In this column, I discuss Joseph Bishop, the defilement of sacred spaces, the widespread loss of trust in benevolent institutions, and how art can help to process it all.:
After news broke last week about a sex scandal at the Provo Missionary Training Center, I decided to make some time to re-watch the 2016 Oscar winner, “Spotlight.”
The film generates suspense and catharsis by focusing on the grinding process of investigative work of journalists at the Boston Globe around 2002, before they published nearly 600 stories uncovering widespread sexual abuse by priests in the Boston area, as well as the institutional attempt to cover up the abuse, an ironic effort to preserve trust in the church.
As I watched the film again last week, I looked for similarities and differences between that scandal and the one currently embroiling my church.
The scandal, as it has been disseminated in several published stories, in police reports and in official statements from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is that Joseph Bishop, while he was the president of the MTC in the 1980s, had a private room in the basement of the MTC, where he asked a sister missionary to expose her breasts to him for his gratification. She alleges that he also attempted to rape her, and the church — in its second statement to the public — admitted that church leaders have known about multiple women making allegations against Bishop since at least 2010.
Bishop remains a member of the church in good standing to this day.
Strangely, it would appear from my social media feeds that whether this currently developing story is a scandal in the first place may be in question. This tragic story, some say, is just a one-off, a case of a “bad apple,” not an indication of systemic corruption. In online discussions, I’ve seen some among the Mormon faithful show more skepticism and mistrust toward fellow churchgoers calling foul on the church than they can muster toward the church itself, or its leaders. Others are more skeptical of the first woman who came forward than they are of her alleged abuser.
But the story hit me personally, in part because I was employed by the MTC for four years as a teacher, and those years were among the most satisfying and uplifting years of work I’ve ever had, despite the unique challenges they posed. I’m a Mormon who, like many of us, believe in the existence of sacred spaces, and who would identify the MTC in Provo as just such a space.
It is beyond disturbing to me that a place so special to me would have a secret history. That somewhere in the vicinity of some of my most uplifting experiences, a room existed where a man responsible for the spiritual and physical well-being of young, faithful missionaries committed acts of sexual abuse. That within feet of that room, missionaries were and continue today to be instructed that “perfect obedience” to mission leaders would lead to heavenly blessings, as well as assurances of physical safety.