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Rob Porter, and Mormonism's #MeToo Moment

Colbie Holderness says she met Rob Porter at a Mormon student congregation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Lifelong Mormons, they married in the church in 2003. When Porter turned abusive and their marriage went bad, Holderness said, they turned to the church for guidance.

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Daniel Burke, MJ Lee
Pamela Brown (CNN)
(CNN) — Colbie Holderness says she met Rob Porter at a Mormon student congregation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Lifelong Mormons, they married in the church in 2003. When Porter turned abusive and their marriage went bad, Holderness said, they turned to the church for guidance.

Porter, who had been a rising star in President Donald Trump's White House before abruptly resigning on Wednesday, has forcefully denied the accusations from two ex-wives, calling them part of a "smear campaign." He did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Both of the women Porter has been married to -- Holderness and Jennie Willoughby -- shared with CNN this week the unique role the Mormon church played in their troubled relationships.

For many Mormons, the first line of help outside the family is often the local bishop, a role somewhat akin to a pastor or a rabbi. But, unlike those clergy, the Mormon priesthood is occupied by part-time lay people with little formal training in pastoral work or counseling. And they are all men.

Holderness said Porter emotionally and physically abused her, choked her repeatedly, and in one instance, punched her in the face, leaving her with a black eye. But she said it was hard to talk about her experiences with her bishop, especially with her husband sitting beside her.

Eventually, she told three bishops that Porter was "being physical," she said. She's not sure they understood. She could almost see one wondering, "What does that mean?" Holderness recalls.

It wasn't until she met with a professional counselor, Holderness said, that she was warned about the gravity of her situation.

"It was the first time I had someone say to me: This is very serious. You might not feel like your life is in danger now but this is very serious and choking is something that can become life-threatening."

Holderness later divorced Porter, against her bishops' advice, she said.

Willoughby, who was married to Porter from 2009 to 2013, also said Mormon bishops discouraged divorce. One of the bishops worked with Porter and warned her that filing a protective order could harm her husband's career.

"I was just kind of stunned," Willoughby said.

Most religious marriage counseling, like all marriage counseling, is done quietly, with little public scrutiny, until someone famous or important is accused of something terrible. This week, that happened. Holdernesses' accusations against Porter, a rising star in the White House, were published in a British tabloid.

The political reckoning for Porter was slow, and then fast. His current and former bosses defended his character and lashed out at the accusers. But on Wednesday, Holderness released a picture in which she has a black eye, the result, she said, of Porter punching her in 2005. Porter resigned almost immediately.

The religious repercussions may take longer to play out, if they occur at all. But some Mormons say the Porter scandal raises serious concerns about whether the church's patriarchal culture and the belief that marriage is sacred and eternal -- a cornerstone of Mormon theology -- may prevent some spouses from leaving bad marriages.

"I see this as an extension of the #MeToo movement," said Kathleen Flake, a professor of Mormon studies at the University of Virginia. "It is almost inevitable that this will cause the Mormon church to examine their existing guidance to local church leaders."

'Zero tolerance for abuse'

The "Church Handbook of Instructions," created for bishops and other local Mormon leaders, is unequivocal about abuse. "The church's position is that abuse cannot be tolerated in any form," it says, according to a copy provided to CNN.

Mormons who abuse others are not allowed to enter sacred temples, nor can they work in church ministries. The handbook also provides hotlines for church leaders to consult legal advisers and professional counselors, and requires clergy to report abuse to secular authorities.

Asked about the counseling that Holderness and Willoughby say they received, Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said that it is "difficult to speak to specific circumstances without complete information from all involved, but the position of the church is clear. There is zero tolerance for abuse of any kind."

"Church leaders are given instruction on how to prevent and report abuse and how to care for those who have been abused," Hawkins continued.

But the handbook does not offer instructions on how to spot spousal abuse, how to discern types of abuse, or how to talk to spouses about it.

Hawkins said that the handbook, which is private, is occasionally updated online, where the church also provides additional resources for church leaders.

And some Mormons say the experiences of Holderness and Willoughby are not unique.

"The Rob Porter story typifies everything wrong with Mormon men not believing abused Mormon women," wrote one woman, identified only as "Carolyn," on the Mormon website By Common Consent. "I can't even count the number of first-hand accounts I've heard at this point, and I only started paying attention a few years ago. Easily dozens. Probably hundreds."

Unfortunately, abused spouses have trouble being heard in many faith communities, and even in the culture at large, said Jenn Oxborrow, who leads the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, where about 60% of the population is Mormon.

"People are not believed, they are blamed, or the abuse is minimized. Domestic violence is extremely complicated, and often happens gradually over time." Sometimes the signs are obvious, Oxborrow said, sometimes they are not.

Oxborrow noted that many Mormons have supported her work, from state lawmakers to local police who lobby on her behalf. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints honored her coalition just last year.

Flake, the Mormonism scholar, said it is fair to question the Mormon church's response to abusive spousal relationships. But it's also notable that both Holderness and Willoughby were savvy enough to seek secular help, and eventually left Porter.

"These women had a sense of their own power," Flake said. "And it is worth asking where that came from."

'They are not trained counselors'

In 2015, the Mormon church admitted women to high-level church councils for the first time.

It was a significant step, said Joanna Brooks, a writer, religion scholar and professor at San Diego State University. But it didn't erase the church's long history of all-male rule.

"For more than 100 years, women were not consulted in formulating doctrine, practice or policy. Our voices were not heard."

Too often, Brooks and other Mormons said, the church has split into gender-specific enclaves, with the men trusting and relying upon each other, to the exclusion of women.

"Men in Mormonism, like men in many parts of American life, spend a lot of time making decisions with each other," said Flake. "When men work closely with each other all their lives it can be harder for them to see other men as the problem when they are accused of abusing women."

Willoughby said she wrestled with whether to file a protective order against Porter after he smashed in a window in the home they had shared together. But the Mormon bishop she turned to for advice worked with her husband.

"He said in no uncertain terms that, once you do this, it's public, and was I sure that wanted to jeopardize Rob's career?"

Willoughby said she told other Mormon bishops about the abuse, too, as much as she could.

"If I'm being honest, I don't know how explicit I was about its exact nature."

The Mormon clerics urged her and Porter to seek therapy, Willoughby said, but never raised the prospect of divorce.

Holderness describes a remarkably similar experience.

Like Willoughby, she struggled to convey the abuse to the Mormon bishops and was counseled to try to work on her relationship with Porter.

"I don't want to chalk it up to them just being men and not caring. There were a variety of things in play," she said. "They are not trained counselors. They are there to help you resolve your marital issues. ... They are not supposed to encourage you to split."

Experts say it's hard to convey how deeply sacred marriage and family are to Mormons.

According to Mormon theology, only couples married in church temples can reach the highest heavens, and when they reach those celestial heights, they do so together, as a family bonded for eternity. Anything less than that idea can feel like failure, some Mormon women said.

According to a 2014 study, just 7% of American Mormons are divorced or separated, one of the lowest rates among religious groups.

But there's more to Mormon theology than marriage, of course.

The church teaches that all people can have direct access to God through prayer, without the intercession of any clergy -- male or female, said Brooks.

"Even when you get bad advice from a local leader, Mormonism teaches that all of us are beloved children of God, and can take that advice to God in prayer."

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