Hargis: Shame, Control and Abuse in Church Organizations

Daily Utah Chronicle [Salt Lake City, UT]

July 17, 2023

By Gwen Christopherson

When I transferred from public school to a private Catholic school at the age of 11, I knew next to nothing about religion. I’d previously attended a public school in the Pacific Northwest — my academic experience up to that point had no relation to religion. In Catholic school, I had to learn very quickly what Christianity expected of me. The curriculum taught us that restraint and control were vital to a healthy relationship with God. You had to control yourself, your body and your mind. Otherwise, your soul was at stake. If you did not exercise restraint, you were using your bodily power to act in a way empowering the self, not the Divine.

I have since left the Catholic Church and abandoned everything it taught me. I quickly learned that abuse sees no consequences in religious organizations. Above all else, I saw a stark contrast between what I was taught and how the church was actually run. The leaders had none of the restraint that was so strictly enforced on me. They did whatever they wanted to whoever they wanted because they had religious control. They didn’t need restraint; they were God’s messengers. The abuse didn’t exist if all actions were carried out in His Holy Name.

It’s a common occurrence for people in power to use religion as a scapegoat for bad behavior. Restraint is enforced on the victims, not those in power. Instead, leaders expect forgiveness and love, and silence is inherent to maintaining the status quo. A great example of this is the recent BYU case involving a geography professor and his misconduct.

What Happened?

Michael James Clay, a now-retired professor from BYU, was initially charged with seven counts of forcible sexual abuse. He was reported by three of his female students, one of whom has been vocal about his abuse since 2020. He has taken a plea deal, reducing his felonies to three misdemeanors, and giving up his presumption of innocence in order to avoid testifying. Separate reports from three different women claim that Clay invited them over for private meetings. Clay would then force himself on them physically, saying God inspired him to initiate sexual contact.

He towered over these students with status and power by giving them informal “therapy sessions” as a religious authority. He also oversaw the geography department at BYU — other professors would remind his victims that Clay could withhold scholarships, internships and opportunities if he so pleased. He leveraged letters of recommendation and job opportunities. Although he met with each woman several times, Clay swore them to secrecy. He also made them delete any messages he sent to them through text.

Shame, Power and Control

Religion, particularly religious shame, promotes harm that is defined as love or caring acts. When abuse victims seek help from religious officials, they are met with the excuse that forgiveness is necessary.

I ended up leaving the Catholic church after I watched a priest defend molestation in the name of forgiveness. He was passionate about the concept — he screamed in front of the congregation about how sinister it would be to report sexual abuse to the police when really, he argued, the abuse is now in the hand of God, and it’s up to us to just forgive. It was a horrendous sermon to watch. And in Christian communities like the Catholic church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it’s a common message.

The lesson I most often heard during church sermons and theology classes was simple: if you are unrestrained, you are sinful. If you are unashamed, you are damned. Shame is an essential piece of the human experience if you are living a holy life, and there will be consequences to living shamelessly. Unless, of course, you are exempt from the consequences of shamelessness by your religious status. In that case, God becomes your alibi.

Clay is cited as giving the excuse that he “felt inspired from God to engage in physical contact” with his victims. His abuse was only the effect of his holiness, his relationship with God. His victims were meant to play along because such acts were done for the greater good.

Instances like these happen all the time in churches, and it’s rare that abusers see consequences for their actions. The church is not a legitimate organization that offers counsel and healing to those that have been wronged — they ignore abuse victims or keep them silent. They preach that forgiveness is key, while abusers continue to run rampant.

Control Versus Shame

There’s only so much I can know as an outsider to the LDS church, or any church, for that matter. I can only speculate as to what happens behind closed doors. But I can’t help but wonder about sexual abuse that happens in religious organizations, and the social politics that allow it to occur.

There’s a clash between the taught restraint of churchgoers, and their consequent shame if they are abused or violated by their leaders. Clay took on the role of a religious mentor to the women he forced himself upon, and incorrectly assumed that shame would inhibit them from reporting him. But views on church organizations are changing. Shame is now understood as a tool of control, not a necessity of divinity. Empowerment and transparency are on the rise, which will force church leaders and their organizations off the pedestals they have occupied for so long. And hopefully, it confronts the institutional proclivity for abuse.