In my past post, “My Take on the Joseph L. Bishop Scandal, and Steps We Can Take to Better Help Victims and Reduce the Threat of Abuse in the Church,” I expressed my desires for resolution to the scandal and expressed sympathy for the victim who is raising serious charges about an event that took place 30 years ago. The woman, McKenna Denson, recently escalated attention to her case by walking to the pulpit in Joey Bishop’s ward in Arizona to make public accusations against him. Ouch. Regardless of the truthfulness of her accusations, this is clearly the wrong forum to raise them and creates a truly difficult situation for the bishopric in charge of running a religious service that is meant to be spiritually uplifting and at a minimum must be a safe, family-appropriate environment for those attending. So what is a bishop to do when someone takes the pulpit to lash out at another member and make accusations of rape or other crimes? Just cringe and smile?
The current Handbook of Instructions does not seem to provide guidance on these kind of situations. There is guidance about helping to correct serious doctrinal errors that might come over the pulpit with gentle clarifying statements if needed, while always seeking to avoid embarrassment and so forth. But when someone misuses a sacrament service to attack another member or make criminal charges or raise other topics that are clearly in appropriate and possibly severely damaging to other members, what should leaders do? In this case they asked her politely to stop, and when she didn’t, they escorted her away from the pulpit. But this escorting involved touching her to move her away. This led to McKenna stating that they were assaulting her and has led to condemnation of the men for their insensitivity and harsh treatment as they “dragged” her away. “Dragged” strikes me as an inappropriate word for what I have seen. It better describes the Untied Airlines moment when an uncooperative passenger was pulled out of his seen and off the plane, but not the much gentler effort to get an uncooperative person away from the pulpit. But should a different approach have been taken?
I think Ward Councils should spend some time discussing how to prepare for similar events in the future. It’s not an academic exercise. Similar inappropriate events can occur from time to time, and pose some of the most difficult scenarios for church leaders.
In my service as a bishop, I faced some difficult situations where I wondered if I should interrupt and stop someone from continuing, and a time or two did so in the gentlest way I could think of (I think I said something like, “we’re short on time, could you briefly share your testimony and wrap up in a few seconds?”). But I did not face the nightmare situation of having accusations of terrible crimes levied against a fellow member sitting in the audience. What would I have done? With the publicity and support the victim has received for her stunt in Arizona, I think similar tactics may be tried again by others. Latter-day Saint congregations need to have a thoughtful, cautious plan in place to cope with disruption, ideally one that won’t look bad on YouTube and won’t give the accuser the chance to claim that she was assaulted by men who dragged her away from the pulpit. But what to do?
One suggestion to consider is this: After politely asking the person two or three times to please stop, if they continue, then 1) turn the microphone off and 2) go into a loud hymn with enough verses to give the accuser time to realize that he or she is not going to be allowed to continue speaking to a captive audience. If they persist, then at the conclusion of the hymn, announce that sacrament meeting is over for now and we will now move into classes (or perhaps have a 15 minute break and then resume, giving time for police to come help). You could also announce that those who want to hear the details of the accusation can join the accuser for a press conference to be held later at a nearby park. Do it all in a calm voice, with a smile. After all, you are probably being filmed.
Don’t attempt to physically escort the person. Don’t push, don’t touch, don’t drag, don’t carry. Be absolutely aware that the disruptor will have friends filming every moment of the event and that whatever you do may be projected in the worse possible light, so act with great caution and respect. If by chance they strike at you, then flinch, duck, move away, but don’t use any serious self-defense tactics other than fleeing unless there is genuine risk of physical harm. Don’t shout even if they do. As much as possible, respect the person, stay out of their personal space, try to avoid heated confrontation, but if they insist on disrupting, close the meeting and move on. Splitting up into classes takes away the excitement of having a large audience. If they want to move into Gospel Doctrine class and continue the accusations, at least they won’t be doing that in front of the young children, and frankly, only a tiny fraction of most wards ever seem to make it into Gospel Doctrine, so any harm there is minimized.
That’s just my suggestion. I think Ward Councils should discuss this scenario and bishoprics or branch presidencies should use that input to have a plan in mind so that they can act with calmness and love when a nightmarish scene erupts. And yes, remember that however angry and unhinged the disruptor may seem, what that person is saying may be completely true and may need careful action, so please be sure to ask to meet with the person immediately to more fully understand the charges, and be open to the fact that what is being said may be real and serious, however preposterous it may seem at first. On the other hand, all of us also need to emphasize the role of due process and recognize that some accusations are only partially correct and others are entirely fabricated. In this case, I remain sympathetic to McKenna and what she has suffered, and believe something serious occurred, but wish she had not disrupted a sacrament service in this case. The ends do not justify the means.
We will occasionally see more extreme attempts at abusing the pulpit in our sacrament meetings. It’s vital that we be ready in order to keep our cool, respond in love (not only for the accuser, but also for the accused!), but also respect the sacred nature of sacrament services and keep them uplifting, family-friendly, and safe.
Scenarios we should consider include anti-Mormon critics looking for a chance to attack some aspect of the Church, angry people lashing out at an ex-spouse, people expressing hate toward other members or even non-members (politicians included), and many other antics that can derail an uplifting sacred service. Have a plan to respond gently and also take some steps to explain ahead of time where the limits are so members will be less likely to unknowingly violate our expectations for sacrament meetings.
One final hint. When someone approaches the stand and suddenly a bunch of cell phones go up to record the incident, know that something is about to happen. Smile. Be on your best behavior. Take a deep breath and begin a silent prayer for guidance. You are about to be on a potentially viral Youtube video. The actions you take next may be used to judge the Church by millions of others, so handle the crisis well. It may be hymn time any moment. Pick one that sounds good.