This is part 1 of a 3 part series.
One looming issue for a Mormon woman dealing with abuse is her bishop. A bishop can be a literal life saver, or he can be a source of additional pain and struggle, even if he is well-intentioned. This series is meant to educate both bishops and survivors. It is important to discuss openly the realities of these interactions, as the bishop holds a unique position in an LDS woman’s life. I will come straight out and say this – a bishop cannot know from experience what life is like for an abuse survivor, even if they have survived abuse themselves. The different place of women and men in our society and church preclude their understanding of the pressures, stereotypes, and institutional organization (worldly and church) which limit a woman’s life. They do however have special authority and access to the one who does understand, Jesus Christ. Although a woman who goes to her bishop is exhibiting great faith and hope, it is not always rewarded with help and support.
In the first post of this series I will share what I feel bishops could do to best support a woman surviving abuse. In the 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 to give the greatest chances of success to her interactions with her bishop.
IF A WOMAN CLAIMS SHE IS ABUSED, BELIEVE HER! The incidence of false reporting is extremely low, 2-3% when a woman claims a man is abusing her. In this male dominated church it is vital that a woman knows she has the support and unquestioned loyalty of her bishop. Provide financial help, without undue stress. The victim already feels beaten down and unworthy because of the abuse, putting her through the wringer to get help could send her back to the abuse. Offer any and all resources available, you are saving a family and subsequent generations, this is not the time to be stingy. Call her back immediately, let her know that you care about her safety and well being, because it is possible that she has no one else to turn to. Abusers alienate their victims as a way to keep them trapped, she may not have friends and be estranged from family because of the controlling nature of abuse.
Immediately assign high priest home teachers, as soon as the sister leaves the abuser. Ask her if her needs are being met by her current visiting teachers and if not, assign new ones. Visit her in her home, minister to her children, give them blessings and unconditional love. Ask the youth and primary leaders to give special attention to the children.
Respect her privacy. Do not speak to her friends to get inside information, build up your own trusted relationship with her to minister to her needs directly. Keep phone numbers and addresses private if the woman desires it. Again, her very life may be at stake in keeping this information secret.
A bishop should counsel the husband and wife separately, keeping those confidences. The abuse (manipulation and intimidation) can continue in the bishop’s office if they are counseled together.
Bishops are to encourage the couple to seek professional counseling, being honest about their limitations in mental health training. And then do not attempt to give mental health counseling! Counsel in spiritual matters, but do not pry to get information that you don’t need to give spiritual first aid.
Bishops in North America have access to an abuse hotline, which provides guidance from social workers, as well as legal advice as stewards of the church. Bishops, please use wisdom and caution in sharing the information you get from the hotline. It is not necessarily to be repeated verbatim to the abuser and victim.
“Church members who abuse their family members are subject to discipline by the church. Such members should not be called to positions in the church and should not be allowed to hold or receive a temple recommend.”
Critics claim that the policies in the handbook do more to promote the repentance of the abuser than to protect and heal the victims. I would hope that the natural compassionate inclinations of a bishop would insure the very best of treatment for a survivor and her children.
Encourage women to get their answers directly from God. He is the one that will be with them through every moment of the abuse and healing. Trust this daughter of God’s faith, that she will choose the right course of action. Always remembering that if she does stumble with these heavy burdens Christ is there to lift her up and offer mercy.
Be aware that spousal abuse may not be the only type of abuse the woman has endured. Be sensitive and open in spiritual counsel, there may be a lifetime of healing in front of her.
Spousal abuse was added to the Church Handbook in 1985:
“Do not encourage the spouse to tolerate or endure the abusive acts.”
“Members who abuse or are cruel to their spouses, children, or other family members violate the laws of both God and man.”