Here are some thoughts on the McKenna Denson, Joe Bishop, MTC rape incident. As a self-appointed Mormon Apologist, I write frequently on the truth and beauty of the lived Mormon experience. There is nothing true or beautiful about this incident, but I have been asked my opinion several times and have some thoughts.
I do believe McKenna Denson fully. I believe Bishop raped her. I believe she told LDS General Authority Carlos Asay about it. I admit I’m not naturally one to always believe the victim, which should be a default practice, and I kind of didn’t want to believe her and at first felt a little unsure, but the evidence is pretty compelling. Her story is being corroborated. He admitted partially to it, and considering he has been a “half confessor” his entire life, that’s as good as a confession for me.
Something I learned as a late-in-life convert to feminism is that rape victims are usually not believed. Yet are usually telling the truth. Very interesting fact. I did not know that. Now I do. I think the Church and many church members are learning along with me. Poor form for all of us not to know that. But let’s learn from this.
In the original audio and transcript, it was distributed with the description “attempted rape” and Denson accused of “trying to rape me” but stopping short because of not having an erection. I, being optimistic, was wondering if Bishop had decided not to rape her at the last second, which might have been interpreted by Denson as trying to but failing. But later reports show that he actually did rape her, penetrating before he stopped. This is not attempted rape. This is rape. And with this knowledge, I take back any of that original theorizing.
The Church has put out three official statements now. The first one where they referenced her as an Exmormon and as serving a partial mission and saying they were letting the justice system investigate Bishop (absurd since Church lawyers know there was no investigation due to statute of limitations). That first statement was really poor and hurtful. No excuse for it. We need to do better. Subsequent statements have been much better. School of hard knocks, I guess.
I do not believe this nonsense about the Church should have discerned he was a sexual predator and not called him to positions. I don’t think discernment, or any spiritual gift, is an ability to tell the future (or past) with certainty and act on it. This is one of those fundamentalistic views that need to be stamped out.
I’m not sure about the accusation that the Church knew Bishop was a sexual predator prior to being called to be MTC President. He said he confessed to Elder Wells, but he’s a half-confessor, and there is a difference between confessing more normal type infidelity, which it seemed like he had done, vs. confessing sexual predator behavior. I might be missing some information, but I don’t think any of his admitted behavior prior to the MTC would fall in the “sexual predator” category.
I think there is ample evidence that the Church bungled things while Bishop was MTC president and asked Elder Asay for help. And later when Denson went to her bishop and church headquarters for help and for justice and was denied. That’s a hard lesson to learn. A lot of public embarrassment and $5M in a settlement or whatever it will be. But the Church did wrong and needs to repent just like it teaches its members to do. As much as it saddens me that my church is getting embarrassed over this, I’m glad Denson is suing the Church.
The whole leaked dossier thing is also a mess. Apparently the Church hired outside legal counsel on this, and part of that work was to put together a dossier on Ms. Denson, which after being sent to Bishop’s son acting as his attorney, got leaked to the public. In it was information attempting to smear Ms. Denson’s character and even included the name of a child she gave up for adoption. Horrible. Disgusting. It’s possible the Church is not directly culpable for this. But it’s possible they are. And at a minimum, they should have managed their outside legal firm better. Really bad.
Weaponizing. In today’s age of fiercely contested partisan politics, we in our society have a pattern of weaponizing every bit of news to slay the other side. It’s difficult as a Mormon to face this story humbly and admit fault the way we should, because some people are using it as a weapon to beat us just to beat us. So we get defensive and are inclined to defend a sexual predator and the church even when it’s clearly been in the wrong. We need to be better than that. Just because church enemies are capitalizing on this, doesn’t mean that there are not real victims and wrongdoing that needs addressed.
Demanding excommunication. I’m not on board with this. I’ve said before I don’t think the Church should excommunicate anyone for sin. This case is horrible and Bishop should be in prison right now, but I’m not swayed on my position on excommunication. If someone is called in and desires to repent, even if they’re not repenting successfully or don’t even seem very serious about it, I don’t think that person should be excommunicated. People want justice in a case like this, but our public laws and criminal and civil court system are for justice. That’s not the Church’s role, in my opinion. I just don’t see the New Testament Jesus excommunicating someone. I do absolutely think, though, that the Church should flag members who are deemed sexual predators or unsafe characters and not allow them to serve in certain callings.
Most of the details of this case are over 30 years old, and I hope the Church has changed its processes since then to reduce the risk of this type of thing happening. And also for bishops and others to be more responsive in responding to accusations of sexual or other crimes or wrongdoings. But some of the mistakes are happening in real time. That’s very discouraging.
In summary, the whole thing stinks. Jordan Peterson, my new favorite religious philosopher, says that to be Christian we need to take on the sins of the world, feel them, repent for them, and redeem them through right action. As a Mormon, I need to take responsibility for this great crime that’s been committed and perpetuated by my church and repent for it.
My paradigm of Mormonism and my testimony of the goodness of the church doesn’t rely on my leaders being perfect. But it does rely on the Mormon lived experience being true and beautiful. It wasn’t for McKenna Denson. I hope we can face this head on, and do the right thing for her, for others who have experienced similar things, and to stop it from happening in the future.