The following essay was authored by Scott Mitchell, a frequent contributor to this website.
During this past week, blogs and media accounts have been abuzz with the news that a woman has accused a former LDS mission president in Argentina, who later served as the president of the Mission Training Center (hereafter “MTC”) in Provo, of raping her, or attempting to rape her, in a secret basement room of the MTC while she was a sister missionary there. According to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter “the Church”), the former mission president, Joseph Bishop, has denied the allegations. However, the woman, whose name has been kept confidential, confronted Bishop in person with her allegations sometime in 2017, and secretly recorded her interview and discussion with him. The audiotaped interview, and a transcript of it, have been published all over the internet and can be listened to, or read, by anyone seeking to verify claims of what was actually said. (It should be noted that the audiotaped interview was leaked to the world by the MormonLeaks website without the victim interviewer’s permission or knowledge. We condemn this action by MormonLeaks, which seems like a fresh insult to the victim in that it didn’t respect her prerogative to handle this as she saw fit, though this insult was far less damaging and life-changing than Joseph Bishop’s offense against her. However, this essay concerns itself only with the Church’s response, which is a separate issue.)
Not surprisingly, the LDS Church issued a press release regarding the allegations and the audiotaped conversation, explaining what the church’s response to the scandal has been up to the present. The church’s response can be read on its website here.
When I first became aware of this story and familiarized myself with the recording and transcript of the interview, I was heartsick over not only the enormity of the tragedy and ruin suffered by the female victim, and the perspective it has given her, but the great damage this would do to the LDS Church’s reputation because of the shocking behavior of one former church leader. I perceived the same as what has been obvious to all–the LDS Church will not easily recover from this scandal any more easily than it would recover from a powerful bomb being detonated in the church office building during business hours. Because of this easily forseeable damage, I was content not to weigh in on the matter; the Church would already pay a dear price without me heaping my opprobrium on top of everyone else’s. But then on March 20, 2018 the LDS Church issued its official statement to the public addressing the situation. That statement was so dishonest and contrary to the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and so much a perpetuation of the same unrighteous desire exhibited by Bishop to protect one’s reputation instead of repenting of sins or restoring integrity, I now feel morally compelled to respond. I will say the same things I think God would say, if only the Church representatives who drafted the official statement had more carefully sought the His advice on this matter.
The Church is wrong to state twice in its statement that Joseph Bishop denied the victim’s allegations against him. He did no such thing. This is not a misstatement, it’s a lie. If the Church is referring to its own separate interviews with Bishop wherein he denied the rape, or attempted rape allegations (since the victim alleges he did penetrate her, but not fully, rape would be the appropriate charge), with lawyers sitting there next to him, or his denial in interviews with law enforcement personnel, it should at least acknowledge the far more important truth that Bishop did not deny the allegation in his interview with the victim. The Church representatives already know what Bishop admitted to the victim, because they have listened to the audiotape. When confronted with the accusation by the victim that he took her down to a secret, isolated little room in the MTC basement containing a bed, a TV and a VCR, Bishop admitted that he remembered that. He had taken her there before with another sister missionary whom he eventually molested, which he also admits. As to whether he raped the victim in that room on that occasion, he only said he didn’t remember. He didn’t offer any alternative version of what occurred that day or night, he just claimed he didn’t remember. He remembered knowing all about the victim’s background as a rape victim before she’d arrived at the MTC, and remembered discussing her breast size with her in that little room, but claimed his memory fails him as to what else happened there. Throughout the interview, he repeatedly apologized to the victim for what he’d done to her. He admitted to being a hypocrite, a sexual predator, an eventual molester of the other female missionary in the MTC, and a flirtatious long-time sex addict who since boyhood had repeatedly sinned in his actions with other girls and women to whom he wasn’t married. He also confessed that he had never told the full truth about his misdeeds when confessing them to his own church leaders, and that if he had fully confessed, he would never have received the church callings he received, but would have received church discipline. Most importantly of all, Bishop didn’t deny that despite his profuse apologies when confronted by her in person in late 2017, at no prior time in his life did he ever apologize to the victim for what he did, although he’s had 33 years to do so. But he explained his unwillingness to confess having sexually assaulted her this way:
“I don’t know, maybe it’s just because my mind doesn’t want me to remember that, but I don’t remember that . . .
“I guess it’s tucked away. Maybe it’ll come out like it did with the sister missionaries for me in the right environment.”
The interview with the victim makes what Bishop said on other occasions to police or lawyers completely irrelevant, except to the extent that it shows his tendency to lie to obfuscate the truth about himself. Why does the Church then highlight Bishop’s denials of the accusation against him, when it has heard him condemn himself with his own voice? Here’s why: Simply put, the Church is attempting to justify its failure after two months (having been presented with the audiotape in early January of 2018) to take appropriate action against Bishop and fully admit to the victim and the rest of the world what he did, and the horrific damage it caused. The Church has been stalling, far more worried about how to spin this disaster than how to facilitate Joseph Bishop’s full repentance and restore its own integrity. It’s pretending to be carefully sorting through conflicting accounts to determine who’s being truthful, when it knows full well that for more than two months it’s had all the truth it needs to excommunicate Bishop, vindicate the victim’s credibility while acknowledging the ruin Bishop brought her, and come clean about its own institutional failures.
The Church is also dishonest to subtly cast doubt on the victim’s credibility. Nothing short of a live video recording of what happened in the basement room could have corroborated the victim more effectively than Joseph Bishop did in his own taped interview with her. The only way the LDS Church representatives responsible for dealing with this scandal could doubt the victim’s credibility on this particular matter would be if they thought Bishop too senile to remember his past. But the recording quickly dispels any doubt about his lucidity. In fact, he is heard to so fully participate, both spiritually and intellectually, in his discussion with the victim that only when he claims a lapse of memory covering the crucial events in the secret basement room does the listener doubt his credibility. Bishop’s memory is clear on a multitude of sexually related events going back to his teenaged youth, and he even remembers not fully confessing his past sexual sins to prior church leaders.
But what do the drafters of the Church statement (and their overseers) do? They refer to the victim as “this former Church member, who served briefly as a missionary in 1984.” If she were credible, she would have completed her mission, and she would still be in the church supporting her church leaders, right? So she must be lying, even though Bishop massively corroborates every single allegation she makes except in the case of the one little lapse of memory he clings to.
The Church response also tries to discredit the victim by claiming that Carlos Asay, the deceased general authority whom she claims to have reported her allegations to, filed no report of the conversation. The drafters of the Church response don’t say whether conversations like this are normally memorialized in some written report filed with Church headquarters, so the probative value of this retort is already questionable. However, it has also now come to light that the victim’s bishop, upon hearing her claims in 1987, failed to report them to church leaders because he found them far-fetched. Her Pleasant Grove stake leaders also heard her claims in 2010, but when Joseph Bishop denied the truth of the allegations, which Bishop now admits was part of a pattern he had of suppressing the truth of his sexual history, the only information upon which the Pleasant Grove police took action was church leaders’ allegation that in her anger, this woman had threatened to kill Joseph Bishop. The police department visited the victim to assure she was sane and warned Bishop that the woman had threatened to kill him. It hasn’t been divulged what the Church told the police. But either the police heard the sexual allegations and decided to do nothing about them (more on that below), or the Church left the sexual claims out of the report they passed on to police. Regardless, since Bishop himself admits that he was not truthful with his church leaders, and that his partial confessions to General Authority Robert G. Wells were never acted upon, and that after confessing his past, he was made MTC president, what exactly does it prove that Carlos Asay didn’t file a report with the Church to ruin Bishop’s reputation? Again, Bishop’s own version of Church inaction makes the victim’s version sound all the more credible.
As I write this, it is now being admitted that the Church received reports in 2010 from a second woman claiming Joseph Bishop had molested her in 1984. This is the woman who was also in the MTC at the same time as the victim here, who is referred to repeatedly by name in the recording, and whom Bishop admits he molested. The Church is now admitting that the ecclesiastical leaders of the second woman were unable to verify her account, and therefore took no action. The Church makes no mention in its statement of the fact that it received similar, mutually corroborating allegations from two sources in 2010. Instead, it characterizes the evidence as little more than “he said-she said” conflicting statements, while apparently hoping readers won’t bother to read the actual recorded interview.
Also as of this moment, it is now being reported in the Provo Daily Herald that Brigham Young University, currently under the truly praiseworthy leadership of President Kevin Worthen, has now provided the Church with unredacted reports on file with the BYU police department. Those reports show that on December 5, 2017, the victim reported to university police that Bishop had raped her, after initially trying to kiss her and pulling off her clothes, and that said police then interviewed Bishop. Bishop admitted to inappropriate sexual contact with the victim, claiming he only asked her to bare her breasts, but denied he raped her. If this admission to police of the LDS Church-owned university went nowhere a few months ago, and had no effect on Bishop’s church standing, what does it say about the effort of the Church to cleanse the inner vessel? Does the Church truly attempt to determine the credibility of witnesses, or to suppress the truth when said truth tarnishes its public image?
Inevitably, in cases like this one, great attempts will be made by Bishop defenders to discredit the victim’s credibility by pointing to other events in her life where she appears to have been untruthful. In her interview, the victim admitted one occasion when she lied during her life, and it’s likely that lie wasn’t her only one in 50+ years on earth. But it should be remembered that the credibility of her current claim is almost completely corroborated by Joseph Bishop’s own admissions throughout the recorded interview, and that he not only admits he wronged the woman, and other women, but begs for her forgiveness. He also admits his habitual dishonesty, and says, memorably, in reviewing his life, “I don’t know if I can be forgiven.”
The Church statement reads: “The Church, as a religious organization, does not have the investigative tools available to law enforcement agencies. Nor can the Church substitute for the courts in adjudicating legal claims. The Church has great faith in the judicial system to determine the truth of these claims.” This is more dissembling. The Church has investigative tools available to it that police agencies don’t have. I say this as a former career prosecutor who spent thirty years evaluating witness statements and speaking to witnesses in person. The Church can appeal to a member’s moral conscience to elicit truthful statements, especially when the member is confronted with a righteous accusation from another brother or sister who accepts Christ as his or her savior, and who believes in the gospel of the Bible and Book of Mormon. Police are less successful using that tactic because accused persons know that admissions of serious guilt will usually land them in jail or prison. And whether the Church will admit it or not, nothing stops it from employing polygraph tests when confronted by extremely troubling allegations by one member, and denials by another. No one can be forced to take a lie detector test, either in the law or in the church, but nothing prevents both parties from being offered to participate, either. In this case, had that tactic been used, the victim would likely have taken and passed a polygraph, and Bishop would likely have declined to take one. Remember, Bishop admitted in the recorded interview he chronically underreported his sexual transgressions, withholding the most serious acts.
It’s also extremely misleading for the Church to claim that it has great faith in the judicial system to determine truth. If this were true, the Church would have told the Pleasant Grove police department all of the victim’s allegations, not just the ones that cast her as a lunatic, and would have made sure those allegations were passed along to a police department that could actually investigate them. The Church has its own lawyers, and it knows the Pleasant Grove police had no jurisdiction over a crime reported to have occurred in the Provo MTC. Given the fact that nothing resulted from the reports given to BYU’s own police department, the evidence is stronger that the Church deliberately kept the victim’s reports out of the judicial system, and that it was confident it would succeed in doing so.
Unfortunately, the Church has a history of dissembling about the sexual practices of its members. In a Gospel Topics essay on the LDS Church website entitled “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,” mention is made of what happened when members of the church were truthfully accused of practicing polygamy:
Participants in these early plural marriages pledged to keep their involvement confidential, though they anticipated a time when the practice would be publicly acknowledged.
Nevertheless, rumors spread . . . The rumors prompted members and leaders to issue carefully worded denials that denounced spiritual wifery and polygamy but were silent about what Joseph Smith and others saw as divinely mandated “celestial” plural marriage. The statements emphasized that the Church practiced no marital law other than monogamy while implicitly leaving open the possibility that individuals, under direction of God’s living prophet, might do so.
Ponder that last paragraph for a moment. Not only are the writers admitting that church leaders, and members acting under their direction, repeatedly lied about what they were doing, and claimed to be doing the opposite of the accusation, but those same writers cynically word the statement in such a way as to call blatant lies more-palatable-sounding “carefully worded denials.” At the end of this statement is a footnote numbered 23. Footnote 23 provides further evidence of just how entrenched the culture of lying about polygamy was, and still seems to be (with emphasis again added):
See, for example, “On Marriage,” Times and Seasons, Oct. 1, 1842, 939–40; and Wilford Woodruff journal, Nov. 25, 1843, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; Parley P. Pratt, “This Number Closes the First Volume of the ‘Prophet,’” The Prophet, May 24, 1845, 2. George A. Smith explained, “Any one who will read carefully the denials, as they are termed, of plurality of wives in connection with the circumstances will see clearly that they denounce adultery, fornication, brutal lust and the teaching of plurality of wives by those who were not commanded to do so.” (George A. Smith letter to Joseph Smith III, Oct. 9, 1869, in Journal History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Oct. 9, 1869, Church History Library, Salt Lake City).
Why lie about polygamy? Because to admit to it, true as the accusation was, was to admit to adultery on the part of the leaders who started it. The law banning bigamy was passed in Illinois in 1833. Being legally married to one woman only, and illegally married to others, and having sexual relations with multiple women, was, in the eyes of the law, garden-variety adultery, just as it is now. It was no excuse to say, “The Lord gave me permission to marry multiple women, so it’s not adultery, even though I’m only legally married to one of them.” So, rather than admit that Joseph Smith had instituted a practice of serial adultery in the eyes of the law, which law Mormons affirmatively purported to uphold, it was preferable to simply tell lies. Lie to conceal the truth about the Church or its leader or leaders. The practice of dissembling was institutional then, and we have yet to rid it from our midst. Notice in the above quoted statement from the Gospel Topic essay, the writers use the phrase “members and leaders” instead of the more truthful and informative phrase, “Joseph Smith and those acting under his direction.” The truth is embarrassing, so we conceal it.
We have written elsewhere about blatant dissembling in the writing of Gospel Topic essays; see, e.g., Polygamy, Doctrine and Covenants Section 132 and their Doctrinal and Historical Problems within Mormonism and The Book of Abraham, elsewhere on this website. Unfortunately, we see a pattern developing.
The truth of the victim’s allegations against Joseph Bishop are aptly demonstrated from the following excerpt of the interview, wherein the victim explains to Bishop why he hasn’t repented. She seems to understand what true repentance is, and how closely connected it is to telling the truth:
Bishop: Over here, I’m not worthy. Didn’t go to the temple. Didn’t because I’m not worthy. When I start to feel worthy, then I do some more work and more work. Then, and I repented. I’ve done all the things that I can do. Now you would say to me, “You haven’t repented”. And I’d say, “I understand that”. I understand where you’re coming from. And I thought I had.
Victim: No you didn’t, because there’s a piece of you, Joe, inside you that says, “I’m not done.” That’s why you still carry it with you, because you have not completely repented. Your soul is not clean and purged, and it’s covered in crimson. That’s why you still carry this with you. That’s why if you were to die today, you die with all this with you, and it goes with you. The repentance process isn’t about, “Okay, I’m going to tell part of my story to a priesthood leader because I can get away with telling this much, and repent, and everybody around me will know that I’m trying.”