CW: discussion of violence and sexual assault
Midway through my mission, I was transferred into an area and took over teaching the new member discussions to a recent convert, a young single mother with one child. The father of her baby was an immigrant who had married a local in order to get citizenship; he had never slept with the woman he married or even lived in the same house with her, but he had to maintain his “marriage” on paper in order to stay in the country. Because of this, he could not marry our recent convert, the mother of his child. This situation was, sadly, quite common.
Shortly after she was baptized, he came over to her apartment uninvited, drunk, and raving, and slapped her around. I do not know what he was angry about, but she showed me the bruises on her body. Later that night, they slept together.
My companion and I only learned about the incident because we reviewed chastity issues as we taught her the new member discussions with the ward mission leader and his wife, and our new convert brought it up. The ward mission leader and his wife promptly went and told the bishop, who came, asked her about it, and immediately convened a church disciplinary court and disfellowshipped her. She was brand new in the church, a convert of less than a month, and did not understand what was happening at all; she asked me and my companion what disfellowshipping meant and was obviously very confused and humiliated.
It was only later, as we three women talked about it, that she started recounting the circumstances of that night, and I found myself gravely concerned. A man who comes over drunk and violent is not a man who is likely to accept a sexual refusal. I felt, as I spoke with her, that the situation was far from clear in terms of consent. I do not think that he actually physically forced her during the sex act, but given the fact that he had just slapped her around hard enough to leave multiple bruises on her body – bruises that still showed a couple of weeks later – I do not think it could be described as a consensual encounter. I think that after he hit her and calmed down he started coming on to her sexually and she did not feel that he would give her the option of refusing. Not one of these details was considered in the disciplinary court. She was not asked, and I don’t think it occurred to her to tell.
After being disfellowshipped she went inactive.
This is a situation that still haunts me ten years later. I found myself thinking that, clearly, unquestionably, some women should have been consulted. This seems an obvious example of the problem of having only men involved in running church courts; something like psychological coercion was not even considered. It also underscored to me how much less sister missionaries work with ward leadership; Elders in my mission would interview converts for baptism, perform the baptismal ordinance, and often would act as a liaison between new converts and the ward leadership. They were frequently both asked and informed about issues relating to new converts and church governance and leadership. My companion and I, because we had no formal position in the hierarchy, were mostly left in the dark. Furthermore, we were discouraged from interfering in ward matters.
I’m curious for others’ experiences with church courts, particularly courts in which women were disciplined. Have you or someone you know had similar experiences? Do you think that there is a way that women could be consulted for church courts, particularly when they involve issues relating to sex, sexuality, and gender? On a more hopeful note, does the new influx of sister missionaries likely presage a coming increase in women’s leadership roles at the ward, stake, or mission levels, including having a voice in courts? (Could it be a coming corrective to problems like these?) I am also, quite frankly, interested to know if readers have found church courts healing and useful. Perhaps the problem is not the lack of women’s involvement – perhaps the problem is convening a court at all.
I hope it goes without saying, but please be sensitive in the comments.