This essay is based on my own experience, and the experiences of dozens of women whose stories I have been privileged to know. It was written in an attempt to give voice to this largely silent host of women who were sexually abused as children, and to help those who support them, including priesthood leaders, to better understand how to reach out to them in meaningful ways. In particular, it is a response to the emphasis I have often seen placed in LDS settings on a victim’s obligation to forgive her abuser.

It is a subjective piece, but I see this as a strength, not a weakness, because until those who give counsel to survivors of sexual abuse truly hear our voices, they will continue to advise us from their own worlds of safety and acceptance, with little understanding of the dark and desperate worlds many survivors of childhood sexual abuse inhabit well into adulthood [1].

Some thirty years ago, we began to accept the reality that LDS children are sexually abused, and that many women from abusive backgrounds join the Church. Since then, we have talked more openly about incest and the impact it has on its victims, and we have recognized that survivors of abuse need appropriate counselling and pastoral care. However, there is plenty still to discuss! The idea that we have addressed abuse issues and no longer need to consider them is naïve. We are a global community, and most of us do not live where the Church is strong, with easy access to LDS therapists and counselors, or even with access to any kind of therapy or counseling. Our priesthood leaders are often first generation members of the Church. We have members of the Church from cultures where opinions regarding child sexuality and pornography are very different from what would be considered appropriate in North America and much of Europe. In addition to this diversity is the fact that the murky world of pedophilia is so far removed from what most Latter-day Saints have experienced, it can be hard for them to understand the complex, confusing, often terrifying world inhabited by survivors of childhood sexual abuse, a world that bears little resemblance to the LDS ideal. This LDS model can seem utterly unattainable to many survivors, who know that, in spite of their longing to develop a close relationship with the Savior, they have many feelings incompatible with a life of deep spirituality.

Someone once said to me that in regard to abuse issues, “We need to encourage victims to embrace the light, to show them the beautiful world they’re missing out on and inspire them to be where we are. There’s no point in us getting ourselves soiled by going to where they are.” My response to such a view is that the light can be frightening to those unused to it, and even those most highly motivated to seek it might need someone to venture into their territory, hold their hand, and show them the way.

I grew up in the Church and was sexually abused throughout my childhood. I am a writer by profession and have incorporated abuse issues into works of fiction and poetry, and have also contributed to manuals for health professionals and ecclesiastical leaders. I have spoken widely on the subject and more than twenty years ago, I co-founded a support group for women, most of them LDS, who had suffered childhood sexual abuse and/or domestic violence. I have collected the stories of many survivors of childhood sexual abuse and have accompanied women as they have disclosed their abusive histories to priesthood leaders, as they have met with therapists and doctors, and as they have gone through the legal process of prosecuting their abusers.

This essay, then, is a response to how I, and many other women whose journeys I will share, have experienced in revealing our stories, especially with regard to the doctrine of forgiveness.

We believe in the doctrine of forgiveness. We accept that we need to forgive those who have offended us or done us wrong. We preach forgiveness as a pre-requisite to receiving forgiveness ourselves from the Lord for our own transgressions and sins. The scriptures are replete with exhortations to forgive. The Lord makes it clear that if we do not forgive others, we cannot expect forgiveness from Heavenly Father [2]. He tells us that we are not to choose whom we forgive, but rather that we are required to forgive all men [3]. When Peter asked the Savior how often his brother should sin against him and receive forgiveness, Jesus told him, “Until seventy times seven,” from which we infer that our obligation to forgive is unending [4]. The mercy we extend to our fellowmen should be as unconstrained and ungrudging as the mercy we hope to receive from our Heavenly Father. This doctrine is so familiar to us that we can teach it without a second thought. It has been thoroughly inculcated into our spiritual framework. We believe it deeply and try to live it as a principle. We understand that forgiveness is a blessing to those who forgive, as well as a blessing to those who are forgiven. Forgiving others gives us the opportunity to move on. It liberates us and allows us to receive the Holy Spirit in fuller measure.

Yet while we are often exhorted to forgive, a clear definition of the concept of forgiveness, especially in terms that are helpful to survivors of childhood sexual abuse, has historically been hard to find. For example, in Mormon Doctrine, under the entry “forgiveness,” Elder McConkie gives us an exposition on how to receive forgiveness from the Lord, using the same ideas he expounds under his entry “repentance,” rather than describing what it means to forgive others [5]. The focus in President Kimball’s The Miracle of Forgiveness is likewise on obtaining forgiveness for our own sins, as well as on refraining from judging the faults of others and harboring bitterness over the injustices we suffer. It does not address the very particular challenges facing those whose lives have been shattered because of abusive childhoods [6]. And while the scriptures leave us in no doubt regarding our obligation to forgive, it can be hard for survivors of abuse to understand how to apply the command to forgive in their own situations, where the sins committed against them are so heinous and have had such long-lasting and devastating repercussions, and while the perpetrators remain unrepentant and perhaps still a threat to them and/or their loved ones.

More recently, there has been recognition that forgiveness can be a long process for those who have been deeply wronged, and there has been more emphasis on forgiveness as a way of blessing the victim with peace and relief, rather than as an obligation to be discharged in order to avoid incurring divine displeasure.

In 1993, Elder Richard G Scott said, “Understand that healing can take considerable time. Recovery generally comes in steps… You cannot erase what has been done, but you can forgive (see D&C 64:10). Forgiveness heals terrible, tragic wounds, for it allows the love of God to purge your heart and mind of the poison of hate. It cleanses your consciousness of the desire for revenge. It makes place for the purifying, healing, restoring love of the Lord” [7].

B Kent Harrison contributes an essay to the LDS anthology Confronting Abuse where he echoes this idea of taking time to forgive. “The process of forgiving may move very slowly; it should not be hurried. It is a grieving process, much like a person’s feelings after a death” [8].

Wendy L Ulrich, in the same book, discusses the idea of forgiveness as the result of a partnership between us and God. We work at forgiving through our obedience and commitment, but in the end, He blesses us with the grace necessary for its realization. As with all healing, forgiveness is made possible because of the Atonement. Ulrich sees it as a beautiful collaboration, not a grinding chore or a list of things that must be done to prove ourselves.

“The more we have been hurt, the more we deserve to forgive. Forgiveness is an opportunity to regain the internal peace of which evil has robbed us. As such, it results from a marvelous synergy of human effort and divine grace. Like the Atonement, which makes all forgiveness possible, the ability to forgive is itself a gift from God, effective in our lives on conditions of both personal effort and divine blessing. When we have learned all we can about the consequences of evil from our own experience as its innocent victims, the “peace of God, which passeth all understanding” is our due (Philippians 4:7)… Forgiveness basically is a means of restoration to wholeness that the Spirit affords those victimized by others’ actions. Thus it is important to recognize that forgiveness is a process, not a single event. It is a highly individual experience!” [9].

Forgiveness, as it relates to survivors of childhood sexual abuse, is defined very clearly by LDS Family Services: “Forgiveness does not imply that an individual has ‘forgotten’ all memories of the abuse, that he or she condones the behavior or absolves the perpetrator of responsibility, or that he or she must become reconciled with the perpetrator, particularly if there is the possibility of further abuse. What forgiveness does imply is that an individual has relinquished feelings of hate or bitterness toward another, has placed the matter in the Lord’s hands, and has enabled Him to operate more fully in his or her life. In forgiving, an individual frees himself [or herself] from the perpetrator and is therefore better able to progress” [10].

For me, forgiving others is about letting go, being willing to let the Lord take this overwhelming burden from our shoulders and allowing Him to embrace us with His love and peace. I knew I had forgiven my abusers when they—and the things they had done to me—no longer occupied my every waking thought, when fear was no longer my constant companion and I felt free and at peace. It was much more about my attitude and willingness to trust the Lord than about complying with some set of external requirements someone else imposed upon me.

As one survivor wrote, “People often quote Doctrine and Covenants 64:9-10 to us: ‘Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin. I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.’ They don’t often quote verse 11: ‘And ye ought to say in your hearts—let God judge between me and thee, and reward thee according to thy deeds.’ I can do that. I can leave everything in the Lord’s hands and get on with my life” [11].

Unfortunately, being taught the doctrine of forgiveness as a personal, individual, and probably lengthy journey, involving interaction with the Savior and an endowment of His grace, is not something all survivors of childhood sexual abuse encounter. More commonly, although abuse victims who disclose in an LDS setting are frequently advised to forgive their abusers, this advice is accompanied by exhortations to fast and pray, study the scriptures and attend the temple, with no elaboration as to what it means to forgive. This is the way to healing, they are told. Not infrequently, forgiveness is emphasized as the most important factor on their road to recovery. Women who are given this counsel typically try desperately hard to apply it, but healing often remains elusive for them. They become despondent. They are encouraged to make a more concerted effort, forgive more completely, even told that if they do not forgive they are more at fault than their abuser, “…he that forgiveth not his brother…standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin,” and they struggle even harder, only to find themselves more surely stuck in the quagmire [12]. They become convinced of their spiritual inadequacy, suffer chronically from depression and, sadly, often stray from the Church. [13]

Why is it that encouragement to live a principle we know to be true should be so unhelpful to this group of women?

Women who disclose the sexual abuse they suffered in childhood have to overcome many hurdles in order to reach the point of being able to name their experience as abuse and acknowledge that it has left deep wounds. Abused children are taught by their abusers to keep secrets [14]. The adults they become do not easily lose the fear that there will be consequences too appalling to contemplate if they tell. Often, the abuse was perpetrated by someone they knew well, and should have been able to trust, perhaps even a father, grandfather, or uncle [15]. Victims of incest may find it especially hard to admit, even to themselves, that someone they love very much did terrible things to them. They know that telling violates the first principle of incestuous families: “You must keep our secret, no matter what the cost to yourself” [16]. They know, too, that disclosure will likely have repercussions for the whole family, not just for the victim and her abuser. Women who were abused by priesthood holders, particularly priesthood leaders, face special challenges in disclosing. They know instinctively that their disclosure will be harder to believe, especially if the person they choose to tell knows their abuser. In addition, any victim who must constantly be in contact with her abuser, at church, within the family, or both, will have developed coping strategies to deal with these encounters while keeping herself and her children—if she has them—safe. [17] She knows that disclosure will irrevocably disrupt the status quo, which— while stressful and dishonest—is at least familiar, and perhaps fairly stable.

It therefore takes enormous courage for any woman to disclose that she has suffered sexual abuse. In the Church, those who have been abused are encouraged to trust their bishops and involve them in their recovery process. Elder Richard G. Scott taught, “There is available to you a priesthood leader, normally a bishop, at times a member of the stake presidency. They can build a bridge to greater understanding and healing… Talk to your bishop in confidence. His calling allows him to act as an instrument of the Lord in your behalf. He can provide a doctrinal foundation to guide you to recovery. An understanding and application of eternal law will provide the healing you require. He has the right to be inspired of the Lord in your behalf. He can use the priesthood to bless you” [18].

The faithful LDS woman who wants to follow this kind of apostolic counsel, or feels obliged to do so, has to overcome very particular challenges, which can seem insurmountable to her. She was abused as a child by a man, perhaps by more than one man, who was in a position of power and authority over her [19]. Her relationships with men in adult life are likely to have been problematic, if not actually abusive [20]. To disclose to a priesthood leader is to make herself vulnerable to a man who holds a position of authority. This can feel intolerably stressful and unsafe. If her confidant can acknowledge what this first, vital step to recovery has cost her, she may begin to feel able to trust him. Perhaps it will be the first time she has ever been able to trust a man to treat her with respect and dignity. His awareness that she is allowing him to see into her soul, and that he needs to tread carefully, can be the beginning of an important, healing relationship. To open our hearts is to be open to pain as well as joy. Women who have been abused know this, and have spent a lifetime denying themselves joy because they feel they cannot endure more pain. When such vulnerable people reveal themselves to us, we need to treat it as a privilege, and know we stand in holy places [21].

This is not the time to preach forgiveness however we choose to define it. The victim is likely to be blaming herself at least as much as she blames her abuser for what happened. She may be shouldering all the responsibility for the abuse. She will need to make a significant paradigm shift before she understands that, as a child, she was completely innocent of any wrongdoing. If she has made lifestyle choices as a result of her abusive childhood that violate the Word of Wisdom, the law of chastity or any other of the commandments that define us as worthy Latter-day Saints, her recovery will be complicated by the need to sift through that which she needs to address, and that for which she is entirely innocent.

This moment of disclosure is a critical juncture for the abused woman. The response she receives from the person to whom she discloses is crucial. It can give her hope and vindication, and the courage to take the next step in the healing process. Or it can make her wary and cautious, wondering if she is doing the right thing, or even whether she really was abused. Or it can leave her crushed and devastated, confirming all the feelings she already has of unworthiness and insignificance so that she doubts she will ever be whole again.

So what can a bishop or other confidant do to ensure she leaves him in the right frame of mind to move on, begin to take control of her life, and put her difficult past behind her?

In my experience, the most important thing a priesthood leader can do when a woman discloses her abusive childhood to him is to believe her. It may seem a simple thing, but there is still a bias against believing women’s accounts of childhood sexual abuse. There remains a cultural prejudice that women are neurotic, given to hyperbole, and attention seekers [22]. Many survivors of an abusive childhood will exhibit behaviors that don’t fit the Mormon ideal. Depression, chronic health problems, difficulties with relationships, especially with men, inappropriate sexual activity and a host of other challenges are more likely to be issues for survivors of abuse than for their sisters whose childhoods were safe and happy [23]. A bishop may be more likely to be swayed by these cultural prejudices, even unconsciously, when the woman he sees before him presents herself in ways that challenge his views of virtuous, modest, spiritually sound LDS womanhood. This may be especially true if he knows her abuser, who will have likely undermined her credibility with the subtlety that comes as second nature to perpetrators of abuse [24]. Additionally, bishops have indicated to me that it does not matter whether or not they believe the story a survivor tells them—they can give her appropriate help and counsel without taking a position on whether or not she is telling the truth. I question that stance.

We all know how it feels when we tell the Joseph Smith story to someone who is polite and respectful, and perhaps even wants to support us in our faith, but we know they are withholding their own belief. It seems that every word we say makes our story sound more outlandish and we reach a point where we know it is futile to say any more in an attempt to convince them. They do not have to express their incredulity. We feel the distance they place between themselves and acceptance of what we know to be true. Even if they champion our right to believe Joseph’s account of the First Vision, we feel sadness, perhaps frustration, hurt or personal failure that we have not been more convincing. Of course, we must accept that most people who hear Joseph’s story reject it for all kinds of reasons. We cannot dwell on every negative response we encounter, and however many people dismiss our testimonies, we are able to fellowship with other saints and sustain each other in our faith.

The survivor who has made up her mind to disclose the abuse she has suffered to her bishop or other priesthood leader, must summon every atom of courage she can muster to make the attempt. She feels that everything depends on the outcome of her disclosure. If she feels anything less than belief from him as she tells her story, it will be difficult for her to use him as the confidant and spiritual counsellor she needs so desperately. And because she is unlikely at this point in her recovery to have a network of other supporters around her, she will not have the comfort of fellowshipping with others who share her experience. She must retreat to a very lonely world, not knowing where to turn next to find someone to accept her and her story. It can be a long time before she makes another attempt.

Lucy turned to her home teacher, who was also a member of the stake presidency, for counsel as she walked her rocky path to recovery. For three months, he and his wife welcomed her into their home for an interview each week as he listened to her story and helped her to come to terms with her past. She regarded him as the one safe man in her life. He went with her to the disciplinary hearing held in another stake for her abuser, and sat beside her as she was questioned by the stake presidency and high council. During the proceedings, the stake president turned to the home teacher and asked him if he believed Lucy and her story. Lucy says,

“I expected him to respond immediately and affirmatively. I thought he would tell them that I was known for my honesty, that I had never exaggerated any part of my story and had been careful only to tell what I was absolutely sure had happened. I thought he was my ally and that he would spring to my defense, for it was obvious that none of the other fifteen men around that table thought I was reliable. But he didn’t. He paused and I could see he was choosing his words very carefully. All he said was, ‘I have no reason not to believe her.’ I was completely devastated and knew that if he didn’t know I was telling the truth, there was no point trying to convince anyone else. All these men were the Lord’s representatives. I thought they had only to ask the Lord and He would tell them my account was true. Seventeen years later, I still don’t know what to do with knowing that wasn’t the case” [25].

In contrast, Angela’s stake president heard her account of abuse at the hands of her father with empathy and compassion, but Angela doubted he would believe she had told the truth if her father himself were to speak to him. She showed him a letter her father had written her, ostensibly an attempt at reconciliation, but really an effort to accrue evidence that he was a caring, diligent father. Angela says,

“My father is a clever, articulate man. I’m not clever or articulate. I didn’t think anyone would take my word against his. I gave the letter to the president and said, ‘I defy you to believe me when you’ve read this. He’ll convince you he’s the best father in the world.’ He read the letter carefully, gave it back to me, looked me in the eyes and said very deliberately, ‘I believe you, Angela.’ I can’t tell you how that made me feel. No one had ever said that to me before. Ever. It made all the difference in the world” [26].

When a woman is believed, she is no longer alone. She immediately has someone on her side, which is an enormous relief. She is desperate to know what she can do to reclaim her life and is likely to be receptive to counsel from this new ally. She has little confidence in her own judgement or value and will probably be willing to accept his advice. At this critical juncture, having demonstrated his belief in her, what can a priesthood leader do to help her on her long and arduous road to wholeness? Might this be a good time to preach forgiveness and a new commitment to spiritual growth? After all, victims of childhood sexual abuse, of all people, have plenty to forgive.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, how much help would it have been to the man lying in the gutter, barely alive after his severe beating, if the Good Samaritan had preached forgiveness to him as he lay there on the road to Jericho? Or had suggested prayer and fasting would cure him? Or if he had charged off into the hills to bring the perpetrators to justice? Or if he had suggested that perhaps the man was exaggerating his injuries for ulterior motives? Or had chastised him for being in the wrong place or for being a tempting target to the bandits? Or if he had given him minimal help to get to the town and then abandoned him? Or if he had taken him to the inn and told him he had one week to get better and then he would be on his own? Clearly, none of these responses would have been appropriate. Instead, the Good Samaritan believed the evidence of his own eyes, “bound up [the man’s] wounds, set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.” When he left the inn, he gave money to the host and told him, “Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee” [27].

The woman who discloses childhood sexual abuse to her bishop is experiencing a similar emotional crisis to the physical emergency suffered by the man on the road to Jericho. Preaching forgiveness to her is no more appropriate than it would have been to preach forgiveness to him.

Sometimes, we equate spirituality with emotional health. We have no difficulty understanding that our bodies and our spirits are separate, or that we can have damaged bodies while our spirits are in good health. While our spiritual wholeness will certainly influence the effect physical illness has on us and our recovery process, we do not tell sick people that their condition is the result of their spiritual insufficiency. We have more difficulty understanding that the spiritually diligent can be emotionally damaged, and we are tempted to make the assumption that someone who is having emotional difficulties must be spiritually lacking. Of course, one has an impact on the other, but doing all we can to stay close to the Lord does not give us immunity from emotional pain or from psychological injury. We do not expect the bereaved to bounce back to mainstream living after the death of a beloved spouse, parent, sibling or child, even with the knowledge we have that their death is an essential part of their eternal progression and that we shall see them again. We allow them a period of grieving, and empathize with the loneliness they feel as they face life without their loved one. Just as our bodies are inevitably bruised, perhaps broken, when they are assaulted, and our souls face pain and heartache after bereavement, so emotional well- being is bound to be compromised by the kind of assault suffered by women who were sexually abused as children.

The kinds of injuries likely to be sustained by someone who falls out of a tree are predictable to a degree, depending on factors such as how far he fell, how he landed, his age, how quickly he received help and so on. Treatment can be determined accordingly. In the same way, psychological injuries of various kinds can be expected and treated following childhood sexual abuse. Neither physical nor psychological injury is necessarily affected by our spirituality, although the healing process from both can be profoundly influenced by it. Similarly, although miracles of healing occur as a result of priesthood blessings (bones are mended, tumors vanish) they are not the inevitable result of spiritual maturity and faith. For most of us, there is a process to submit to, professional experts to consult and trust, and a treatment plan to follow, which may lead to complete healing, or to a partial recovery that leaves a degree of permanent impairment. This is as true of psychological trauma as it is of physical trauma.

We are able to accept easily in the case of physical illness that it is wise to put ourselves in the hands of medical experts. We know that incorrect diagnosis or the wrong treatment will not only put recovery in jeopardy, it may actually make the patient more sick. When our friends or family come to us for support during times of serious sickness, we expect to offer that support in practical or emotional ways. We may relieve them of some of their chores. We may visit with them, bring them gifts, listen to their concerns and fears, and their experience of illness. We do not expect to advise them on what treatment they should be receiving. Certainly, we would not contradict their own doctors’ advice. Even if we are concerned that they are not receiving the best care and feel it necessary to suggest a second opinion, we would not presume to prescribe proper treatment ourselves.

It would be no more appropriate for someone to whom a survivor of childhood sexual abuse has disclosed to attempt to prescribe treatment for her. The role of a confidant is to listen, encourage, reassure, uplift, give spiritual insight and practical help. It is not to supplant the role of a properly qualified therapist. There is help available for survivors. There are treatments with proven track records. There are plenty of resources for women to use to supplement whatever help they receive.

The survivor’s bishop is especially well-equipped to make therapy and all this kind of support accessible to her, and encourage her to use these sources. He must not set himself up as an expert, and give advice he does not know to be useful. A woman who has suffered childhood sexual abuse has experienced one of the most traumatic emotional assaults it is possible to endure. If she looks to her bishop for help, his role must be supportive and not prescriptive. He can encourage her to find appropriate treatment. He can be a friend, confidant, nurturer, practical helper, spiritual counselor. He cannot be a therapist. Even if a bishop is a therapist by profession, his role as a survivor’s spiritual leader is not to give her therapy any more than a bishop who is a doctor would treat the members of his ward who are sick. Their professional training will certainly give them understanding and perspective that should prove helpful in their ecclesiastical role, but they are different roles and must be treated as such. Of course, a bishop may be inspired to give a survivor specific counsel for her own particular situation. That is his right and privilege, and part of his calling, but let him be sure that any advice he gives is divinely sanctioned rather than a personal opinion he does not know to be helpful.

Some basic guidance for bishops is available in the booklet Child Abuse Help for Ecclesiastical Leaders published by the Church. If a bishop is counseling a woman who was sexually abused as a child, he needs as a very bare minimum to be familiar with this booklet. Other guidance is easily available through LDS Family Services [28]. There is also a plethora of reputable information to help him as he tackles specific issues. [29]

Elder Richard G. Scott believes that a survivor of childhood sexual abuse needs “to understand the principles which will bring healing,” and that she will come to that understanding “most often… through an understanding priesthood leader who has inspiration and the power of the priesthood to bless [her].” He further teaches the survivor that “[your bishop’s] calling allows him to act as an instrument of the Lord in your behalf. He can provide a doctrinal foundation to guide you to recovery… He has the right to be inspired of the Lord in your behalf. He can use the priesthood to bless you… He will help you regain self-confidence and self-esteem to begin the process of renewal… he can help you identify appropriate protection and professional treatment consistent with the teachings of the Savior” [30].

Elder Scott has high expectations of priesthood leaders. Most of the women who approach their bishops do so as a result of this kind of prophetic counsel. While some may come implicitly trusting their bishop’s goodness and capacity to help, for many it is absolutely counter-intuitive to approach a male authority figure and trust him with the most painful and private aspects of her life, which she may not have disclosed to anyone else. Nevertheless, these women come with at least some if not all of the expectations apostolic guidance such as Elder Scott’s has encouraged. It is vital they are not disillusioned. While all who accept a supportive role in the lives of survivors need to approach their task with humility and reverence for the sanctity of the soul of the woman they are supporting, this is especially true of priesthood leaders. Theirs is a privileged and sacred role and needs to be taken seriously and discharged in a spirit of prayer and compassion.

Speaking specifically about rape victims, Elder Rex D. Pinegar gave counsel to bishops that applies equally well in regard to victims of childhood sexual abuse: “Upon you rests the heavy spiritual responsibility to preserve her spiritual and emotional stability. You may be the only one to share the burden with her and the Lord. Extend your understanding, confidence and sympathy. Preserve in totality the extreme trust placed in you. Prayerfully seek the counsel of the Lord in the help you extend, and reassure her of the Lord’s love for her… She will need the inspired strength of priesthood power to sustain her. A blessing would be most appropriate. Her emotions are likely to be at the breaking point for an extended period of time while you strive to rebuild her confidence. You must not fail her in any commitment you make, or her confidence in men may never be regained. This is very serious, and all such brethren are responsible before God in all their counselling and priesthood responsibilities” [31].

Bishops are entitled to divine help as they magnify their calling, and the Lord is willing and waiting to be used. One of the reasons men are given the priesthood is to enable them to serve more effectively. With His input, bishops can be saviors on Mount Zion in ways they had never anticipated. And while it is important they do not fail these vulnerable women, successfully reaching out does not imply perfection or never making mistakes. This is bound to be a journey of discovery for both bishop and survivor as they learn how to walk forward in their new roles with the Lord as a partner to each. The bishop will gain insights into the ways in which he can minister to her needs and she will increasingly see herself as a beloved daughter of Heavenly Parents with unlimited eternal potential.

He will understand that she needs the first aid of being listened to and believed. He will give her reassurance that she is acceptable in the sight of the Lord and that what happened to her was not her fault. He will show her what the pure love of Christ means, and will treat her always with respect and dignity. He will make resources available to her and allow her to move forward at her own pace, never imposing “progress goals” on her. He will encourage her to be in control of her own recovery, knowing she has already been robbed of her free agency under appalling circumstances and that this is not the time to make more demands of her which she cannot possibly meet, but feels she cannot refuse to agree to.

By allowing her to own her journey, never imposing his personal ways of thinking on her or prescribing the direction she should move towards healing, he will help her to see a different world from the one she is used to: a world where men honor women and their free agency, where she always has choices and control over her own life, and where a bright future awaits her. In this new, safe world, interacting with a male authority figure in positive ways that make her feel good about herself and her potential, she can begin to trust the Savior enough to interact with Him in ways that will eventually allow her to give Him all her burdens and receive the gift of forgiveness from Him. Crucially, she will be able to forgive herself for having been a victim. Thus, her bishop will have preached the most effective sermon on forgiveness possible by gently showing her how to avail herself of the gifts of the Atonement. And while it is true that anyone who supports a survivor can love her and encourage her to take control of her recovery, it is only her bishop who has the very particular right to minister to her on the Lord’s behalf. When this sacred relationship functions as the Lord intended it should, it is a magnificent and powerful partnership, and miracles inevitably ensue.

To return to the parable of the Good Samaritan, we can imagine how the relationship between him and his patient might have developed. Perhaps they became good friends. Perhaps the wounded man trusted his rescuer with his story of how he came to be on the road to Jericho, who his attackers were, and what they stole from him. Maybe, when the pain was under control, and his body was mending, he talked about his feelings. He may have expressed the anger he felt at the injustice he suffered and the losses he incurred. If he did, I think the Good Samaritan would have heard such honesty without judgement or criticism. And a little further down the road, perhaps they discussed the principle of forgiveness. They would have talked about it as a process of letting go, of leaving matters in the Lord’s hands, and trusting Him to make things right in His own time. They would have discussed how forgiveness could be a blessing to the victim as a means of empowerment and drawing closer to the Lord. I do not believe the Good Samaritan would have preached it as an obligation to be discharged as quickly as possible if his friend were to save his own soul. Nor do I believe the Good Samaritan would suggest that his friend’s forgiveness could be measured by his willingness to accept his attackers into his life with open arms, or that it involved any responsibility for their repentance process.

If it is our privilege to be allowed into the lives of those who have been sexually abused as children, let us be sure that we “preach good tidings… bind up the brokenhearted… proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound… to comfort all those that mourn… to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified” [32].


[1] See Herman, Judith Lewis (2001) Trauma and Recovery from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, Pandora Edition, London pp33-50; Anonymous (1993) The Path to Wholeness, Confronting Abuse, Horton, Anne, Harrison B Kent and Johnson, Barry L Eds, Deseret Book Company, Salt lake City, Utah, p 364; LDS Family Services, Healing From Sexual Abuse Participant’s Manual, pp 61-62; Hubbard-Ford, R A, (2008) Child Sexual Abuse Training Manual, Counselling Skills for Religious Leaders Guidebook for Helping with Child Sexual Abuse Issues, Author Copyright, pp17-23 [Back to manuscript].

[2] Matthew 6:15 [Back to manuscript].

[3] D&C 64:10 [Back to manuscript].

[4] Matthew 18:22 [Back to manuscript].

[5] McConkie, Bruce R. (1996) Mormon Doctrine, Second Edition, Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, pp 292-298 and 630-632 [Back to manuscript].

[6] See Kimball, Spencer W. (1968) The Miracle of Forgiveness, Deseret Book, Salt Lake City pp 261-275 [Back to manuscript].

[7] Scott, Richard G. (1992) Healing the Tragic Scars of Abuse, Ensign, May 1992, pp 32 and 33 [Back to manuscript].

[8] Harrison, B. Kent (1993) How Can I Help? Concepts and Cautions for Ecclesiastical Leaders and Others, Confronting Abuse p 220 [Back to manuscript].

[9] Wendy L. Ulrich (1993) When Forgiveness Flounders: For Victims of Serious Sin, Confronting Abuse pp 348-49 and 358 [Back to manuscript].

[10] LDS Family Services p 91 [Back to manuscript].

[11] Author’s personal correspondence [Back to manuscript].

[12] D&C 64:9 [Back to manuscript].

[13] See Gardiner, Edward (1993) Spiritual Abuse, Confronting Abuse p 177-78; LDS Family Services pp 91, 155-56 [Back to manuscript].

[14] See Hanni, Geraldine Gold (1993) Adult Survivors: A Path to Healing, Confronting Abuse pp 261 and 265 [Back to manuscript].

[15] See Mrazek, Patricia Beezley and Kempe, C. Henry Eds, Sexually Abused Children and Their Families, Pergamon Press p 43. I purchased this book as a library discard, and it has pages missing, so I do not know the year of publication, although the research dates from pre 1977 to the 1980s. The editors were Pergamon Press, I assume in Oxford, England. [Back to manuscript].

[16] See Roundy, Lynn M. (1993) Incest: Sexual Abuse in the Family, Confronting Abuse p100; Bass, Ellen and Davis Laura (1988) The Courage to Heal, Harper and Row, New York p18; Herman p98 [Back to manuscript].

[17] See Bell, Elouise M. and Mattis, Noemi P. When the Mind Hides the Truth: Why Some Abuse Victims Don’t Remember, Confronting Abuse pp 61-62 [Back to manuscript].

[18] See Scott, Ensign, May 1992 p 32; Hubbard-Ford Leaders pp17-23 [Back to manuscript].

[19] We know that most sexual abuse is perpetrated by men. See Mrazek and Kempe p 43-44; Hubbard-Ford p10. All the women whose stories I know were abused by men. Three were also abused by their mothers. [Back to manuscript].

[20] See Herman p 111 [Back to manuscript].

[21] See Christensen, Deborah A., Regaining Self-Esteem and Trust, Confronting Abuse pp 281-283 [Back to manuscript].

[22] See Herman, pp 8-9; Dushku, Judith Rasmussen, Roadblocks to Recovery, Confronting Abuse p 292 [Back to manuscript].

[23] See Bass and Davis, pp 33-37; Anonymous, The Path to Wholeness, Confronting Abuse p 363 [Back to manuscript].

[24] See Scott, Richard G., (2008) To Heal the Shattering Consequences of Abuse, Ensign, May 2008, p 42 [Back to manuscript].

[25] Author’s personal correspondence [Back to manuscript].

[26] Author’s personal correspondence [Back to manuscript].

[27] Luke 10:34-35 [Back to manuscript].

[28] See www.lds.org/topics/abuse [Back to manuscript].

[29] See, for example, Confronting Abuse, especially Dorothea C. Murdock and S. Brent Scharman, A Program for Treatment pp 300-303 and Warren R. Nielson, The Role of the Gospel in Recovery pp 332-337 [Back to manuscript].

[30] Scott, p 33 and 32 [Back to manuscript].

[31] Pinegar, Rex D., “Let God Judge between Me and Thee” Dealing with the Trauma of Rape, The Ensign, October 1981, p 35 [Back to manuscript].

[32] Isaiah 61:1-3 [Back to manuscript].

Full Citation for this Article: Lawrance, Roslyn (2017) "Binding Up the Brokenhearted, Preaching Forgiveness to Women Who Were Sexually Abused as Children," SquareTwo, Vol. 10 No. 2 (Summer 2017), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleLawranceForgiveness.html, accessed <give access date>.

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