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Mormonism and gender issues/Abuse
Summary: Several criticisms and questions have arisen about the Church's approach to and stance on abuse. This page is a compilation of pages that respond to the various questions and criticisms.
Jump to Subtopic:
- Question: What is Mormonism's stance toward the victims of sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape, or incest?
- Question: What was the ritual child or Satanic abuse in the 1990s?
- Question: Do the scriptures endorse child abuse?
- Question: Do Mormons believe that sexual assault victims ought to fight to the death?
- Question: Did Elder Richard G. Scott teach that victims of abuse are responsible for their abuse?
Question: What is Mormonism's stance toward the victims of sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape, or incest?
Members who are victims of these sins are innocent of any wrongdoing
- Sexual crimes virtually always require excommunication from the Church, and members guilty of these serious crimes have annotations placed upon their membership record that remain even if they return to full membership. Members guilty of such crimes have a lifetime ban on service with youth, missionary service, and temple service.
- Members who are victims of these sins are innocent of any wrongdoing. The Church encourages them to seek help, and to receive the healing available to all through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ.
The Church has a no-tolerance stance toward abuse
Statements from Church Sources
The Church's handbooks emphasize that one purpose of Church discipline is to protect the innocent, especially against such crimes as predatory sexual behavior:
The second purpose of Church discipline is to protect the innocent. With inspiration, a priesthood leader should act to protect others when a transgressor poses a physical or spiritual threat to them, such as by predatory practices, physical harm, sexual abuse, drug misuse, fraud, or apostasy (see Alma 5:59–60). (Handbook 1 , 6.1.2)
Likewise, victims of such crimes are innocent of sin:
In instances of abuse, the first responsibility of the Church is to help those who have been abused and to protect those who may be vulnerable to future abuse. Victims of sexual abuse (including rape) often suffer serious trauma and feelings of guilt.
Victims of the evil acts of others are not guilty of sin. Church leaders should be sensitive to such victims and give caring attention to help them overcome the destructive effects of abuse. (Handbook 1 , 17.3.2)
Help for victims of abuse
Those who have been the victims of the unrighteous acts of others are not guilty of any sin. Latter-day Saints believe that the atonement of Christ can heal all suffering, injustices, and traumas through Christ's grace. Many articles and resources are available, and members with such concerns are encouraged to consult with their local leaders.
One guide for bishops begins:
Abuse includes the physical, emotional, sexual, or spiritual mistreatment of others. The first responsibility of the Church is to help those who have been abused in a kind and sensitive way and to protect those who may be vulnerable to future abuse. Abuse not only harms the body, but also deeply affects the mind and spirit. It often destroys faith and always causes confusion, doubt, mistrust, guilt, and fear. Help the member understand that he or she is not responsible for the abuser’s behavior and that faith can be regained or strengthened and hope and healing can come through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. 
Mandatory discipline for the perpetrator of the abuse
Church disciplinary action is required for a small set of sins, such as murder. Sexual abuse and incest are included in this group:
As used here, incest refers to sexual intercourse between a parent and a natural, adopted, or foster child or a stepchild. A grandparent is considered the same as a parent. Incest also refers to sexual intercourse between brothers and sisters. It almost always requires excommunication. Bishops refer questions on specific cases to the stake president. The stake president may direct questions to the Office of the First Presidency if necessary. If a minor commits incest, the stake president contacts the Office of the First Presidency for direction.
As used here, child abuse refers to a sexual offense against a child or physical abuse of a child. If priesthood leaders learn of or suspect child abuse, they follow the instructions in 17.3.2 [see above]. If a minor abuses a child, the stake president contacts the Office of the First Presidency for direction....
Transgressor Who Is a Predator
A disciplinary council must be held for a member who commits a serious transgression that shows him to be a predator with tendencies that present any kind of serious threat to other persons.(Handbook 1 , 6.7.3, (italics in original)
Results of discipline
Incest virtually always requires excommunication from the Church:
Excommunication is mandatory for murder...and is almost always required for incest. (Handbook 1 , 6.9.3)
Return to Church membership
The First Presidency must approve any restoration of Church membership for those guilty of particularly serious sins, including:
3.Sexual offense against a child or serious physical abuse of a child by an adult or by a youth who is several years older than the child.... (Handbook 1 , 6.12.10)
Flagging Church membership records
Those guilty of abuse of a child and other serious sins which place others at risk have their Church records annotated, and this annotation remains on the record permanently (even in the event of reinstatement in the Church). Only the First Presidency can authorize the removal of such an annotation:
incest, sexual offense against or serious physical abuse of a child,...predatory conduct.... (Handbook 1 , 6.13.4)
Abusers are have lifetime ineligiblity for some callings and assignments in the Church
Even if they repent and return to full time activity in the Church, those who commit some crimes are ineligible for some types of Church service. These include:
Temple ordinance workers must:
5. Never have received formal Church discipline for sexual abuse.
6.Never have had his or her membership record annotated (see above). (Handbook 1 , 3.10.2)
Those wishing to serve full-time missions are ineligible if, among other things, they
[h]ave been convicted of sexual abuse. (Handbook 1 , 4.4)
Service with children or youth is also an area of particular concern:
A person whose membership record is annotated for having abused a child sexually or physically must not be given any calling or assignment involving children or youth. Also, careful consideration should be given to other assignments, such as home teaching or visiting teaching. These restrictions should remain in place until the First Presidency authorizes removal of the annotation.... (Handbook 1 , 17.3.2)
- Responding to Abuse: Helps for Ecclesiastical Leaders (PDF booklet)
- Preventing and Responding to Spouse Abuse (pamphlet)
- Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse (pamphlet)
- Protect the Child: Responding to Child Abuse (DVD)
- Responding to Abuse: Helps for Bishops (DVD)
- Bishop's Guide: Helping Victims of Abuse (on-line)
- Bishop’s Guide: Abuse (Helping the Offender) (on-line)
- Church hotline for leaders who encounter evidence or suspicion of abuse (for details see Handbook 1, , 17.3.2).
- "Gospel Topics, "Abuse"," lds.org website.
- Gordon B. Hinckley, "Save the Children," Ensign (November 1994).
- Gordon B. Hinckley, "Personal Worthiness to Exercise the Priesthood," Ensign (July 2002).
- Gordon B. Hinckley, "These, Our Little Ones," Ensign (December 2007).
- Jeffrey R. Holland, "The Tongue of Angels," Ensign (May 2007).
- Dallin H. Oaks, "Protect the Children," Ensign (November 2012).
- Richard G. Scott, "Healing the Tragic Scars of Abuse," Ensign (May 1992).
- Richard G. Scott, "To Heal the Shattering Consequences of Abuse," Ensign (May 1992).
- J. Thomas Cearley, "Stop Using Words That Hurt," Ensign (March 2006).
- Sarah E. Miller, "Hope and Healing in Recovering from Abuse," Ensign (September 2008).
- Judy C. Olsen, "The Invisible Heartbreaker," Ensign (June 1996).
Question: What was the ritual child or Satanic abuse in the 1990s?
Accusations by a Therapist in Lehi, Utah
The the ritual child or Satanic abuse scare in the 1990s in Utah began in 1985 in Lehi, Utah, as described by social historian Massimo Introvigne:
During the Summer of 1985 Mrs. Sheila Bowers of Lehi, Utah, contacted Dr. Barbara Snow, a therapist working with the Intermountain Sexual Abuse Treatment Center. Bowers was worried about her three small children, who seemed to talk too freely about sex. Dr. Snow interviewed the children and concluded that they had in fact been sexually abused. Dr. Snow claimed that the children had told her about the perpetrator, a teenage babysitter who was the daughter of Keith Burnham, the respected Bishop of the Lehi Eight[h] Ward of the Mormon Church. Dr. Snow also asked to interview other Lehi children who had been attended by the same babysitter, and most of the families involved decided to comply.
As a result of the interviews, the Burnhams were accused of abusing a number of children in the area, and the Burnham parents were accused of abusing their own children. Utah's Family Services division investigated the Burnham parents and found no evidence of abuse. Additional interviews with other children led to claims that children in the area were being forced to participate in Satanic rituals.
Police began investigating these various claims. "When the police concluded their investigation in 1987, Dr. Snow had accused fourty adults—almost all of them active Mormons in Lehi's Eight[h] Ward—to be ritual child abusers and members of a secret Satanic cult." Only one individual was charged with child abuse, and during his trial a county attorney asserted that Dr. Snow was forcing children to admit to abuse that the children never experienced.
Dr. Snow made additional accusations over the next two years about Satanic cults in Bountiful and Salt Lake City, Utah. An investigation was started in Salt Lake but discontinued after more than a year.
The Glenn Pace Memo and Further Developments
It was in this context that the "Glenn Pace Memo" was created.
On May 24, 1989 the LDS Social Services released a report on Satanism, followed by another report from the U.S. attorney for Utah Brent Ward (an active Mormon) and a further memorandum from Bishop Glen L. Pace, then Second Counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, dated October 20, 1989. All these documents have never been published. A fourth document, a memorandum also authored by Bishop Pace and directed to the Strengthening Church Members Committee on July 19, 1990, although marked "Do not reproduce", came into the possession of Evangelical Salt Lake counter-Mormons Jerald and Sandra Tanner in 1991. . . . In November 1991 the Tanners published the memo.
In the memo, Bishop Pace explained that he had met with 60 purported victims of ritual or Satanic abuse. The victims provided detailed descriptions of their abuse and asserted that the perpetrators of the abuse had been youth leaders, bishops, temple workers, and at least one stake president. As a result of these interviews, Bishop Pace believed there was a high likelihood of a Satanic cult existing in Utah or among the Latter-day Saints. Bishop Pace quoted several scriptures to show that the rise of Satanic cults had been prophesied of in the Book of Mormon.
In the middle of these reports being written, the remains of an infant were discovered in late 1989 in southern Idaho, with the body apparently showing evidence of ritual abuse. In early 1990, a 10 year old boy in southern Idaho whose family were Latter-day Saints claimed that he had been abused and tortured as part of Satanic rituals. Both cases became national news and led to somewhat of a hysteria-like atmosphere in the Mountain West. (The Idaho Attorney General's Office thoroughly investigated both issues and concluded that the remains of the infant did not in fact show signs of abuse but rather animal mutilation, and the boy had in fact never witnessed or been abused as part of a Satanic ritual.)
Utah Attorney General Investigations
It was during this period that the Utah State Task Force on Ritual Abuse was created in March of 1990. This task force was created to investigate claims of ritual abuse in Utah and provide education to professionals and the public on the possibility of ritual abuse. To assist with the investigation of claims, the Utah State Attorney General's Office later assigned individuals to investigate these claims and prepare recommendations for future investigations. In a report published in 1995, the Attorney General's Office explained that "during an exhaustive two year search, the Unit has investigated over 125 cases of alleged ritual crime." The investigation report concluded:
The complexity of the problem required detailed planning, tireless research and cooperation. Every police chief, sheriff, law enforcement executive, many of the state's therapists, religious leaders and community leaders were contacted. . . . Investigators statewide were told stories of bizarre sexual and physical abuse. . . . Utah's police officers and their departments have dedicated thousands of hours as they followed up on allegations, searched hillsides for ritual sites, "staked-out" potential ceremonies, etc. Their combined efforts were unable to uncover any phsycial evidence to support the claims of the existence of organized cults. Evidence has been uncovered to support the thought that individuals have in the past, and are now committing crime in the name of Satan or other deity. The allegations of organized satanists, even groups of satanists who have permeated every level of government and religion were unsubstantiated.
The report also warned against "recovered memory" therapy, which had been prominently used by therapists, including Dr. Snow, to "uncover" ritual and Satanic abuses:
Often the reports of victims are based on "recovered memories", which were blocked at an early age and are only recalled after some intensive therapeutic intervention. This therapy often involves hypnosis. The Utah Supreme Court has said unequivocally that a prosecution cannot be based upon testimony that is hypnotically-refreshed or enhanced, dur to the unreliability and suggestibility of that process. State v. Tuttle, 780 P.2d 1203 (Utah 1989), cert. denied 494 U.S. 1018 (1990). Most courts throughout the country which have addressed the issue have ruled that the outcome of hypnotherapy is not reliable enough to be admissible in court proceedings. Even when hynposis is not directly involved, there is enough controversy about the entire issue of "recovered memories" in the field of psychology, that the courts are unlikely to admit such evidence without showing that the memory of the victim is reliable.
The ritual or Satanic abuse scare in the 1990s in Utah failed to reveal any cults or other systemic ritual programs. However, the Church has consistently warned its members against participating in any group or activity that may resemble the occult. A recent addition to the General Handbook states:
“That which is of God is light” (Doctrine and Covenants 50:24). The occult focuses on darkness and leads to deception. It destroys faith in Christ.
The occult includes Satan worship. It also includes mystical activities that are not in harmony with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Such activities include (but are not limited to) fortune-telling, curses, and healing practices that are imitations of the priesthood power of God (see Moroni 7:11–17).
Church members should not engage in any form of Satan worship or participate in any way with the occult. They should not focus on such darkness in conversations or in Church meetings.
Question: Do the scriptures endorse child abuse?
It is claimed that God’s command of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is an example of divinely endorsed child abuse. It is also claimed that God’s sending of Christ to be crucified instead of himself is such an example
Some claim that God’s command of Abraham to slay Isaac is an example of divinely endorsed child abuse. Anyone who knows the story is aware that the story is not about abusing Isaac nor does it even insinuate such. Rather, it is about God’s desire for Abraham to be willing to follow him despite hard trials to follow in his life. It also foreshadows the offering of God’s only begotten son in the flesh—Jesus Christ—saving us in Gethsemane and on the cross.
In the case of Christ, some secular critics claim that God is an abuser by sending his son to die on the cross. The short answer is that Christ was foreordained to come to earth to redeem all mankind. He voluntarily gave himself in the pre-mortal council to become our Savior (Moses 4:1-2; Rev 13:8; 1 Peter 19:21). Upon coming here to earth, his agency was not taken away from him. He had the ability to put down his life and to take it back up (John 10:18). It was God’s plan from the beginning, but the supernal gift and voluntary sacrifice of a loving Savior.
- Old Testament Seminary Manual on Abraham and Isaac
- Paul Copan “Is God a Moral Monster?” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011) 42-53 off-site
Question: Do Mormons believe that sexual assault victims ought to fight to the death?
As far as we can determine, no senior Church leader has ever used the words "fight to the death" to describe how members should respond to sexual assault or abuse
Critics of the LDS Church have complained that Church leaders have commanded members – particularly women -- to “fight to the death” in order to protect ourselves from sexual assault. The claims go on to insist that LDS survivors of sexual abuse and assault must feel guilty to be alive.
As far as we can determine, no senior Church leader has ever used the words "fight to the death" to describe how members should respond to sexual assault or abuse. The Church's position is that victims are not guilty. Past Church leaders have compared the value of "virtue" to the value of one's life. However, current Church statements are clear that victims of sexual assault and abuse are to be treated with love and compassion, not condemnation.
Statements from Church Sources
As far as we have been able to determine, there is no record of the phrase “fight to the death” ever being used by a senior Church leader when counseling members about how to respond to sexual assault. This exact phrase is a sensationalized exaggeration that does not reflect current church teachings on this sensitive topic.
The Church’s position on the culpability of victims of sexual assault is available on the official Church website:
Victims of abuse should be assured that they are not to blame for the harmful behavior of others. They do not need to feel guilt. If they have been a victim of rape or other sexual abuse, whether they have been abused by an acquaintance, a stranger, or even a family member, victims of sexual abuse are not guilty of sexual sin.
Speaking in the Church’s General Conference in 1992, member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Richard G. Scott restated the Church’s position in strong and personal terms:
I solemnly testify that when another’s acts of violence, perversion, or incest hurt you terribly, against your will, you are not responsible and you must not feel guilty.
In the early LDS Church, violent opponents of the Church in Missouri used rape as a weapon. Crimes like these are alluded to in the Doctrine and Covenants (See DC 123:1-17) and are utterly denounced as “dark and hellish.”
The Church’s most basic statement of beliefs, The Articles of Faith, states that people are accountable for their own sins and not for mistakes made by others. AoF 1:2
Elizabeth Smart and the Stick of Chewing Gum
On May 1, 2013, kidnap and rape survivor, Elizabeth Smart, gave a speech at Johns Hopkins University. She was invited there for a conference on sexual abuse and human trafficking. She spoke of the crimes committed against her when she was fourteen years old and living in Salt Lake City, Utah. At the time of her abduction and rape, and at the date of this writing, Smart was and is a member of the LDS Church.
In her speech, Smart recalled a lesson taught in school where a used stick of chewing gum was put forward as an analogy for a person who had chosen not to abstain from sexual activity outside of marriage. The analogy is grim and loathsome. "No one should ever say that," Smart said. As Smart herself stated, the chewing gum analogy was not part of her religious education. In the LDS Church, parents are considered the chief spiritual educators and guides of their own children. Smart recalled being taught by her LDS parents that virginity was precious but, she added,
I remember thinking of my parents and after, realizing that they would still love me; that just because I had been chained, just because I had been kidnapped, just because all these things had happened to me -- that wouldn’t change their love. And I feel so fortunate in that I was able to realize that.
Some media have characterized Smart's 2013 speech as an indictment of her religious roots. It was touted in headlines as a speech denouncing abstinence education and advancing the idea that sexual purity is dangerous and universally untenable. However, a full examination of Smart's speech reveals the details wherein lie the truth. Her speech did not address issues of consensual sexual behavior. It was about reaching out to victims of violence and abuse and affirming their worth. It was about offering hope and healing to people like herself who'd had their choices taken from them. As seen in quotations from LDS leaders noted above, Smart's comments were exactly in line with Church teachings about victims of sexual abuse being free from guilt and being precious to God, their church community, and everyone else.
Spencer W. Kimball’s The Miracle of Forgiveness
The following statement does appear in the 1969 book The Miracle of Forgiveness written by member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Spencer W. Kimball.
Also far-reaching is the effect of loss of chastity. Once given or taken or stolen it can never be regained. Even in forced contact such as rape or incest, the injured one is greatly outraged. If she has not cooperated and contributed to the foul deed, she is of course in a more favorable position. There is no condemnation where there is absolutely no voluntary participation. It is better to die in defending one's virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle.
Kimball would later be called as President of the Church and The Miracle of Forgiveness was widely read among LDS membership. It is the statement quoted above that is most often used to support the claim that the term “fight to the death” was expected in a sexual assault.
The phrase is used by critics of the Church but it also sometimes appears as a folk-saying among members. Particularly people of the Baby Boom generation who lived in the American heartland of the Church may remember hearing this phrase when they were young. Sometimes it came complete with clumsy but colorful and memorable object lessons similar to the stick-of-gum Elizabeth Smart mentioned in her 2013 speech. However, it’s important to distinguish unofficial slogans and crude demonstrations from what Church leaders in positions to pronounce an official stance on the issue actually said. Well-meaning but badly mangled interpretations passed around by provincial teachers and leaders aren’t uncommon in an organization like the Church which turns most of its administration over to non-professional volunteers. But being common doesn’t make these interpretations into official Church positions.
Feminist scholars outside the LDS Church have noted that the notion of victims of sexual assault being expected to fight to the death existed outside the Church in mainstream American social and legal culture.
White men...had a virtual license to rape, as the law required "true" victims to be ultimately innocent ladies who would rather fight to the death than give up their virginity.
Further, the argument is made that this underlying assumption about victims was powerful and prevalent enough to shape sexual assault laws up until the Women's Movement demanded something better. Though LDS leaders spoke of sexual integrity in terms of life and death they cannot be held responsible for inventing it. The idea had a cultural momentum that existed independently of the comments of LDS leaders.
By now, Kimball and the other twentieth century Church leaders he quoted in The Miracle of Forgiveness have been dead for decades. They are no longer available to clarify what they meant when they spoke about chastity in general and about the innocence of victims of sexual assault in particular. This uncertainty means there can be more than one interpretation of what their comments could mean.
One interpretation does indeed seem to suggest that people who have survived sexual assault ought to have gone to extreme lengths to resist. It’s true that colorful and sometimes exaggerated rhetorical devices were used by past Church leaders to impress upon members the importance of preserving virtue and to describe the heinousness of sexual abuse and assault.
The Lord himself used rhetorical hyperbole when teaching about sexual morality. In the section of the Sermon on the Mount where he denounced adultery and lust, Jesus told his disciples “if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out.” Mat 5:29 This passage is not taken literally. We understand that Jesus was using powerful figurative language to convey a message about how dangerous and damaging sexual sin is. Hyperbole like this is a common device in all kinds of rhetoric and particularly in religious rhetoric.
Other interpretations of Kimballs’ statement also exist. For instance, Kimball recommends “a struggle” against sexual assault but he does not demand that the struggle continue until the victim dies in order for her or him to escape “condemnation.” Perhaps Kimball was saying it might be easier for the victim to avoid future feelings of guilt and regret if he or she decisively resisted the attack. As a longtime ecclesiastical minister, Kimball would have been familiar with the typical feelings of guilt and shame that often afflict victims of sexual assault and abuse. In order for victims to be better able to overcome these feelings, he may have wanted victims to be able to assure themselves there was “absolutely no voluntary participation” on their part.
This interpretation springs on the fact that Kimball did not say it is better to die defending one’s virtue than it is to live. Precisely what he said was, “it is better to die defending one’s virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle.” Perhaps Kimball was warning that it is better to die than to not resist an assault. This is a very different thing than saying it is better to die than to survive a sexual assault.
The second interpretation may sound jarring to twenty-first century readers. However, Kimball was not writing from the best of all possible worlds but from a real-world social and legal climate that was much more steeped in sexism than the one most of us inhabit today. A look at American rape law during Kimball's time shows a disturbingly sexist system where courts would not convict men of sexual assault when the complaint was uncorroborated. Complaints of sexual assault are often uncorroborated since they usually happen in private where there are no witnesses besides the attacker and the victim. This meant the courts could demand more gruesome and concrete evidence than a woman's testimony alone in order to convict.
As a non-LDS feminist scholar explains:
Sexist gender norms were woven into the very fabric of rape law in the form of iniquitous obstacles to prosecution such as resistance and corroboration requirements...these rules tended to privilege rape defendants.
It may be disgusting, but if a victim could show she was injured in the course of the attack, her attacker was less able to claim he had her consent and less likely to be acquitted. That was the reality of rape laws in America for most of the twentieth century. Kimball did not invent these laws. He did not foresee any change in them. He could only speak of the reality of world in which he lived. And the reality was that, before the law, the victim of sexual assault who had physically resisted her attacker was "in a more favorable position."
Other Church Leaders
Other quotations by other early and mid-twentieth century Church leaders are also referred to by critics insisting the Church wants victims of sexual assault to “fight to the death.”
In The Miracle of Forgiveness, Kimball quotes Church President David O. McKay saying:
Your virtue is worth more than your life. Please young folk, preserve your virtue even if you lose your lives. Do not tamper with sin . . . do not permit yourselves to be led into temptation. Conduct yourselves seemly and with due regard, particularly you young boys, to the sanctity of womanhood. Do not pollute it."
President McKay does not directly address a situation of sexual assault in this passage from a section of the book called “Dangers to Youth”. In introducing the quote, Kimball addresses normal social situations like dating relationships where normal urges and temptation are the issues, not violent criminal acts.
In this context, McKay is making a point about not mistaking feelings and behaviors that may be acceptable to the rest of society as being acceptable to the Church’s moral code. He is concerned that the true gravity of sexual misconduct has been lost and he’s trying to restore it by comparing it to a life-or-death situation. In McKay’s view, sexual sin was worse than physical death since, unrepented of, it brought on a more lasting and tragic spiritual death. In that way, it was a life-or-death situation.
Apostle J. Reuben Clark also made comments comparing the value of chastity to the value of life.
Mothers in Israel, teach your sons to honor and revere, to protect to the last, pure womanhood; teach your daughters that their most priceless jewel is a clean, undefiled body; teach both sons and daughters that chastity is worth more than life itself.”
Clark speaks of the value of an “undefiled body” but it’s accepted in religious parlance that people are able to defile themselves. (See Dan 1:8, Matt 15:11) It’s also possible for people to defile other people’s bodies with their full consent. Like McKay, Clark is not necessarily speaking of protecting ourselves from sexual assault. Rather, he’s warning us to choose righteously. Those who are assaulted remain chaste and “not guilty.”
Virtue vs. Virginity
Critics point to a place where the issue of sexual assault gets murky in the Book of Mormon. To fairly understand this passage (See Moro 9:9-10) we must try to see the situation as Mormon, the writer, saw it himself. We do not usually refer to the Law of Moses in the modern Church. It was discontinued over two thousand years ago and has never been used in the restored Church. However, the non-Jaredite peoples of the Book of Mormon had both cultural and religious roots in the Law of Moses and these must be accounted for when making sense of their history.
According to the Law of Moses, when a woman was sexually assaulted, she was considered innocent by God and her fellow men and women (See Deut 22:25-26). The prophet Mormon lived about 400 years after the end of the Law of Moses. There doesn’t seem to be anything in the Book of Mormon to show to what extent the Law of Moses once practiced by Mormon’s people might have still been influencing the way he understood and spoke about the world. The old law might have had no influence at all or it might have retained some power to color his interpretations and his expressions. If the Law of Moses was still part of Mormon’s cultural memory, he might have had an understanding of the state of a rape victim’s virtue – her state of moral cleanliness – that’s nuanced differently than the understanding we have now. When mourning the violent sex crimes of his people at Moriantum, Mormon used the words “chastity and virtue” to describe what the daughters of the Lamanites had lost when they were assaulted instead of simply saying “virginity.”
And notwithstanding this great abomination of the Lamanites, it doth not exceed that of our people in Moriantum. For behold, many of the daughters of the Lamanites have they taken prisoners; and after depriving them of that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue— And after they had done this thing, they did murder them in a most cruel manner, torturing their bodies even unto death; and after they have done this, they devour their flesh like unto wild beasts, because of the hardness of their hearts; and they do it for a token of bravery. Moro 9:9-10
Even though the wording might be muddled by the limited vocabulary or perhaps by the sensibilities of the times in which Mormon or his translator lived in, Mormon’s sorrow for what happened to the women is unmistakable. He wrote of an atrocity. Mormon did not condemn the women for being kidnapped, raped, tortured, murdered, and cannibalized. He did condemn the “great abominations” of their attackers.
If Mormon was influenced by cultural traces of the Law of Moses, he would have believed that when a woman was forcibly deprived of her virginity, she remained innocent. Despite the wording, he would have believed they had lost their virginity, not their virtue. In the Law of Moses, penalties against attackers were put in place to serve a purpose similar to restitution. (See Deut 22:25-29) Once the Law was satisfied, it was as if the victim’s former state – her “chastity and virtue” -- was restored. However, the men who victimized women at Moriantum were never lawfully penalized.
Perhaps part of what Mormon lamented was the fact that the injustices would remain unaddressed. Maybe, as he saw it, the crimes against the women were deepened because no legal version of “restitution” would ever be made. In this way, the legal construct of the women’s “chastity and virtue” was never restored even though their true spiritual virtue could remain intact. Perhaps the problem with this passage is not, as critics suggest, that Mormon equated virtue with virginity but that his cultural sense of the efficacy of legal restitution prompted him to overstate what was lost.
As we have progressed through history, people in general – both inside and outside the Church -- have become more sensitized to sexual crimes. We use a more sympathetic vocabulary and much of the societal stigma that victims of sexual crimes have suffered has disappeared. What was once cloaked in flowery rhetoric can now be discussed in more precise and compassionate terms. This shift in language has been critical in assisting victims in the necessary healing after sexual assault and abuse.
Despite the current clarity of the Church’s position on sexual assault, the controversy still flares to life. Although older statements from church leaders have been interpreted in various ways and are of historical interest, it is incumbent upon those addressing this topic to keep original contexts in mind and to ultimately use current statements when describing the position of the modern church.
Question: Did Elder Richard G. Scott teach that victims of abuse are responsible for their abuse?
Introduction to Question
In a discourse given in the April 1992 General Conference of the Church, Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles speaks to victims of abuse.
During the course of his talk, Elder Scott stated the following:
The victim must do all in his or her power to stop the abuse. Most often, the victim is innocent because of being disabled by fear or the power or authority of the offender. At some point in time, however, the Lord may prompt a victim to recognize a degree of responsibility for abuse. Your priesthood leader will help assess your responsibility so that, if needed, it can be addressed. Otherwise the seeds of guilt will remain and sprout into bitter fruit. Yet no matter what degree of responsibility, from absolutely none to increasing consent, the healing power of the atonement of Jesus Christ can provide a complete cure. (See D&C 138:1–4.) Forgiveness can be obtained for all involved in abuse. (See A of F 1:3.) Then comes a restoration of self-respect, self-worth, and a renewal of life. As a victim, do not waste effort in revenge or retribution against your aggressor. Focus on your responsibility to do what is in your power to correct. Leave the handling of the offender to civil and Church authorities.
Here is a video of the address:
Response to Criticism
We count on the patience and maturity of our readers as we briefly explore this deeply sensitive question. We affirm unequivocally to those who have faced abuse that "[t]he abuse was not, is not, and never will be your fault, no matter what the abuser or anyone else may have said to the contrary. When you have been a victim of cruelty, incest, or any other perversion, you are not the one who needs to repent; you are not responsible." That said, there may very well still be important things that we can glean from Elder Scott's talk.
Elder Scott's Meaning May be Obscured by Clunky Wording
The first thing that we might strongly claim is that Elder Scott's meaning needs to be evaluated within the course of the talk. Otherwise, its likely that his admittedly clunky wording here is obscuring what he actually meant to say. Earlier in his discourse, Elder Scott slowly and pointedly underscores "that when another’s violence, perversion, incest cause you deep harm, against your will, you are not responsible and you must not feel guilty." How can Elder Scott simultaneously claim that a person is not responsible and that the victim may hold "a degree of responsibility for abuse"? There's a good chance that Elder Scott meant to say something that we're not understanding.
Not A Good Word for the Type of 'Responsibility' that Elder Scott Referred To
The abuse victims face is not their fault. One of the big problems surrounding these discussions is that there is not a good word to refer to the type of 'responsibility' that Elder Scott was likely referring to. We'll illustrate that with a couple of scenarios below.
Those That Are Faced With Abusive Situations Should Feel Empowered to Leave Those Situations
The abuse victims face is not their fault; but those who face it should feel empowered to leave abusive situations. We don’t need to stay in abusive situations and it’s not our fault that we are in them. Elder Holland has told us that we may be in the midst of an abusive or violent marriage and that abuse/violence may justify exiting it.
There Are Things We Can Do To Avoid Abusive Situations
The abuse victims face is not their fault; but there are times where we do things that aren’t wise that might put us in dangerous situations and we should do what we can to avoid those situations. There’s a reason that, when walking or jogging somewhere at night, we should try and stay in lit areas. There's a reason that a Trump supporter would be wise to not show up to a Black Lives Matter rally in full MAGA regalia. There's a reason that a black person would be wise to not show up at an alt right or Nazi rally. While we aren’t at fault for whatever kind of harm or action comes on us during those moments (since that would be the product of another’s choices), there are still dumb things that we can do that more likely put us in harm’s way. We should take appropriate measures to reduce the likelihood of that happening to us. In a perfect world, we wouldn't have to worry about the many types of dangers that could come upon us and we would be able to go wherever we like, dress however we want, and act however we please. We don't live in a perfect world, though, and thus can't act, dress, and go where we please. We have to take precautions.
The Abused May Abuse Their Abuser
As Elder Scott rightly points out in the course of his talk, the abused may begin to abuse their abuser. The abuser should, in this instance, reflect on how their actions contributed to the retaliation that they are facing. The abuse that such a person faces is not their fault, but there must be some recognition of how their actions contributed negatively to their chances of not facing retaliation from their victim.
It's the author's hope that this article can provide clarity and peace of mind that are navigating abuse or have loved ones that are navigating abuse and are connected to the Church.
- Bishop's Guide: Helping Victims of Abuse (on-line, accessed 8 January 2013).
- Massimo Introvigne, "A Rumor of Devils: The Satanic Ritual Abuse Scare in the Mormon Church," Syzygy: Journal of Alternative Religion and Culture 6, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 1997), 87–88.
- Introvigne, "A Rumor of Devils," 88
- Introvigne, "A Rumor of Devils," 87–91
- Introvigne, "A Rumor of Devils," 93
- Introvigne, "A Rumor of Devils," 91–92
- Ritual Crime in the State of Utah: Investigation, Analysis & A Look Forward (Utah Attorney General's Office, prepared for the Utah State Legislature, 1995), 3; see also page 2.
- Ritual Crime in the State of Utah," 47; see also page 48.
- Ritual Crime in the State of Utah," 4; see also page 5.
- General Handbook, 38.6.12 "The Occult".
- "Gospel Topics, "Abuse"," lds.org website.
- Richard G. Scott, "Healing the Tragic Scars of Abuse," Ensign (May 1992). (emphasis in original)
- Elizabeth Smart, Speech, Johns Hopkins University, 1 May 2013. http://foxbaltimore.com/news/features/raw-news/stories/elizabeth-smart-speaks-at-johns-hopkins-human-trafficking-forum-486.shtml#.UYqpjrUslX3
- Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness (Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, 1969). ISBN 0884944441. ISBN 0884941922.
- Aya Gruber, "Rape, Feminism, and the War on Crime," Washington Law Review, Vol 84. 2009(581-658).
- Aya Gruber, "Rape, Feminism, and the War on Crime," Washington Law Review, Vol 84. 2009(581-658).
- Aya Gruber, "Rape, Feminism, and the War on Crime," Washington Law Review, Vol 84. 2009(581-658).
- Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness (Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, 1969). ISBN 0884944441. ISBN 0884941922.
- J. Reuben Clark, Conference Report (April 1940), 21.
- "Gospel Topics, "Abuse"," lds.org website.
- Richard G. Scott, “Healing the Tragic Scars of Abuse,” Ensign 22, no. 5 (May 1992): 32
- Patrick Kearon, "He Is Risen with Healing in His Wings: We Can Be More Than Conquerors," Liahona 45, no. 5 (May 2022).
- Jeffrey R. Holland, "Keep a sense of humor in your marriage, because you can’t survive without it. You’re going to have to laugh at some of the problems and some of your reactions and some of your spouse’s reactions. You’re going to have to see the bright side of things. I’ve always tried to do that with Pat and she with me. But also, in marriage, there is nothing tentative. We must sit down, buckle up, and get on the road. Do not leave yourself an escape route. Don’t say every 20 minutes, 'Well, I’m not as excited about this as I thought I’d be! This isn’t how they told me it would be.' It’s not fair to anybody—it’s not fair to you, it’s not fair to your spouse, it’s not fair to God—for you to keep asking that question. We ask it once, in a sense, when we make the decision to marry, and then we buckle down and stay true to our eternal covenants. It is a gospel truth that you can make the marriage you want. That’s the issue of agency. It doesn’t mean that bad days won’t come, because they will. It doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be sorrow and sadness and arguments, some highs and lows, and some things that don’t work out. That’s life. I would not want anyone to misinterpret what I’m saying—I realize there may be an abusive or violent situation giving a legitimate reason to get out of a marriage. When there is a legitimate exception, you’ll know, your priesthood leaders will know, and God will know. But the rule is, you work and pray and serve and love and laugh and forgive and hang in there. That’s the rule. You can make the marriage you want. That is a gospel truth. We should cultivate relationships and find resources that can help us process and confront trauma and abuse," Facebook, September 30, 2018, https://www.facebook.com/jeffreyr.holland/posts/keep-a-sense-of-humor-in-your-marriage-because-you-cant-survive-without-it-youre/1708280149280788/.