Friday, February 9, 2018

The Soft Underbelly: Rob Porter and the Mormon Connection

Last night, I watched a fascinating, compelling and heart-wrenching interview on Anderson Cooper's show on CNN of Jennie Willoughby, ex-wife of the White House official Rob Porter who recently resigned over allegations of spousal abuse that had apparently been swept under the rug by one or more officials in the White House.

Rob Porter was/is a Mormon. Jennie Willoughby was/is a Mormon. I am writing this post not to comment on the political ramifications of the Rob Porter story, but to comment on another side of this story: the way the allegations against him were handled by Porter's and Willoughby's Mormon ecclesiastical leaders and what that says about what, for lack of a better term, I'll call the "soft underbelly" of the Mormon Church/world. For context, the Salt Lake Tribune ran a story about this that can be found here. In a nutshell, Willoughby's bishop counseled her, when she went to him to tell him about the abuse she was experiencing, to be mindful of her husband's "position": chief of staff to Senator Orrin Hatch.

Let me just say at the outset that I rarely write about the Mormon Church anymore or about my experience with it. But watching Jennie Willoughby courageously and eloquently tell her story prompted me to write this post.

The Mormon Church (LDS - Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) has a lay priesthood. Local pastors (bishops) are not professional clergy. They are men (the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Church  is exclusively male) who have professional careers in law, business, medicine or whatever, who are "called" (appointed) to lead a congregation (ward) of Mormons by men who are higher up in the hierarchy (stake presidents, who are also lay leaders, called to serve in their positions) to serve for a specific period of time to serve in leadership positions. 

During the 25+ years I was an active member of the Mormon Church, I knew many fine men who served as bishops as well as stake presidents (men who preside over a group of wards, roughly analogous to a Catholic bishop who presides over a group of parishes). I had and still have a great deal of respect for some of these men, and for one bishop in particular who sincerely, humbly and valiantly tried to do what he could to salvage my marriage with my ex-wife (way before I came out).

But. I have also had several experiences with some of these men that left me feeling bewildered, hurt, exasperated, angry and disgusted. I have previously written about some of these experiences. There was, for example, the story of when I was a law school student and a young husband and I felt I should tell my bishop that I struggled with same-sex attraction, even though I was married and was serving in a leadership position myself in my ward. As I wrote in a blog post shortly after I came out (when I trying, in some ways for the very first time, to make sense of the past 30-40 years of my life), I was disappointed and bewildered by my conversation with my bishop. I didn't blame him; but he obviously didn't have a clue how to handle what I had confided in him. He had, undoubtedly, received *zero* training in how to handle such a situation.

Fast forward to when I came out. A year later, in the midst of my divorce from my ex-wife, one of my daughters was married in the Salt Lake Temple. I was not allowed to witness that ceremony because I was not "temple-worthy" and could not enter the temple. I participated in the event to the extent I could, but it was not until over a year and a half later that I learned about an experience my daughter had had when she met with the local stake president, a requirement before she could marry in the temple. I wrote about that experience and that revelation here. Basically, my daughter was told by her stake president (who had formerly been my stake president) that she could not in any way support my "lifestyle" and my relationship with Mark and remain in good standing in the LDS Church (or get married to her husband in the temple). As I wrote in my post, even after all I had been through by that point, I was aghast at the frontal assault this leader had made, in the name of "love," on behalf of a Church that is supposed to be all about families, on my relationship with my daughter.

There are other examples. One pertains to a very pointed letter I wrote (after I had come out and divorced) to a former ward member who had made sexually threatening remarks to some of my young children, telling the individual I would pursue legal action under Utah's criminal code if this conduct persisted. When the local bishop--who knew of the behavior--learned of my letter, he was extremely dismayed, fearing the person would be "offended," and told my ex-wife she should have made a batch of muffins and given them to the individual as a "peace offering" (!). 

Many people in the LDS Church have been offended, hurt and mistreated by local church leaders. This is common knowledge. However, the response by leaders of the Church at large and locally has universally been to say, "People make mistakes. Leaders are human. It is the responsibility of the aggrieved member to forgive the leader because they (the leaders) are called of God." Just the fact that all of these leaders are men helps create the environment within the Church that men can get a pass for bad behavior.

This is a huge part of the soft underbelly of the Mormon Church. And it needs to change. There is a culture within the Church that makes the comments made by Jennie Willoughby's bishop to her entirely believable. In response to the Tribune article, a spokesman for the Church said that abuse is not tolerated. This is to be expected. Yet there is also an unspoken culture within the Mormon Church and world that allows local leaders, whether out of ignorance, patriarchy, intolerance, homophobia, blind obedience or zeal, to sometimes make grievous errors. I have experienced this. Jennie Willoughby experienced this. My children have experienced this. Many, many Mormon families have experienced this. 

It needs to change.

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