Thanks to my regular reader, commenter, and friend Alexis, I have fallen down yet another true crime rabbit hole. Yesterday, I reposted a review of the now out-of-print book Doc, by true crime author Jack Olsen. I found out about Doc from the Recovery from Mormonism messageboard, a place where I’ve “hung out” online for years. I know from hanging out on RfM that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is no stranger to controversy. It’s also had its share of perverts among its ranks, some of whom have committed crimes that were, unfortunately, “swept under the rug”.
The story of Doc is about a non-Mormon physician named John Story who worked in Lovell, Wyoming, a heavily Mormon populated town. Story took advantage of the local mores and religious customs on Lovell as he perpetrated sex crimes on his female patients, many of whom were faithful members of the LDS church.
Alexis, who shares my interest in Mormonism, alerted me to a similar story about the late LaVar Withers, a Mormon physician from Rexburg, Idaho who similarly abused his patients. Rexburg, Idaho, like Lovell, Wyoming, is a town that is chock full of LDS church members. And, just as Dr. John Story took advantage of his patients, many of whom were sexually inexperienced and very vulnerable, Dr. LaVar Withers also took advantage of his patients. According to the Los Angeles Times, Withers was forced to give up his medical license in 1996 when someone finally spoke up about his unconventional examinations. He had been “practicing medicine” by giving his female patients inappropriate breast and vagina exams for over thirty years. Yes, people talked about it in town, but no one ever officially reported him to the police until the 1990s. He victimized women, but he also victimized young girls, under the guise of giving them “care”. LaVar Withers died in 2005.
Before I go any further, I want to state that I’m not specifically trying to pick on the Mormons. Having heard and read so much about disgraced Dr. Larry Nassar’s sex crimes against hundreds of female athletes, I know that this is a problem that doesn’t just affect members of the LDS church. However, I think it’s true that highly restrictive religions or other groups that emphasize sexual purity, virginity, patriarchy, and taking care of issues “internally” can lead to a lot of innocent people being abused by people with authority. Although gymnastics is not a religion, per se, it is a discipline that requires a lot of obedience. Gymnasts are taught to do what they’re told. Female gymnasts, in particular, are vulnerable because they’re usually children who are not yet ready to stand up to adults, particularly ones in authority like coaches and doctors. In that sense, women who are devout members of patriarchal religions, like Mormonism, may also be vulnerable to abuse by male church leaders or physicians.
Because my husband was a victim of domestic violence in his first marriage, as well as a former convert member of the LDS church, I am more aware of the cases affecting Mormons. I do know, however, that this is an issue that transcends a lot of communities– particularly those that are “closed” somehow. I would say that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with its somewhat secretive (they say “sacred) rituals, patriarchal authority systems, and emphasis on “callings”, may make some members more ripe for the picking by abusive people with authority, like Dr. John Story and Dr. LaVar Withers. Story was not LDS, but he served a heavily Mormon population. And his patients, particularly the females, were trained to trust and obey people like him.
Also consider that the LDS church does not have a professional clergy. The church is led by high ranking males who tend to be pillars of the community somehow, not necessarily people with training in religion or counseling. A man with a white collar career, say a doctor, professor, lawyer, or dentist, is likely to climb the highest echelons of church hierarchy. A lowly woman, especially one who doesn’t have a career, was not likely to be believed when she complains about someone like LaVar Withers, who was a popular and well-known physician and a pillar of the community.
But there were complaints– in fact, the earliest one dated from the mid 1960s. A woman named Carol Hannah visited Dr. Withers because she was having trouble shaking a bad cold. Somehow, her complaint about her cold turned into a very intimate breast and vagina exam. When she reported him to the police, they laughed at her and accused her of “misunderstanding” what he was doing. She was dismissed and her complaints were completely ignored. Other women who complained over the years were also ignored, and none of them were willing to sign their complaints against him, anyway. It was too shameful and scandalous for them.
In 1992, a parent wrote to the Madison Memorial Hospital’s then executive director, Keith Steiner, about how Withers had examined, without a nurse present, her daughter’s breast and pelvic area after she went to the emergency room having been hit in the head by a volleyball. Instead of thoroughly investigating the issue, Mr. Steiner wrote back that he had received an “absolute denial” of the allegations from Dr. Withers. Steiner added “I will say that I have not had any indication of this type of behavior from the doctor. He is greatly respected in our community.”
In the L.A. Times article about LaVar Withers, journalist Barry Siegel writes about what happened when a female church member confronted her bishop about Dr. LaVar Withers’ unconventional medical exams. The woman, Tee Andrew, was a convert to the church. She was highly respected and married to an accountant. Because her regular doctor had retired, she visited Dr. Withers, complaining of a severe migraine. She had heard stories about him, but figured he wouldn’t try anything with her, because her husband was in the room. And yet, even though Andrew’s husband was present, Dr. Withers still managed to feel up Tee Andrew’s breasts. He did so with a straight face, as if this was a perfectly normal and natural part of an exam for a migraine headache.
Tee Andrew then called the Idaho Board of Medicine, which reported that Dr. Withers had never been sanctioned by them. That was because there had never been any formal allegations against Dr. Withers, even though many people had informally complained. When Andrew called her former physician, Dr. Jud Miller, he said that he’d heard of “some problems”, but thought Withers had stopped. Then he advised Andrew to contact LaVar Withers’ “stake president”– that is the church leader above his bishop. Note that Miller didn’t tell his former patient to call the police or speak to the licensing authorities. She was told to keep this within the church. So she called LaVar Withers’ stake president, Farrell Young, a dentist who was the great great grandson of Brigham Young himself. According to the Los Angeles Times:
“I’m not going to mince words,” Andrew began. Then she told her story, and offered to take a polygraph test. According to Andrew, Young mainly expressed his sorrow and appreciation for her call, right up until she told him she meant to notify the police.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that now,” Young responded. “I’d appreciate you letting me take care of things from my end.”
In an interview months later with the Idaho Statesman newspaper, Young didn’t dispute this account. Yes, he agreed, he “may have said do not go to the police immediately,” because Mormon doctrine stresses forgiveness. “When people have a hurt, they should leave it alone. Put it away and look for the good.”
Sure enough… Andrew waited a month for action from Farrell Young against LaVar Withers. None ever came. He never contacted her with an update about the situation. So Tee Andrew finally went to the police and made her complaint. Then she started talking to other women in the community. Sure enough, the stories came pouring out. And that was what finally led to LaVar Withers’ resignation from medicine. However, he managed to leave the profession with a cheery news article, his reputation– temporarily– intact.
Again– these specific incidents have to do with the LDS church, mainly because that church was a specific interest of mine for a long time. It’s less so now, since Bill’s daughters are grown. But it’s not just the Mormons who have these issues with sweeping crimes under the rug and handling them “internally”. As anyone who has followed the Duggar family over the years knows, the Mormons do not corner the market on abusing women. Back in 2015, the entire planet was made aware of Josh Duggar’s propensity toward molesting women. It came out that Josh had sexually abused four of his sisters and a babysitter. And instead of reporting the issue to the police and having Josh deal with legal consequences, his parents chose to sweep the issue under the rug. Instead of getting counseling for their son, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar made him shave his head and sent him away to do hard labor for a family friend.
Years later, it came out that not only did Josh molest his sisters and a babysitter, he also cheated on his wife, Anna. Sadly, instead of divorcing Josh and taking their children away from him, Anna has stood by her man and had more children with him. Although we have not heard more reports about his misdeeds with women, I would not be surprised if the abuse continues. I’m all for letting people redeem themselves, but I don’t think the way religious groups handle these kinds of issues is particularly effective. Sweeping things under the rug doesn’t solve anything. There have to be real consequences and a commitment to contrition and restitution. Unfortunately, proven abusers, particularly those who get away with the behavior for many years, don’t tend to change their ways.
LaVar Withers was eventually sentenced to 30 days in jail on a misdemeanor battery charge against his patients. That is a ridiculously light sentence, especially given that Withers had complaints against him going back over 30 years. The LDS church also disciplined him by taking his “temple recommend” and placing him on probation. However, the whole thing was handled privately. It seems that restrictive religions tend to want to come up with their own discipline against members who violate the law. And those practices can lead to more abuse of the innocent.
Restrictive religions can also help create predators and allow them to flourish, even among non members. I reposted my articles about Heath J. Sommer, a Mormon psychotherapist who convinced female patients in the military that having sex with him would be therapeutic. After reading about Sommer, I started getting LDS vibes. I looked him up, and sure enough, he was a church member. And he no doubt used his church affiliation to make himself seem more trustworthy and humane as he told some of his clients that they should be giving him blow jobs as part of their therapy. I don’t know what Sommer’s specific issues are. I kind of wonder if maybe he has a problem with women in power, and that’s why he worked with females in the military. One of his victims was an Air Force colonel. Many people felt she should have known better, but she trusted him and expected that he would be competent. In some ways, the military can be as bad as strict religions in covering up and perpetuating abuse.
Many people will give religious people the benefit of the doubt, especially when the churchgoer is a man with multiple academic degrees and a successful career. Another example of this is Dr. Martin MacNeill, a Mormon doctor, lawyer, and bishop who murdered his wife after she’d had plastic surgery. People trusted Dr. MacNeill because of his lofty career and church status. But if anyone had taken the time to look beneath Dr. MacNeill’s “respectable” surface, they might have seen that he wasn’t as good a person as he seemed to be.
Anyway… I could write about this subject all day. It’s probably time I closed this particular post. But I will probably revisit this topic soon, because I think it’s an important one. I think our culture, especially, hates confrontation. Too many of us are willing to let things slide and sweep egregiously bad behavior under the rug. We blame ourselves when people do wrong. We look back on what we said and did for any indication that something bad that happened was our fault. This happens a lot with women, especially, and if you’re a part of a strict patriarchal group, such as a religion, the military, or even a sport like women’s gymnastics, it can be all too easy to surrender common sense and self-respect.
It can be so easy to let a fear of humiliation and shame scare us into keeping silent. It’s happened to me. Fighting back is hard, and sometimes it leads to disaster. I’m writing about this to encourage my readers to speak up rather than sweep up. Don’t let abusive people get away with their bad behavior. The longer they do it, the more emboldened they become. And if you don’t do your part to stop them, you become part of the problem and even a bit complicit when the next person suffers.