Trigger Warning: Sexual abuse/rape
I was fifteen. She was five. She described in graphic detail how her father had intercourse with her. What did I do? What did I do? There followed two months of intense panic where I didn’t eat and barely slept. I knew CPS existed but I didn’t have the phone book for her area. (This was pre-internet.) I knew from friends’ experiences that calling the police was useless. I knew that my family couldn’t help her. I told some friends and a teacher and asked what to do. They didn’t know either. They also told me that while child molestation occurs, it was very rare and she was probably lying.
If I wanted to be charitable to myself, I could say that they convinced me. But I can’t give myself that peace. I knew she was telling the truth. I kept that rape silent and I knew the whole time how awful that choice was. I literally didn’t know what else to do. Some people might want to offer people like me a millstone. But if you have ever walked this path, you might understand that maybe Jesus said that out of empathy. Maybe he knew that someone might want to be drowned instead of being in that situation.
My lack of knowledge was not because no one would talk about rape. We talked about it all the time in Young Women’s. We were told that if we wore short skirts, we would probably be raped. We were told that if we necked (whatever that was) we would be raped. At one point I was even told that if I talked to non-Mormon guys I would probably be raped at knife point. (Don’t ask, I still haven’t figured out the point of that lesson.) The bottom line was that if I put one toe out of line, I could expect violent and degrading sexual assault.
So why, at fifteen, did I not have the number of a rape crisis hotline? At one point I, and 20 other girls, got a starched and ironed white handkerchiefs with a cutesy poem for a chastity lesson. It was color-printed which cost a dollar a sheet back in the 80s. But no preparation to deal with our inevitable rapes?
On February 1st , the church highlighted an old press release, “Effectiveness of Church Approach to Preventing Child Abuse.” This has led to lots of online discussion of how the preparation of bishops and other youth leaders can be brought up to a “gold standard”. Many have suggested that background checks would curtail the problem of child abuse in the LDS church. Let me put things in perspective: I was a foster parent for about three years. I was background-checked, had to write a detailed and thoughtful discipline plan, and was interrogated very uncomfortably about any abuse I might have experienced. But very few people think “anti-abuse gold standard” when they hear “foster parent.” My background process wasn’t the “gold standard” it is barely the plastic standard. The gold standard hasn’t been invented yet.
It’s tempting to say that if there were women apostles, issues like these would be on the leaders’ radar screens. While women as a whole may be more aware of abuse and assault, let’s remember that it was women leaders who gave me an unrealistic view of rape and ill-prepared me to protect the little girl I baby-sat.
So when I visit this subject, I won’t just ask where the women or minority apostles are. I’m going to ask: why we don’t have social worker apostles along with the surgeons? Why don’t we have school teachers along with the educational administrators? Why don’t we have police officers with the judges? Why don’t we have apostles who have worked as a full-time child care providers, summer camp counselors, or coaches? Why don’t we have apostles who were born into poverty in developing nations and who have watched their governments clean out the crumbs of nepotism, abuse, and injustice? Such people make for good conference talks. Why can’t we hear conference talks from them?
I don’t talk about this much because people tell me to get over it and to stop blaming myself. This little girl struggled with demons through high school, adulthood and was eventually institutionalized long-term. It wasn’t a little passing trauma for her. I don’t let it poison my life. But I am also not ready to smooth it out or sugar-coat it and make myself feel better. I want the memory to stay ugly because I am afraid that I might conclude that there really was nothing I could do. Maybe I’d pat myself on the back and give myself a gold standard star.
When the Saints were scratching a living in the Utah desert, they built the acoustic wonder called a Salt Lake tabernacle. They built it without nails. When I was a child, this building symbolized that my parents had adopted a religion that was committed to innovation and thinking outside the box. The church has everything and everyone within its membership to build a gold standard for child protection. But we can’t do the same thing year after year or follow the same old patterns. They never would have finished the tabernacle if they had said, “Hey, we need more nails over here.” We will never build the gold standard if we look for the same kinds of leaders over and over again.