Zelophehad’s Daughters

The Problem of Women and Church Courts

Posted by Galdralag

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.

29 Responses to “The Problem of Women and Church Courts”

  1. 1.

    This is an example of poor judgment by a bishop. Even if there were no consent issue, a disciplinary council is not required in these circumstances, and a fair reading of the handbook would lead a reasonable person to conclude to respond to this matter in a more subtle and nuanced way than a council.

  2. 2.

    I think the Bishop should be put out to pasture and left there, what a tragedy. Something I didn’t know until awhile ago was that my Mum was a chaperone of sorts in a church court for a lady. This lady was asked by someone to bring a friend to sit in on the proceedings and my mum was told to keep quiet about what was said it sounded like a positive experience given the circumstances, so I think it depends on who is presiding.

  3. 3.

    So sad.

  4. 4.

    I find it massively wrong that women are barred from major decisions in church administration – and culture and related organizations – just because they are female. But removing gender slightly from the question (and I say this as an ardent OW supporter and member), the problem isn’t just that courts and councils are missing a specifically female POV, it’s that they’re potentially missing literally half of the POVs of the *entire population.*

    While not a church court, I sat on a BYU disciplinary council once – I was the required student member, I had been volunteered by my on campus job’s department whose turn it was to supply a student for such things.

    There were three of us, and I was one of two women, but I still felt the combined weight of my youth and femininity against me in discussions concerning the case. In the end (surprise surprise) I was the dissenting voice and much of my dissent came from my perspective as a young female.

    I’m sure I annoyed the heck out of the other two participants in the group, and in the end because we were unable to form a unanimous decision it was passed up the chain of authority. But I was able to speak for myself and submit my opinions in writing knowing that they would have to be reviewed and weighed, on the record, before a decision was made.

    I felt I had something to contribute that added options and nuance to the case. I refused to bow to pressure to just form a unanimous decision. As a result, though I never learned the outcome, the individuals case was more deeply and personally reviewed than anyone had been doing prior. Yes, my POV was influenced by my gender and experience as pertained to the subject matter of the case, which I think is important, but it was also influenced by my own life experience, including that as a current student at BYU. Which the other two members did not share.

    I was in the gender majority on my council, and my perspective was still unique. And I believe my perspective had value and had a right to be expressed when making a decision that would significantly impact an individual’s personal and spiritual life.

  5. 5.

    This is such a tragic story. I agree wholeheartedly that women should have been consulted–should always be consulted–and not just consulted, but a part of the regular administrative order of things. I do think it would help outcomes.

    Not to throw a wrench in the works, but to me this story is also illustrative of some of the problems that arise from having an entirely lay ministry. I know as a church we tend to be very proud of unpaid lay leadership, but I think as a people we suffer greatly from not having clergy leaders with real training. I know most bishops, etc. are well-meaning, but very few have any real training in counseling or pastoral care, and frankly a lot of the times it shows. I think it’s one of the things that contributes to what I perceive as a kind of corporate feel in the church–leadership positions end up being more about administering, following the handbook, etc. I just can’t help but think (hope?) that a clergy person with more training and experience in pastoral counseling would have been able to effect a better outcome for this sister (not to mention for a host of others dealing with challenges).

  6. 6.

    I have been ex’d twice, and baptised three times. I am a ‘very norti boy’ as they say in the classics.
    I take no pride in my experience in this matter (though just a tad of flippancy).
    After separating from my ex wife I was disfellowshiped. After moving on to another relationship (which began after our separation), I was ex’d. My ex wife moved on from our relationship also, met a new guy, had a child, and no church discipline what so ever.
    This illustrates something I have felt for some time: women face a different standard when facing church discipline. But I concede my bredth of knowledge on this is limited.
    My own experience is that the process is NOT healing. I live in OZ. So the depth of leadership and avaliability may be less than it is in Zion (cough). But I certainly felt that though the bretheren were well meaning, and while I certainly felt their love, promises were made on their part (in both instances) that were not kept. Perhaps its purpose was to give me the chance to build my own strength, but despite never missing church or going less active, I never received home teachers. A basic. My only contact in my own home was the missionaries (God bless you. you know who you are). I never dissapeared. But I felt like I never seen; either at home, or seen while I was at church. Five years after my baptism, I have still to have a calling, have only been invited to give one talk, and one prayer. And trust me, my ward in is NOT overlowing with numbers.

    As to women having greater representation on church courts: surely this is a no brainer. The horror story shared by Galdralag just serves to prove the point.

    Women in positions of authority: As a bloke, I say bring it on. ITS OVERDUE!

  7. 7.

    members can invite anyone they want to come with them and support and speak for them in a church court, male of female =the new member you mentioned clearly needed someone, probably you to represent and support her but how was she to know that being new Glad to see that more and more training is being given to priesthood leadership and more situation are being directed to professional counselors. Big problem area I see is why the ward mission leader and HIS Wife felt they had run to the Bishop instead of providing support for the sister. . A little support for #6 sad but true there are unnoticed members- our family is often the ones not visited, not included- I have a quiet inverted son who has never served in any calling even Aaronic priesthood quorum and scouting stuff, never been asked to give a talk or prayer and no home teacher visit either. As a mother it makes me very sad but it also makes me proud that he comes faithfully every week- It shows great strength and commitment and we live within the Zion curtain so it happens everywhere unfortunately.

  8. 8.

    Not saying bishop made right decision. The beauty of not having to judge moral issues is it should remind us not to judge others, either, including the bishop. G doesn’t know every question asked, nor the answers that were given. All she knows is what new member says she said. Is it implausible that new member was having regular sex post baptism with baby daddy? New member didn’t think better than to have baby with a guy who says his marriage with third party “just on paper?” There’s usually a whole lot more facts to consider than the ones we hear about. Sounds like new member was in an abusive relationship which adds another layer of complication to her story. Maybe baby daddy told her if she stayed active in church there would be no more sex – and no more money or support – and she chose him over the gospel. It’s all too complicated for a simple answer. I’m all for people bringing along others for moral support. No harm in that. Toki may be right. Priesthood holders may be held to a higher standard. I wonder if sisters would be as hard on their fellow sisters. Maybe one day we’ll find out.

  9. 9.

    Church discipline for consenting sexual sin greatly exceeds Christ’s “neither do I condem thee go and sin no more” example! The church needs to leave their OT behaviour enforcement behind in favor of embracing Christ’s beatitudes.

  10. 10.

    I would like to recommend this wonderful essay by H. Parker Blount, “Scarlet Threads in the Lineage of Jesus.” It discusses four women from the old Testament–Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba–and how they were treated for what we consider sexual impropriety.

    More importantly for this conversation, it also discusses what it was like to be a stake president and be expected to sit in judgment of women forced to “prostrate themselves” before men. Blount concludes that “Church repentance requires such a big dose of pain” and that there is something wrong when a woman is “left to tell a story that required her to make shame and guilt the center of it, whether it naturally belonged there or not.”

    https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/143-44-51.pdf

  11. 11.

    This is a really important topic, thanks for sharing.

    I am not sure how it would be different if the new convert was male, though. Might he also be as confused by the process? If there were females in the room that were not friends, would it really be so much better for the woman? I don’t automatically trust women more than men.

    A while back one of the speakers in stake conference shared her story of a bishop who told her that she could not continue to live with her boyfriend and be in the church (they had been attending together for months). After a few weeks they decided: the bishop married them, the husband joined the church, they were sealed in the temple.

    It would be easy to say that is a better way (it certainly was best in that situation), but hopefully every bishop gets guidance for their own flock.

  12. 12.

    Such a sad story, Galdralag. The whole thing does make me curious what the typical experience is for those members who undergo church discipline. Do they tend to be better off for it? Sometimes I have my doubts. On the other hand, I have heard from one friend that it was an important step for him, but I wonder if we just don’t hear from those who had a bad experience with it and never really return.

  13. 13.

    I once served as a ward executive secretary, and as such I participated in a bishop’s court. The thing that impressed me about our bishop was his willingness and desire to seek councel. If he felt he didn’t have access to the best councel possible through his councelors and myself, he would suspend the proceedings until he felt he’d received such from a good and proper source. I learned much from that experience. The Church has constatnly directed local leaders to get trained on topics such as mental illness and violence against women, and yet so few do. I look back at the bishop with whom I served, and I see him getting out of the office and seeking councel and getting trained. He looked upon the ward as a group of people with the experience to councel him and help him (through the Spirit) come to the right decisions. If I am ever called to such a position, I will remember this lesson.

  14. 14.

    Excellent posts. As former bishop and member of stake presidency, I was fortunate to have served with those who were very sensitive and respectful of such proceedings. I now see the other side of the fence with friends and family who have been injured by leaders (not maliciously) poor counsel, inattention, and breaking of confidences. It hurts. I would tell someone to be cautious to share intimate information with leaders or anyone else without a certain level of trust. Some wait for leadership change before dealing with matters. I cannot blame them. Listen to the Spirit and seek trusted help.

  15. 15.

    Toki, #6, move to a new ward, it will do you wonders!

  16. 16.

    No Muzz, moving is not going to be the answer (and CBR is WAYYYY to cold for me. Thanks for the hint). If moving was going to work, i might as well move to SLC, and there is no way im going there. To many mormons. Cant walk down the street for triping over them.

  17. 17.

    As a ward clerk in a YSA ward I’ve participated in a few councils, though only one that dealt with a female member and sexual issues. The bishop started things off by just inviting the woman to speak about her experiences, with a few clarifying questions here and there. After the woman left and the bishopric discussed, their primary concern was that virtually all of the sexual encounters she recounted (not the intimate details, just what led to the encounters) were not really consensual, even though she herself didn’t think of them that way. The decision reached was that no discipline was appropriate or necessary and they counseled her to seek out appropriate psychological counseling to help her heal and recover. It appeared to be a very positive experience for the woman.

  18. 18.

    I do not know how men manage to accept callings to serve on a bishopric or a high council, knowing that it will require them to sit in judgement over anybody…..but the idea of sitting there and having to hear details of the sexual behaviour of a woman in front of a male council. I think it could be considered by some as abusive.

  19. 19.

    My close friend had to go to a disciplinary council years ago. She cannot tell the story without getting emotional. She said she sat with five men in front of her, asking innappropriate and unnecessary questions. Humiliated, she went inactive for a very long time. She was never counseled that she could bring anyone with her. She was told nothing supportive. She felt like she was there to be punished after being interrogated. She said to me, “if there could have been one woman in the room to raise her hand and tell them to stop, that it was not okay to ask these unnecessary and humiliating questions of a very young woman who was terrified and outnumbered, it would have made a world of difference.”

    Women need to be ordained and need to sit on these councils if they have to exist. It’s crazy that we do it any other way.

  20. 20.

    First I want to apologize for not responding in anything close to a timely fashion – thanks, all, for your comments. (I’m away on research and have spotty internet access and limited amounts of time to devote to the blog; I should have thought better of posting until I had both time and consistent access – again, apologies all around.)

    A few things: First, April at Exponent II has just posted on the topic of women as always-the-disciplined, never-the-disciplinarian in formal church settings: http://www.the-exponent.com/church-discipline-women-disciplined-by-men/ . She includes examples of several different women’s traumatic experiences with church courts (the final quote in her piece is from the OP here). It’s a hard read, but it puts the case even more starkly: this practice is just asking for heartache and abuse of power. As several of you intimated or said outright, esp. anon (1) and Laura (5), the fact that we have a lay clergy compounds the difficulty of members standing in judgment of one another. Better training in issues of abuse, among other things, would undoubtedly go a long way.

    Thanks Bruce (13), Shushbetou (14), and Jared vdH (17) for coming and telling your stories from the perspective of disciplinarians. I find myself persuaded that there is something about the practice of formal confession and ritual absolution that has the potential to be very healing to the soul; I believe that is why iterations of it appear in various religious practices (there are variants of it in some strains of Orthodox Judaism as well as, of course, Catholicism and others). I further think that psychotherapy can serve as a secular version of this need to purge the soul in some formal way. So I am hesitant – or at least undecided – about advocating throwing out the practice altogether.

    Yet the Mormon way of doing it, in which there is an actual court of judgment, and in which some (thankfully not all) leave confused and traumatized rather than edified, signals a strong need to refine the practice. Including women as judges seems, to me, more powerful than having a trusted female friend in the room, though I imagine the latter can be helpful for many (please read April’s excellent post for reasons why having women on courts would be helpful – she articulates several reasons very compellingly). Lastly, on the issue of bringing a female friend, I remain troubled that many women are unaware that they even have the option to bring along a female friend. Since women never sit on said courts or hold callings that give them official access to the handbook of instructions they are highly unlikely to be well-versed in the ins and outs of such procedures.

  21. 21.

    […] 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. Reference 9 […]

  22. 22.

    From the story, it sounds like the woman was in more need of instruction than discipline.

    When I hear of church courts, I remember a touching story from Hugh Brown’s memoirs. Hugh was a young bishop’s counselor in his twenties sitting on a church court listening to the case of a woman for some sexual sin. When it came time to discuss possible outcomes, the Bishop asked Hugh what he recommended. Hugh said that the woman should be “cut off”. The other young counselor agreed. The wise bishop sighed and said–as I recall–“I’m glad God is an old man and has more compassion than you.” We are all sinners–as God has compassion on us for our sins, we should have compassion on others.

  23. 23.

    This is to me one of the most important issues that was highlighted in the New York times article on women in the church. The reporters stated in an interview that there were many, many stories of mishandling that they gathered. It is NOT ok to frame it up like it’s a isolated incident or simply a ‘bad bishop’. The infrastructure of the church feeds or allows this kind of mishandling to happen again and again and again and people are not encouraged to speak up for themselves and for women. This signifies a problem in the church, a big problem for women who are often already vulnerable because of recent trauma, to add on top of that mishandling by ‘men of the church’ is inexcusable. The church needs to re-think this. I’m with you as well. I don’t think bishops should attempt to ‘handle’ these situations at all. They are lay-people and often don’t realize the psychological, spiritual, and emotional damage they can do as representatives of God. Having woman there on boards or as an advocate might help sometimes, but it could definitely make things worse – especially if you are just adding more lay people with no training or understanding of these types of issues. Sometimes women are just as bad or worse than men in being harsh and judgmental toward their own sex. Sometimes women get off the hook sometimes men get off the hook depending on the specific culture and biases that are present. It’s hard to comment on general unfairness without data – I only know that gender stereotypes are bad for both genders, and I’ve seen gender stereotyping promoted and preached in the church in Utah. I hope they do away with courts all together! Phase it out – it has only done harm to women, new members and made the church look intolerant and bigoted through their ‘disciplining’ of church history scholars and feminist scholars. I understand the intention of courts is to help with the repentance process – but so often it is hardly helpful and is using external pressure (fear, judgement, social embarrassment) to change behavior…how exactly does this help members make a change of heart? I don’t find this practice to be in keeping with the teachings of Christ.

  24. 24.

    This is absolutely horrifying. It goes so far beyond women on disciplinary courts.

    You sustain and are part of a system that revictimizes every single victim of sex abuse that is investigated.

    You SHOULD be haunted years later. You should be ashamed. This is unbelievable to me. I had no idea that the LDS church investigates sex abuse victims for consent. That the church isn’t sure they were sex abuse victims at the time doesn’t absolve anything. Any time you call a person before a disciplinary board on sexual matters, you are opening the doors to this kind of further victimization.

    I’m just in total awe that anyone could be part of this church, knowing what happens at the hands of disciplinary councils. You all are morally culpable for what happened to this woman.

  25. 25.

    And what happens to teenagers who get hauled in for questioning? Does it occur to anyone that kids cannot legitimately consent to sexual contact? That teaching them to listen to their feelings of guilt and shame might actually be problematic in an abuse situation? Does it not occur to any of you that your little tribunals are enabling sexual predators by putting the presumption of guilt on the victim and making them scared to come forward?

    This is just so far beyond women’s power in the church. Tribunals on sexual purity should not even exist. I have heard of no other church that subjects its members to this kind of social humiliation on matters that are so fraught. Do you really expect the laypeople in charge to have the expertise in abuse dynamics to judge this stuff?

    Again, I’m in shock. I am thinking about the many, many good Mormons I know and I just cannot believe they are a part of this. I need to meditate or something so I can move on with my day. This is the most upsetting thing I’ve seen on the Internet in a long time.

  26. 26.

    And one more thing. If you want to make sexual purity the center of your idea of “virtue,” fine. That’s your problem. But the second you go about revictimizing and silencing people who have been abused, that’s a public safety problem.

    Don’t even think of saying I have no right to weigh in on this as a nonmember.

  27. 27.

    Guest, this post has clearly touched a nerve for you, but please recall several key facts:

    (1) It is not the policy of the LDS Church to investigate sexual abuse victims to determine consent. By the Church’s current standards, the incident Galdralag describes above was a serious miscarriage of justice. That there are problems in the Church’s male hierarchy and lay leadership structure that make such miscarriages of justice more likely is part of Galdralag’s argument here. She is not your enemy.

    (2) The writers on this blog have various relationships to the LDS Church and various degrees of agreement with its teaching and practices. Some of us are practicing members; some of us are no longer practicing; some of us are no longer members. No one here is personally responsible for any kind of Church court. No one here, to my knowledge, has ever had the kind of leadership role that would involve convening or sitting on Church courts. Certainly no one here has the kind of power to set Church policy on matters of courts or sexual purity. And certainly no one here has the slightest interest in “revictimizing and silencing people who have been abused.” Please don’t jump to conclusions about who we are or about our relationships to the LDS Church.

    (3) No one has so much as intimated that you have no right to weigh in as a nonmember. No one even knows that you’re a nonmember unless and until you out yourself.

    We are less interested in your membership or lack of membership in the LDS Church than we are in the thoughtfulness of your comments. But since you have outed yourself as a nonmember, I’d strongly recommend that you familiarize yourself with Mormonism and with the issues under discussion before commenting. You’re far better situated to make useful contributions to the discussion on the basis of at least some familiarity.

    Thank you.

  28. 28.

    No. Look at comment #17, we have another woman being investigated for non-consensual sexual contact, just in this comment section. It doesn’t matter that the men decided it wasn’t consensual and not to punish her, she never should have been put on trial in the first place. That is what revictimizing someone IS. She’s just lucky she wasn’t in the same ward as the friend in comment #19. And see comment #23.

    These sexual purity tribunals are so far beyond defense, to discuss these as isolated incidents is irresponsible for the damage and shaming your church is inflicting. You don’t have the power to set church policy. You DO have a choice whether to sustain a church that shames vulnerable people. I cannot imagine staying part of a church that does this, that installs men in moral judgment over abuse victims. How many of you have objected to sexual purity tribunals to your bishops or stake presidents, or written objections higher up or defended people who are investigated and tried, that they should not have to go through that? If not, you’re just standing by complicit.

    And, yes, a nonmember DOES have to defend her right to comment on church actions. I live in Utah, where this church affects my life on a daily basis, but when I’ve said words about the church and women’s issues, members basically say, “you’re not LDS so you shouldn’t be upset.”

    Oh, and I already took your advice about learning more. Since reading this post, I’ve found a number of other accounts where women were investigated and in some cases disciplined for being sexually abused. Still others who were afraid to come forward for fear of discipline.

  29. 29.

    Guest, we’re critiquing this problem. We’re not endorsing it. Getting all up in our face to just leave the Church is probably not the most effective rhetorical strategy. It sort of feels like you’re shouting at the choir that they’re not being choral enough.

    As the Bouncer pointed out, it’s absolutely not Church policy to investigate victims of sexual violence or abuse for consent, or to re-victimize them by punishing them for being victims. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen,, as a consequence of ill-informed, stupid, and outright misogynistic leadership, who have not enough training and too much latitude. However, there’s a significant difference between pointing out that the system is broken in ways that allows bad things to happen because it’s not well-engineered to prevent them, and claiming that the system is deliberately designed to do those bad things. In either case the system needs fixing, but I assert that I do not sustain, and would not sustain, a Church whose doctrine assigns blame for victims of abuse.

    Also, I’m not sure what you’re imagining with the phrase “sexual purity tribunals”– this sounds much more exciting than much of what the Church does–but teenagers who’ve broken the law of chastity are given pastoral care, not a tribunal. Again, there are certainly cases where a bishop’s counsel is more damaging than helpful, but even then, it’s a far cry from being hauled before a church court.

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