Abuse in the Church
Abuse is never an easy subject to talk about let alone try to stop. At first it seems like a black and white issue because nobody likes abuse and everybody thinks it is unacceptable behavior. The problems come in the ways we try to recognize and deal with abuse. In a patriarchal society, most victims of abuse are women and children and many of these victims have to deal with unintentional additional trauma on top of the primary abuse such as not being believed, not getting support, difficulty healing from the trauma of the abuse, etc... Sometimes we as family, friends, and community members can make the problems worse for the victim. When we don't believe them, we tell them that their experience is not real and we do not trust them. When we don't support them, we make people feel like they need to stay in abusive relationships longer because they cannot leave them without our support. When people need to talk to heal and we do not listen and empathize, we make healing a much harder thing for victims to do. Recognizing and dealing with abuse is a very complex subject indeed.
Currently, the LDS church is trying to find a way to deal with the allegations of abuse that have recently hit the national media. So far, I admit I do not find comfort and empathy in the way that the institutional church have reacted to the situation. Even when an accuser is heard on tape admitting to the abuse, the institutional church has tried to victim shame, support laws that would make recordings like the one recently released illegal, and downplay the situation as much as possible. While this is a way that most of us collectively and individually may instinctively deal with abuse... I hold the church of my heart to a higher standard and I confess to disappointment at the responses given. One of the reasons that I am so disappointed is that I've heard stories like this from people both in person and online from friends, family, and acquaintances for years. It is so clear that abuse happens and as a church, we react poorly. Some bishops tell women to stay in abusive situations, tell them the abuse is their fault, and punish them for the sins of their partners. I know of rape victims who have been disfellowshipped because they are considered to have fault in their rape. I know women who have been cheated on by their spouse and their church leaders have made it very clear that if they leave their spouse, they (the victim) are the one in the wrong. I'm not writing this to complain about the institutional church because plenty of people are doing that already and I don't think it will be of any help. However, I am concerned about some of the ways that we as members personally are dealing with abuse. As individuals I think we can do a lot better to combat abuse and one of the things that will help that goal is discussion. There are few reasons that discussion can help and change the situation for the better.
1. Open discussion on such a contentious topic makes it clear that the topic is of import and vital. If we are unwilling to discuss abuse then we are sending an unintentional but clear message. That message is that abuse does not matter and is something that is so rare that it is not necessary to discuss. That in itself can make victims keep their silence and hide their problems because they worry about how they will be treated.... by us. By opening discussing a contentious topic and ways to recognize and disavow abuse we are making it clear that not only is the topic important, but we want to help victims and we want to create an environment where abuse is not tolerated. It is not enough to say abuse is not tolerated... we must create an environment where all members know that abuse is not acceptable and will not be tolerated no matter what.
2. With discussions open, we must as individual members make it clear that we personally do not accept abuse and are open and willing to help the victims of abuse. We need to be trustworthy and hold ourselves and those around us to those high standards. We cannot change those standards based on who the abuser or victim is... For instance, if the abuser is our best friend we cannot change our mind on what the standards are. The standards of zero tolerance for abuse must be enforced no matter how trustworthy and kind-hearted the abuser may be seen in our community. Should we do research to try and confirm abuse? Absolutely. But we need to start with belief, empathy, and love. We need to offer support and whatever we have to offer to help the victim get the support and resources they need to heal. We need to work to become true disciples of Christ.. to be there for people in these situations. We also need to recognize that it is not easy to prove abuse and we need to do our best for the victims whether abuse is clearly proven or not.
3. In our communities and our wards, we need to make it clear with lessons and through the hierarchy (bishops, stake presidents, etc) that abuse is unacceptable. Lessons discussing abuse, the trauma caused, and local resources to help victims are key to helping our church community acknowledge and learn to recognize abuse and how to help those suffering from it. Teaching empathy, understanding, and instilling a desire to help victims is so important. I feel quite safe in saying that there is at least one person in every single ward/ church community who is struggling with this problem and that person does not necessarily believe that they will get help or even be believed... and this is a serious problem. We cannot mourn with those who mourn and comfort them if we will not even give them the benefit of the doubt. When victims need recommendations for treatment, it is so important the bishops and other ecclesiastical leaders do not make recommendations that they are not able to professionally make. Recognizing where your experience and talents leave you weak is very important for our church leaders and referring victims to people with more experience, depth of understanding, and knowledge of abuse is key.
4. Lastly, we -both individually and collectively- as church members need to learn how to deal with contention and ineffective communication patterns. There's so many things that cause contention between church members: personal differences in opinion, lifestyle choices, differing understanding of doctrine and church policy... yet so many of us have never learned how to deal with contention. Many of us have learned to do anything to avoid contention which causes passive aggressive behavior, gossip, "tattling" to authority figures instead of appropriate first-hand discussion, shunning, etc... Contention is not always a negative and can be used by people to gain empathy and understanding for different people and different viewpoints. I state this knowing that I struggle with some of these same problems and I too do not always how to best deal with contention.
I saw an example of some of this failure online today. I saw one member try to have a discussion about abuse in the church and then the conversation was shut down as contentious. The conversation deteriorated further into anger, name calling, and 'tattling' in the hopes of negative consequences for one of the parties. There was only one thing that I am sure of that probably resulted from this conversation- anybody who read it who is currently being abused is not going to say a word or feel comfortable asking for help. She is going to stay silent and hidden because she can easily see the trouble she will open up for herself. This is not the way things should be in the church. And this is why open and deep discussion is so desperately needed.
If each of us could work together to make some of former changes in our lives, we can become the change that we seek. For instance, creating a strong network of support that will exist for all church members where there is no expectation that a perfect personal facade needs to be maintained, victims can comfortably turn to others for support and relief without fear of condemnation or negative judgment. That allows victims to feel strong enough to be able to speak up and get the help that they need. By committing ourselves to practice patience, empathy, understanding, and love in our relationships with others, we create a positive and nurturing environment for ourselves and others. When we help others by having empathy for them, we invite empathy towards our own frailties. We can also work to become better communicators and resist polarizing passive aggressive word choices in our conversations with others. We can become more involved in community resources for abuse victims so that we have a better knowledge base of how best to support and help abuse victims of all ages. We can be introspective and fight to eradicate the seeds of abuse within our own actions and lives.
As church members, we are asked to participate in making the world better. We must do all we can to prevent abuse and then do everything possible to assist and heal the victims of abuse that does occur. In addition we must school ourselves so that we do not commit abuse and create victims of our own. These suggestions require a great deal of energy, humility, and commitment so I recognize but my suggestions are hard. However, if we do not protect and help heal those of trauma and abuse in our own communities... How can we end the cycle of abuse for anyone?
President Gordon B Hinckley (1985) once stated - "There appears to be a plague of child abuse spreading across the world. Perhaps it is always been with us but has not received the attention it presently receives. I'm glad there is a hue and cry going up against this terrible evil, too much of which is found among our own." Even though two decades have gone by since this statement, abuse is still happening... too much of which is found among our own. For many of us, the church is a safe place and we do not believe these things happen in it. We believe that the gospel makes us different from other people outside of our faith who abuse others and that therefore we are protected from the horrors of abuse. As long as we continue to ignore abuse in our midst or make it impossible for abuse to be dealt with... the specter of abuse will always be waiting for when we turn on the light.