I’ve struggled with grief and anger for the past couple of days after reading reports regarding a former mission president of the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, Joey L. Bishop (served 1983 to 86), who appears to have confessed to sexual misconduct involving a sister missionary there long ago, who states that he attempted to rape her. The grief is for the victim, whose life was adversely affected by the devastating betrayal and attack. The anger is for the harm done to so many others as well and for the Church fas a whole by this terrible crime. This hurts all of us. Each of our sins hurts others in various ways, but sins of this nature are horrifically harmful in many ways.
To my surprise, at least some of the media coverage on this story has taken a relatively soft approach in describing the story. One report I read from a FoxNews source spoke of the report as if it were uncertain allegations in need of further verification. But after reading the transcript of the Dec. 2017 audio recording the victim made in a conversation with Bishop, it seems to me that we have a reasonably clear confession of seriously inappropriate behavior, even if he didn’t know he was being recorded initially. Granted, he doesn’t explicitly say just what he did to her and his memory was cloudy regarding her, but he does admit to having molested another specific woman and does not object when the woman discusses details of what happened with him. And he admits there were others. So unless there is some reason to believe that the recording is a sophisticated forgery or that words were inserted that Bishop didn’t say, the recording seems like clear evidence that should not require any further analysis to denounce Bishop and ensure that he is promptly excommunicated, if that hasn’t happened already.
Of course, this is terribly painful for the family and all those close to Bishop. Bishop was not only the mission president over the MTC, but previously served as the President of Weber State College. This is a highly respected and well-connected man, and those who know and love him may naturally be tempted to dismiss the allegations. This is normal, but for the good of many others, courage is needed to face the brutal possibility that something worse than minor mistakes were made by a man merely struggling with impure thoughts. His recorded conversation supports a much more troubling scenario. Many may be in denial, including Bishop himself, but his own testimony and the testimony now of at least two women demands attention and action.
Does Bishop deny that the recording took place or does he claim some parts of it were deceptively edited? I am not sure. That issue should be easy to address if so. Editing an audio recording can leave some of the same clues you see in Photoshopped images (audio analogs to sudden changes in lighting, strange boundaries between portions of an image, other evidences of cut and paste work, etc.). Should take a few hours or perhaps a few days to resolve that issue, if attorneys or others have raised it.
The Church has made a cautious press release regarding the incident. It says some important things, such as the fact that as soon as these allegations were made to local Church leaders in 2010, the matter was reported to the police:
This matter was brought to
the attention of the Church in 2010, when this former Church member, who
served briefly as a missionary in 1984, told leaders of the Pleasant
Grove Utah West Stake that she had been sexually assaulted by the
president of the Provo Missionary Training Center, Joseph Bishop, 25
years earlier. They listened carefully to the claims being made and then
this was immediately reported to the Pleasant Grove Police Department,
and the police interviewed her at that time. The Church does not know
what she said in that interview, but the Church received no further
communication from the police concerning the matter.
At the same time, the
Church referred these allegations to the local ecclesiastical leaders of
Joseph Bishop. Those leaders met with Mr. Bishop, who denied the
allegations. Unable to verify the allegations, they did not impose any
formal Church discipline on Mr. Bishop at that time.
That’s good. The police found no reason to pursue it the case, though, and the Church leaders could not resolve the issue on their own given the conflicting testimony. Yes, there is a real risk of people making false accusations, so it would seem inappropriate to discipline a man with a seemingly stellar reputation because one person makes an accusation. Caution is needed and we cannot automatically assume that those making allegations are correct, but we must hear them and take them seriously. So I can understand the result of not finding sufficient cause for disciplinary action. But could more have been done? Here I speak as an outsider with no firm knowledge of the case, so forgive me and correct me if I ask questions or say things that are foolish and irrelevant.
As for further actions that might be helpful, was the victim carefully interviewed to see if her story was credible? And was Bishop carefully interrogated in light of information from the woman? For example, in the audio recording, she talks about a basement room that Bishop led her to where the crime occurred and his response seems to confirm its existence. Does such a room exist? Can she describe what it looks like, etc.? Is this something missionaries would normally know about? Was the MTC contacted to learn about this room and its purpose? Was there any legitimate reason for a young missionary to be taken to such a room? This kind of questioning could help reveal that the woman was there, when she should never have been in such a place unless something inappropriate were happening. I fear that local Church leaders might lean too heavily on the legal process or their own first impressions (a very natural thing — see Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow) instead of thinking carefully about the evidence on their own. As for relying on police input or results of legal trials, we need to remember that what is wrong in terms of LDS standards can be miles apart from what is required for a legal conviction.
As for the first effort at a statement by the Church, to my ears, it sounds heavily influenced by lawyers possibly worried about saying too much about a case that is in the middle of litigation and negotiations. Naturally, the lawyers want caution. And no lawyer wants much to be said about a case where any statement could be a hammer against you in court. However, from my perspective (again, speaking without knowledge of what may be many relevant details of the case, of the law, and of the people involved), there may be bigger issues than the size of the settlement. The focus should be — and I believe it genuinely is in the inner halls of the Church — on eradicating risks of abuse and fixing whatever sloppiness exists in how the Church responds to allegations of abuse. That focus needs to be made more clear and more visible, in my opinion.
The police investigation got nowhere, but now the woman has created what appears to be compelling evidence, namely, a vocal confession showing that Bishop was guilty of sexual abuse. If the audio recording is undisputed, then it strikes me as a prima facie case that immediate disciplinary action is needed. Yes, I know some things take time and that there may be complex details to sort through, but based on what I and the world can see, it looks like we have an indisputable need for a disciplinary court and some frank talk about the strong evidence of serious misconduct in Bishop’s case. With that in mind, I can understand why many people are frustrated or furious with the opening lines of the press statement:
These allegations are very serious and deeply disturbing. If the
allegations of sexual assault are true, it would be a tragic betrayal of
our standards and would result in action by the Church to formally
discipline any member who was guilty of such behavior, especially
someone in a position of trust.
To me, that makes sense if there are serious reasons to question the audio recording or the most disturbing portions of it. That question may have been unanswered when the release was made and may take time, but it should not take much time. I hope we can have an update swiftly. If the tape and the transcript are accurate, then I hope we can be informed shortly of the appropriate actions that have been taken to discipline Bishop and will be taken to reduce these risks in the future.
I hope the next update on this matter is written by someone who has struggled with the grief and anger this crime should cause, someone whose family has been afflicted with abuse or perhaps someone with a daughter or granddaughter contemplating service as a missionary, someone filled with the passionate desire to ensure that no saint-turned-monster can so easily commit such crimes and get away with that for so long.
Things are often more complicated than I think, so there may be some critical issues that need more time to deal with this situation more fully. There may be other parties that need to be reached and other work before key steps are taken. There may be a host of issues at hand. But where we stand right now leaves faithful, loyal saints as well as outsiders confused and perhaps angered. More information and perhaps more action is needed. If there’s a reasonable case for disregarding the apparent confession on the audio tape, it would be very helpful to know. Otherwise we hope for an updated statement and discussion of next steps.
Why did the police not pursue this matter more thoroughly when it was reported? One plausible reason may be seen in the March 21 news report, “Family of former LDS mission president accused of sexual assault responds to allegations,” where the family claims that there are police reports showing that this woman has previously made false accusations of sexual assault against others. That kind of credibility-destroying track record may make it easy for police to ignore another accusation. If that is true, however, I would point out that victims of sexual assault often have pretty painful lives with lots of anger, pain, and sometimes serious bad behavior. But no amount of past sins on her part should destroy the reality of what is on that tape and what she experienced at the hands of Joey Bishop, if, again, the tape is real and undisputed or indisputable. In fact, her ability to keep her cool and obtain an audio recording from her assailant may be a very positive step for her and for her healing. May she find healing. May future missionaries and all members find safety and security in the Church. May perpetrators be swiftly disciplined, even when they are our friends.
One of the hardest things in the world is taking steps to discipline or punish a friend. This includes the church leader who can’t believe an accusation against his trusted friend or relative as well as the young person who dares now report that her uncle tried to molest her, for she knows it could destroy his family.
While we wait for Church-wide changes that may come from this tragedy, there are things we can do now with our local units and families to reduce risk.
1. Young people, missionaries, and all of us need to understand that even people we think are very good can fall and do bad things. Thus, we all need to understand our rights and avoid situations that are risky. We should help our kids understand they have options and can turn down offers or invitations that might put them in a risky setting. Interviews should have someone outside the door, an important role of bishopric members, for example, in facilitating interviews, and the person being interviewed should be seated closest to the door (basic advice I received when I was bishop). A lone young person should not be given rides by lone adults, etc. Raising awareness of threats is one step that is needed in this sometimes ugly world where “you cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous” (Doctrine and Covenants 10:27).
2. Create safe channels to report trouble. We need to have people in each stake or district that can be open-minded, trustworthy sources to report potential problems. People who are aware of the risks of abuse and will carefully listen to what victims have to say and can work with them to raise concerns. Victims need to know they can be heard. I welcome thoughts on how best to do this. Perhaps a man and a woman in each district can be named.
3. Have frank discussions with members (especially parents) about the dangers and steps we can take to reduce risks. We need to make it clear that we are serious about stamping out abuse, and that abusers cannot expect to get away with their crimes by looking righteous and acting spiritual. Awareness and vigilance will help keep our members safer.
4. In sustaining officers at ward and stake conferences, when we ask “if there are any opposed, please show by the same sign (raising the right hand),” it would be helpful to add a clarifying statement like this:
Brother and sisters, we try to seek revelation when making callings, but don’t always get things right and don’t always know what needs to be known. Being given a calling is no guarantee of goodness, and sometimes we need your input to correct a mistake or prevent harm to others. Of course, we recognize that it may be very difficult to publicly raise one’s hand when one is aware that a leader being sustained has a serious problem that might make it wrong to put him or her in a particular calling, especially when sensitive issues of abuse might be involved. Thus, if there are sensitive issues that should be raised for anyone in a position of influence in the Church, you may privately and confidentially inform us so that these matters can be considered and further explored if needed. While we all want the best from those who serve and all want to be united in serving with each other in love and unity, there are sometimes dangerous threats in this difficult world. We want our members to be safe and free from abuse or other dangers. So if you have such information, please contact us privately. Trusted points of contact include our Stake President, our Stake Relief Society President, our Bishop and our Ward Relief Society President [for example — giving both trusted male and female contacts]. Less efficient but more comfortable might be use of the Church’s new Whisteblower site [I am just throwing out a crazy idea here — of course this would be a difficult thing to do, but it could play a role], where you can submit information that should be considered regarding a potential predator or abuser.
I expect this terrible incident will lead to increased attention being given to the training of leaders in the Church and perhaps new mechanisms to better protect members. One of the frustrating things about this case is that the woman attempted several times over the years to report the matter, but it seems that in some cases proper follow up did not occur. She says that she spoke with now-deceased Elder Carlos Asay and had an assurance that he would contact Bishop and investigate, but that apparently did not happen, according to Bishop. Maybe it did and Bishop lied about this, but he is rather frank and even somewhat penitent in the recorded conversation. But clearly, more thorough investigation could have been done. It is very natural, unfortunately, to not trust someone making what seems like wild claims about a trusted leader or friend. We need increased awareness of the reality of hidden abuse in order to take such things much more seriously. We need stronger tools and better mechanisms.
One further thing I think would help the Church is to have a way to share information about allegations involving members. It looks like at least two different women have come forward with related accusations against Joseph Bishop, but the allegations seem to have been handled by different units. Had it been known that similar reports had been previously made elsewhere, it might have prompted more serious investigation. This is very sensitive, of course, but may be a basic part of assessing potential problems that are not easy to resolve individually. Perhaps all reports made to any leader could be entered into a confidential section linked to the leader’s membership record that could be reviewed by a panel. A report that seems incredible and lacking evidence could suddenly become much more significant when a similar report comes in from another possible victim somewhere else, even years later. Being able to collect and review data about allegations of abuse could help the Church know when there is a potential problem that needs more thorough investigation.
So much pain for all of us. May we succeed in reducing these risks in this messy world.
Finally, may we all seek charity as we deal with this and other cases. Anger alone is poor medicine for the wounds that have occurred, though righteous indignation is surely needed. We need charity for the victims. It is hard to underestimate how devastating an incident of abuse can be, especially at the hands of a beloved authority figure. It can devastate the self-worth of the victim and lead to so many problems throughout life. Love them and help minister to them and protect them. We need charity for the vulnerable members of the Church who may be at risk when there are predators in their midst, and through that charity, we can take steps in our wards and stakes to reduce risk and keep our people safe. We need charity for the perpetrator, though justice must be done for such serious crimes. We need charity for his family and awareness of the pain they feel, even if they remain in denial of what may be difficult to deny. We need charity for LDS leaders who may have heard reports of abuse and did not understand the need to take it more seriously. Perhaps some of them will now be able to get past the natural blindness we have for the flaws of those we love and trust. And let us not forget charity for our critics, who have been given a new megaphone to denounce the Church and its leaders. They are not the main problem here; the problem is within and is more than just one flawed saint with a dangerous addiction. The anger and concerns of some who dislike the Church should help move us forward to correct flaws. We can listen and understand the sense of betrayal that some can feel in this case and take stronger steps now to make the Church a safer place in a dangerous world.
Update, March 26, 2018: Many people have wondered why the victim waited so long. It was over 30 years ago that the alleged crime took place. Why wait if this was real?
As I explained in a comment to this post, there are many reasons why victims might wait years to tell their story. They may feel threatened. They may wish to protect someone who would be hurt with a prompt report. They may feel responsible and guilty for someone else’s sin and need time to understand what to do. They may not yet understand that there are other victims and others that need to be protected by taking action against the perpetrator. They may be mentally devastated and unwilling to talk to others about it. They may fear the pain of being interviewed and grilled by skeptical police and attorneys for the perpetrator. Some go into denial for years or even suffer from serious mental conditions that shield the memory.
I have some experience as a highly unqualified leader and friend in counseling/trying to help a victim of many acts of abuse who suffered from what I would call a severe form of multiple personality disorder. This was in parallel to professional counseling from a skilled counselor. I went from being completely skeptical about the disorder to sheer amazement at the severity of this very real condition, apparently part of a desperate built-in defensive mechanism perhaps that helped a young girl cope with unbearable betrayal for many years. I came to realize that the distressed woman before me was one of the greatest women I know or have ever met. She continues to do so much good in the world and I marvel at what she has overcome through her courage and through the ongoing healing power of Jesus Christ. I look forward to the publication of her book that may greatly advance our understanding of what victims experience, what can happen to them in extreme cases, and what can help them move forward. That’s another story, and for me it was a story that involves some of the most surprising and occasionally miraculous experiences in my life. God’s love for his children who are victims of abuse is far greater than we can imagine, and helping them to consciously sense and understand that love may be one of our important tasks in supporting victims. It can take years, many decades sometimes, for a victim to be ready to fully address what has happened to them. Patience is always the key.
But in this case, the victim of the former MTC president did not wait until 2018 but took rapid action. She did not wait! Very soon after the devastating attack, she reported the crime. She has been telling her story for over 30 years — and like many young victims of trusted, well-connected, highly respected prominent elites in any society, the accusations from a troubled young stranger were not taken seriously. It is too easy to ignore a victim of someone who is powerful and respected in the community. This is not a uniquely Mormon problem. It is not just a Catholic problem. It is a problem across our entire society, across human civilization, and if we are to be civilized, we must learn to better protect and listen to victims when our immediate instinct might be to ignore them or even to punish them. It’s no wonder that many victims stay silent.
A very frank report from one of the first to hear her accusations comes from her former bishop in a single adults ward, Ron Leavitt. Though I sorrow that he did not see the need for action (this, like other missed opportunities to deal with this sooner, is the natural result of human nature, not a massive cover-up in the Church or some evil conspiracy), I also thank him for his forthright admission, from which we can readily understand the kind of thing that the victim probably faced many times — until she finally took matters in her own hands with a gutsy encounter and an audio recording. Here is an excerpt from the KUTV News story, “Woman who accused MTC president of sexual assault has been telling her story for 3 decades“:
When you ask the former bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints, Ron Leavitt, about the recent allegations against former MTC mission president, he says he remembers them vividly.
“Oh heavens yes,” Leavitt said as he recalls what he was told in 1984. Leavitt was a single ward president from 1979 to 1985 and said during his regular post-church meetings with parishioners, a woman told him that Joseph Bishop, a former president of the Missionary Training Center, had acted inappropriately with her. “According to her he took (her) and I think another sister missionary down to the basement and showed them some pornography,” Leavitt explained.
When asked if he reported the incident to the police or the leadership of the LDS Church Leavitt said he did not. “I didn’t think it had much credence. I wasn’t going to risk sullying the reputation of someone based on that kind of a report,” Leavitt said.
It’s a simple as that. No evil intent on his part. No secret call from the Deseret Star Chamber to threaten him to keep quiet. Just ordinary human nature, what Daniel Kahneman would call a quick “System 1” snap decision driven by our emotions and biases. A respected, senior leader is the subject of wild accusations from a troubled woman. Really? The MTC president raped you? In a secret basement room? Right. But now we learn that such accusations need to be taken more seriously and that the natural tendency to doubt accusations against trusted friends or leaders might need to be resisted long enough to get further information or to make a report to proper authorities. And yes, that’s easy for me to say, but there may be scenarios for me someday where I just can’t believe something crazy that needs to be listened to in all seriousness. May I have the wisdom and patience to listen then.
Update, March 27: See the following post,
Church’s New Policy on Personal Interviews in the Church and New
Guidance on Preventing Abuse: Welcome Steps in a Messy World.” The new policies are incorporated in a document on preventing abuse, which will be in the official handbook used by leaders. Also see my post of March 26, “When a Victim of Abuse Cries For Help: The Perspective Needed to Be a Modern Good Samaritan.”