seeing or talking to them again.” They were asking me to forgive them. I could tell them that I forgave them but forgiveness does not equal forgetting or trust.

Essentially the response I got was my parents putting in mission papers and going on a mission. It felt like my brother going on his mission all over again. My parents leaving on their mission made me want to be done again. My husband has said a couple of times that maybe I should reiterate again what I want from them. I’ve told him I have and that I’m done because I can’t force them. This is big in your services for Betrayal Trauma Recovery–learning boundaries. It was huge for me…huge. It was huge to learn what boundaries are and how to use them. Because we haven’t had productive conversations ever, I can’t allow them in.

Boundaries Are Not Punishment When Abuse Is Present

Anne: Liz, I know you and I know that if they came to with honesty, accountability, humility and said they were ready to make a change and these are the things they were willing to do–go to a counselor, etc…–that you would think your prayers were being answered! “I have been praying for a healthy family and I would like a healthy relationship with them.” But they are incapable of that and my telling them over and over and over is not doing it. This is what I feel about my ex as well. You can only tell them what you need for so long and then any interaction with them is setting yourself up for more abuse. God is a God of boundaries. You have discovered this. It doesn’t make it any less painful. I think this is the part people don’t understand–is that this isn’t to punish the other person; it’s for your own safety and the safety of your children.

Liz: Yes. I felt so broken for so long. I felt at times that my infertility was God punishing me because I was such an awful daughter. I felt physically and emotionally broken. I felt like I was spiritually broken because I had prayed and God didn’t hear me; parents are supposed to protect and love and nurture and what did my parents do? They picked themselves over their children…going to church and all the things they teach there about being loving eternal families and I was feeling guilty because I didn’t want to be with my family for eternity because they are scary.

Facing The Church’s Failure To Protect Against Abuse

Anne: Now that you have set this boundary while they are continuing to be unhealthy, hoping and praying that they make different choices in the future, but under the circumstances, how are you feeling since setting the boundary?

Liz: It’s taken me while. When my dad went to the hospital 6 weeks ago and my brother sent me that email and said that now is my chance, I stewed for six hours and I realized that no, now is not my chance. When I went back to my family in Utah and to the church, I gave it a good go from 1997-2012. That was my chance. I asked for things. I tried to open conversations and dialog and nobody wanted to do it. So in 2012 I decided I was done and I walked away. No one in my family has learned, understands, or researched the effects of abuse or betrayal. They have seen ecclesiastic leaders, that is all. They have done what is required, technically, by their ecclesiastical leaders.

Restitution Is Part Of Repentance From Abuse In Any Religion

Anne: But no because they haven’t made restitution. What I think is really interesting is that the victim gets blamed in abuse. So your brother texts you and says this is your chance–which is so ironic because it’s your dad’s chance. He is the one who has to do it. It’s not your chance. It’s continually and forever and forever and every minute of every day your father’s chance! And he’s not taking it. And because he’s not humble, accountable, honest, and willing to submit to God’s will, you have set a boundary and will continue to set it. If he is not going to take the change to “repent,” you are not going to put yourself in an unsafe situation. That is what it is. I think it is so interesting that the victims and the perpetrators get so mixed up with people because obviously your family has painted you in the perpetrator role where you are the victim because they don’t get it–and it’s what makes them unsafe.

Liz: Because church has been a big part of my family’s culture, not necessarily the Gospel, this plays into their belief that I am rattling the cage and trying to cause problems. It’s always that I should calm down and why am I sad about this.

Abuse In The Church Is A Real Issue

Anne: It’s sad because your mom’s a victim too. Knowing her this makes me very sad. I am so proud of you that you have made the difficult and heart-wrenching decision to set this boundary with your unhealthy family and that you can move forward in peace despite the pain and the sadness you feel about your family, making the life that is healthy for you and your kids right now. It is also difficult because lots of people probably say things to you like, “Isn’t that extreme?”

Going to China with you so many years ago, I would never have guessed this. I think this is how abuse is. It’s rampant in so many families. These are people who attend church. I’m proud of you for protecting yourself and getting to safety rather than worrying about what it looks like on the outside. This is what is going to be required to stop pornography and the abuse–sexual and emotional–caused by it. All of us need to take a stand. It’s painful and not fun. But it does bring us safety and peace.

Why Religions Have A Problem Of Protecting Predators

Anne: In spite of not being protected by her bishop and Stake President, Liz has decided to remain active in the LDS Church. I have had the same experience where I was emotionally abused by a bishop and I continue to remain active. For me obeying the commandments and continuing to read my scriptures and pray has brought me a lot of peace.

If you have had the experience of being traumatized by the church culture or leaders in the church, please schedule an individual session with Coach Joi.

Also, women who have been through all types of scenarios and understand what you are going through are members of the Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group. We have a session every day; some days we have multiple sessions.

As always, if this podcast has been helpful, please make a recurring donation. Just set it and forget it. It helps us to bring this podcast free of charge to women all over the world. Similarly, to help more women find us, please rate this podcast on your podcast app.

Until next week, stay safe out there!

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