Despite its supposed “zero tolerance” stance on domestic abuse, it would seem the Church of Latter Day Saints really dropped the ball this time. Two female members of the church – who both happen to be ex-wives of White House staff secretary Rob Porter – claim LDS officials tried to cover up abuse they faced at the hands of Porter.
Forced to resign last week amid the brewing scandal, Porter has continued to deny any allegations that he physically abused either of his ex-wives. With his resignation official, attention has now shifted to the Mormon church’s handling (read: ignoring) of the abuse. Church officials are under fire for putting the reputation of a prominent male church member above the safety of vulnerable female members – a grave violation of their professed “zero tolerance” policy on domestic abuse.
Keeping Them Quiet
Jennifer Willoughby and Colbie Holderness each brought the abuse to the attention of Mormon faith leaders, desperate for help. But instead of confronting Porter or offering assistance, the LDS bishops took the side of the abuser and remained reluctant to believe the women’s stories. Most damning – they even tried to dissuade them from seeking justice, cautioning that it could hurt Porter’s career ambitions.
“When I tried to get help, I was counseled to consider carefully how what I said might affect his career,” Willoughby wrote in a blog post last year. “Friends and clergy didn’t believe me. And so I stayed.”
Willoughby tried to bring up her husband’s anger issues, but the clergy members seemed more concerned with Porter’s image than her well-being.
Holderness even documented the abuse – taking a picture of a black eye she insists was her husband’s doing. She says the Mormon church completely let her down.
“It wasn’t until I went to a secular counselor at my workplace one summer and told him what was going on that he was the first person, and not a male religious leader, who told me that what was happening was not OK.”
Why Men Get Benefit of Doubt
While the LDS Church has refused to directly address the claims of both women, they did release a general statement:
“It is difficult to speak to specific circumstances without complete information from all involved, but the position of the church is clear: There is zero tolerance for abuse of any kind.”
But this doesn’t seem to jive with behavior patterns within the church. Julie de Azevedo Hanks, a professional therapist and fellow Mormon, explains why clergy members tend to side with the husband during a domestic dispute.
“Since it is more likely that the bishop knows the husband (because they’ve been in church classes together, maybe even served together in callings),” Hanks said, “it is more likely that the bishop will sympathize with the male.”
A History of Cover-ups
Unfortunately, this story isn’t exactly a break from the norm. Religious institutions have a long history of engaging in, sanctioning, and covering up abuse. The most infamous example is of course the Catholic Church, which hid and then denied its own sexual abuse scandal for decades, defending scores of predatory priests in the process. But this problem runs much deeper than one single institution – it’s an unspoken epidemic.
Whether it’s battered women or helpless children, these tales of abuse reveal a terribly uncomfortable truth: that the individuals we see as “most holy” in our society sometimes act in the least holy ways.
Here’s a question: if victims of abuse can’t expect help from faith leaders when they need it most, how can the church honestly claim to be looking out for the most vulnerable among us?