“All of the shame that my abuser should have carried, I was carrying.”
Content warning: Sexual assault, abuse
Amy Hall was groomed for years by the bishop in her Bakersfield, California Mormon church. He paid extra attention to her, giving her candy and compliments.
“You get two candies because you’re so special and pretty, but don’t tell anyone,” he used to say.
When Hall was 10 years old, the bishop began bringing her into his office alone to ask her different questions. Soon after, he ordered her to lift up her dress and remove her underwear. He sexually assaulted her.
The abuse continued for several years.
Hall reports the bishop manipulated and shamed her into secrecy. “I was forced to keep it a secret, intimidated into thinking that if I told anyone what he did, then someone would die.”
The abuse significantly impacted Hall and she developed severe PTSD and depression — it wasn’t until her late twenties when she finally spoke to a counselor that she could talk about what happened.
Hall recalls how she tried to tell a church leader when she was a teenager, but as soon as she said her abuser’s name he cut her off and wouldn’t let her talk.
“It felt as if he already knew what I might say and he didn’t want to know what had happened, so he shut down the conversation.”
Hall, now 58 and living in Oregon, is still in treatment. “I continue to struggle. My abuser took so much from my childhood and never faced any consequences for his actions.”
Hall has since consulted with an attorney and reports that the church offered her a small monetary settlement, but only if she would agree to not speak about the abuse. Hall declined that offer.
Despite the national headlines over sexual abuse in religious institutions and the public outcry, many religious leaders continue to cover up abuse, fight reforms that would provide some justice to survivors, and harbor pedophiles.
In 2018, it was reported that in Pennsylvania over 1,000 children were abused by 300 priests and it was cravenly covered up for the past 70 years.
Church leadership also went to great lengths to block and delay the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report which outlined the details of horrific, ongoing sexual abuse, rape, child pornography, and a monumental cover up.
Many abusers who left the church to avoid being exposed have never been named or faced any criminal charges — and some of them still work with children in other organizations.
Abuse can happen across different religious institutions — it’s not relegated to just one church, one state, or denomination — but the survivors of the abuse, including abuse from decades ago, are often left with enduring trauma and pain.
The trauma is often significantly compounded when religious figures — the very people children are taught to trust and respect — silence victims, dismiss the abuse, and fail to hold abusers accountable.
Sarah Gundle, a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City that has worked extensively with trauma survivors, says that “abuse and coercion by religious figures and institutions can be a double betrayal. The impact from the abuse is already substantial, but when victims are then silenced, shamed, and the institution is prioritized over the victim, the trauma from that can be just as significant.”
“Religious institutions are supposed to be a place where people feel safe, but when that system is the source of trauma and it fails to protect you, the impact is profound.”
Shame is often a tactic used by abusers to silence victims — and in religious institutions it’s a potent weapon of control since so much of the congregation’s identity can be tied to the notion of “chastity” and “worthiness.”
Melissa Bradford, now 52, says that when she was 8 years old, she was sexually assaulted by an elderly neighbor. Using fear and intimidation, he coerced her into keeping the abuse a secret.
As a terrified child, she thought she had done something wrong and internalized intense shame.
When she was 12, the bishop at her church in Millcreek, Utah interviewed her, asking invasive questions and if she was “keeping a life of chastity.”
He also gave her a pamphlet on chastity that said, “If you didn’t fight even unto death you had outlawed your virtue to be taken” — essentially saying that if someone didn’t fight their abuser to their death, they were to blame.
After this, Bradford felt even more so that the abuse was her fault. Like many survivors, she felt incredible shame.
“All of the shame that my abuser should have carried, I was carrying,” Bradford says. She spent most of her teen years suicidal.
“This pedophile had already stolen so much of my childhood. What was left of it, the church stole.”
These types of one-on-one “interviews” that Bradford (and Hall) experienced are not uncommon.
Sam Young, a father and advocate for children in Houston, Texas started the organization Protect LDS Children to raise awareness and take action to stop this practice.
Young reports that children in the Mormon church are often expected to meet alone with a bishop, usually beginning in early adolescence, and are asked a series of extremely invasive and inappropriate questions.
Religious figures are known to ask questions about a young person’s sexual activity under the guise of assessing purity — when in actuality, asking about sex and masturbation only serves to intimidate, shame, and frighten them.
“Children are being shamed and humiliated during these interviews and this has had a significant, long-term impact on their well-being. These policies have harmed tens of thousands of people. This is about the basic human rights of children,” states Young.
Young has been excommunicated from the church for speaking out about these harmful interviews.
Ethan Bastian says that he was also “interviewed” many times and asked invasive questions at his West Jordan, Utah church. After he shared with a bishop that as an adolescent boy he had masturbated, he was treated as if he was a deviant.
“I was shamed for what I had shared and later forced to decline taking the sacrament in front of everyone.”
Fearing more retribution and humiliation, Bastian was fearful to disclose any “impure” thoughts (compounded by the fear of failing one of these interviews) and lied in subsequent interviews when he was asked these invasive questions.
But the guilt and fear he experienced from telling a lie was all consuming. “I thought I had committed the greatest sin,” Bastian shares.
Throughout his adolescence, the shame and guilt impacted Bastian significantly and he became depressed and suicidal. “I was convinced that I was a criminal and a threat to society and my family, that I must be a deviant and I didn’t deserve to live.”
When he was 16, Bastian wrote a suicide note and planned to take his life. On the verge of harming himself, he went to his parents, breaking down and divulging what he was going through.
“Fortunately, at that moment, my parents prioritized me and got me help,” he says.
Bastian, who’s now 21 and a mechanical engineering student in Kansas, finally received the necessary support and his mental health began to improve. Bastian and his immediate family are no longer involved in the church.
“I am one of the fortunate ones who had family that listened and responded. Many others do not have any support. The long-term impact from all of this has taken years to work through. It still impacts how I look at myself and my relationships with others,” Bastian says.
Gundle reports that even if these “interviews” only last a few minutes they can lead to long-term problems.
“How long something lasts has little to do with the extent of the trauma. A child’s safety can be altered within minutes and can have a lasting impact.”
Some are forced out of their congregations, shunned, and no longer treated as a member of the community. The abuser and the institution are prioritized over the victim.
“People often want to assume that it was just one bad person in their religious community and not the institutions fault — even when their leaders covered up or enabled the abuse,” Gundle explains.
“They want to believe that there is safety in their community and keep the institutions intact, but institutional betrayal can be devastating for victims,” she says.
“Losing their community, friends, and no longer being a part of the community’s events and weekend activities isolates victims and exacerbates the trauma that they experience,” Gundle adds.
Even as victims are silenced, shunned, and denied any real justice or repair, religious institutions continue to be rewarded with privileges — such as tax exempt status — despite their crimes.
“They should be held to the highest standards. The misuse of power and lack of accountability for the abuse and the cover up is so blatant,” says Hall.
Why are institutions that operate like criminal enterprises (when it comes to the abuse of children) still being given these privileges, ones that other organizations who harbored pedophiles wouldn’t retain? What message does this send to victims?
Dana Nessel, the Attorney General of Michigan, who’s investigating sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy members, poses these same questions. “Some of the things I’ve seen in the files makes your blood boil, to be honest with you.”
“When you’re investigating gangs or the Mafia, we would call some of this conduct a criminal enterprise,” she says.
However, as long as religious leaders continue to prioritize the institution over the well-being of their congregants, victims will continue to be denied the full measure of justice, due process, and the necessary support to heal.
Until then, survivors like Bradford continue to raise their voices.
“I am not afraid anymore for people to know what happened,” she says. “If I am quiet then nothing will change.”
Misha Valencia is a journalist whose work has been featured in The New York Times, Washington Post, Marie Claire, Yahoo Lifestyle, Ozy, Huffington Post, Ravishly, and many other publications.