Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby, both ex-wives of former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter, are two individuals of only 7% of American Mormons who are divorced or separated.
Mormons have the one of the lowest divorce rates, and highest marriage rates of all religious groups in the US. Marriage is considered sacred and eternal, and Bishops are told not to advocate for divorce during marital counseling.
As uncommon as divorce is within Mormon churches, Porter’s ex-wives decided independently to take that step—after years of abuse.
Holderness and Willoughby reported their experiences of emotional, verbal, and physical abuse within their marriages in a story published by Daily Mail on Feb. 6. While stories like theirs are not exactly uncommon within the US, Porter’s essential role within the Trump administration forced their story into the limelight, catching the attention of both the public and the president.
Immediately following the publication of the allegations against Porter, Chief of Staff John Kelly, among other political figures, denied the accusations, and praised the integrity of Porter’s character, until, on the morning of Feb. 7, Daily Mail published a picture of a black eye Holderness had received after Porter punched her in a hotel room in 2005. Porter abruptly resigned from his White House position, and many individuals that had previously doubted the allegations revised their statements of support.
Porter continues to deny the accusations, calling them a “smear campaign” intended to damage his reputation and make him lose his job, which, in fact, they have.
In the aftermath of Porter’s resignation, many have begun to question the role of the Mormon church in perpetuating abusive relationships.
According to the official statements made by the Mormon church, there is no tolerance for abuse. The “Church handbook of instructions” states that “The church’s position is that abuse cannot be tolerated in any form.”
Both Holderness and Willoughby first sought help from Bishops within their local churches, but found that, for various reasons, the church leadership minimized their experiences, although both claim this was unintentional.
Willoughby explained that, when she had approached a Bishop about the abuse, she found two problems: First, he was concerned about Porter’s career and reputation, because, secondly, she was unable to articulate herself in a way that helped him understand how serious her circumstances.
These problems, according to Senior Columnist at Religion News Service, are really a product of a lack of training. Police, pastors, teachers, etc. are trained in how to spot abuse, as well as how to ask the right questions to find the information they need, but Bishops are often just ordinary in the community who volunteer for around 5 years.
On a Mormon blog called “By Common Consent,” the author calls for the church to respond in the midst of Porter’s resignation from the pulpit to support women who have been abused and tell them that the church is a place that can help them.
If churches do not explicitly work to end abuse, the author warns, “maybe [abused women] eventually [find] the strength to leave anyway. But overcoming all of the general psychological difficulty in breaking off a relationship, plus the hurdles of dissolving a temple marriage, plus ignoring official Priesthood and perceived Apostolic advice – it’s nothing short of an Olympic feat.”