This is part 2 in a 3 part series. Read part 1 here.
In the first post of this series I shared what Mormon bishops could do to best support a woman surviving abuse. In this second post I will address the ways bishops can make errors in attempting to help women survivors. In the third and final post I will address the things the survivor can do give the greatest chances of success to her interactions with her bishop.
I’m sorry to say that reality is far from what the bishops have been counseled to do by the LDS Church Handbook. I have heard, or personally experienced, bishops violating every one of the points of guidance from the LDS Church. This does not mean that bishops are intentionally condoning or encouraging spousal abuse, they are nearly always well-intentioned. I choose to believe that they do not know what they do not know.
In the church we have a bad habit of talking a lot about a person in counsels, out of true concern. There is a lot of talk which would more aptly be termed gossip because all it is is talk. That talk makes everyone in counsel feel like they’ve done something to help, when in reality the person was not contacted or helped by all that talk. Talk is cheap. Think about what your actions show.
A bishop shouldn’t tell a woman to leave or stay in any marriage, let alone one of abuse. It needs to be her decision. She already has a husband that tries to make all of her choices for her, this one needs to be hers, even if she is choosing to put herself in danger by staying, that is her choice. Saving the marriage is not the top priority, it is saving souls.
Don’t tell an abused woman to forgive and forget. Forgiveness comes a long way out in the healing process, and forgetting is harmful. She needs to retain a remembrance of what has happened to keep herself safe and to allow her to heal the wounds of the past, enabling her to find a healthy relationship in the future.
Do not give preferential treatment. Although bishops don’t think they are giving preferential treatment to an abuser, remember that you are both men, with the priesthood. You know the husband better than the wife before you ever know about the abuse. Then you attend priesthood meetings, maybe even leadership meetings and counsels with the husband. Unless the wife is a president of one of the 3 auxiliaries it is unlikely that you know her at all. My bishop was baffled that I saw the High Priest group leader, the Elder’s quorum president and the executive secretary all sitting by my husband as preferential treatment. They were my leaders too, but they didn’t sit by me because I was a woman. This is where the male dominated leadership can be difficult for an abuse survivor to handle.
Do not counsel the abused to attend the temple with her abuser. The temple should be a refuge, a place of comfort and peace. When a victim of abuse attends the temple with her abuser it changes the nature of that place for her, and can cause additional spiritual wounds.
Bishops are counseled to not be gullible. Abusers are experts at manipulation and coercion. Do not be fooled by their words, instead watch their actions. If the abuser has lied once, chances are they will continue lying. A bishop’s seal of approval is more important to them than their victim’s healing. They want the victim to stay emotionally low, so they can continue to control them. A persistent pattern of abuse against the person an abuser claims to love will not be completely turned around with a few weeks of church discipline. Even an abuser who truly wants to change will find that it takes much more than a few weeks of dedication to change this destructive behavior, which is a symptom of a greater inner dysfunction. If a man is truly repentant, his wife will see it and will not need the bishop’s seal of approval. Trust me, she is betting her whole life on her husband and the atonement, waiting anxiously to see the change.