I just finished watching, “Abducted in Plain Sight,” the documentary about Jan Broberg’s abuse by Robert Berchtold, the pedophile who kidnapped and brainwashed her as a teenage girl. The Broberg’s and the Berchtold’s were families actively involved in their LDS ward. Berchtold’s predatory behavior, as documented in the show, was enabled on many levels within the community. Social structures such as parents, church leadership, and law enforcement were ill equipped to confront Berchtold’s behavior. Although I believe we are much better now at protecting our children from pedophiles, this documentary is an important glimpse at our vulnerabilities and how a predator was able to exploit them. If you haven’t watched it, it’s currently on Netflix.
There are a few things that stood out to me. First, the total honesty of the Brobergs in their interviews was remarkable. The honest account of everything that happened, including their shockingly bad judgement, had the ring of truth to it even though it was incredibly bizarre. So bizarre, it defies rational comprehension, and yet who would make it up? The homosexual blackmail, the seduction of the mom, the multiple abductions of the girl, the bribing of the Mexican guard, the abysmal failure of the justice system to protect the public and this poor girl from her abuser, combine to make an unforgettable story. If it were fiction, I would think it too improbable to gain a wide audience.
I want to explore the ways that Robert Berchtold was able to manipulate the social structure of the membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints to enable him in his crimes. He was a master manipulator who, as most predators do, was able to create a culture of silence through shaming his victims, hide behind a convincing facade of charisma, and finally twist the sympathies of victims and authority figures in his favor by casting himself as a victim.
First, he used shame as a tool to create a culture of silence. He seduced both of Jan’s parents and in doing so, he was able to blackmail them and dull their moral sensibilities. He had them so concerned about their own sins that they couldn’t see that he was orchestrating it all for his own ends. If they did see it, they felt powerless to fight it because he had fooled so many other people. He felt no guilt or remorse. He walked into the church building each week, took the sacrament, looked other members in the eye, while committing the blackest of sins. Predators sin with no remorse. They shame others while being themselves free of it. They entrap others in sin and then control them with guilt and threats. These are good people and often children who are manipulated, shamed, and lied to. They are kept in a haze of emotional exhaustion that keeps them from seeing what should be obvious. The problem is, it isn’t obvious, because predators are often incredibly skilled at living a double life and putting up a convincing facade that often includes societal status and money. That leads me to the second point.
Second, Robert Berchtold was able to use a facade of charm and financial success to mask the demon within. Members of the church are vulnerable to manipulation from flattering men who appear successful at business. There is something about the LDS culture that my seminary teacher observed many years ago. He mentioned it in class and I’ve never forgotten it. He said that many people see riches as evidence of God’s favor. We see someone who is wealthy and charismatic as righteous because he has success in the world. He said that you hear people in church mention that their money is a blessing from God. He argued that riches are no more a mark of righteousness now than they were at the time of the Savior. The reason I remember this point was because I was raised in the church and had never questioned that idea. “Of course,” I thought, “If you’re righteous God is going to give you money and success.” The dissonance of that seminary lesson has stayed with me, but over time I have found myself in firm agreement with my seminary teacher. In fact, I have often seen men who have power and influence, money and status, who have shown themselves to be predators both inside and outside of the church.
For anyone who is in doubt about the tendency of LDS culture to be vulnerable to the “money equals righteousness” fallacy, look at the fraud statistics. We are far more prone to involve ourselves in get rich quick schemes like network marketing, real estate schemes, ponzi schemes, or other high risk investments. Summer sales jobs are extremely common within our membership where promises of easy money are tossed out casually when the reality is often quite different. The Brobergs were good, simple, naive people who were vulnerable to the charismatic manipulations of a man who was nothing like them. Robert Berchtold was suave, seductive, an accomplished liar, and had most, if not all, of the church congregation and surrounding community convinced he was a good guy. Even after he abducted Jan and took her to Mexico, the church community was supportive of him. Why? Because they were victimized too. If a member of the church comes to us with a charismatic smile, a high profile calling, a good job, and a few flattering words, we are like putty in their hands. They victimize us and we are unprepared to defend ourselves. That is part of the reason Utah has the highest rate of financial fraud in the United States.
There was an article published in the Deseret News last April called, “Does Utah deserve the title of ‘fraud capital of the United States’?” It explains the reasons we as members are vulnerable to financial predators, but I suspect the same things could be said about our vulnerability to sexual predators. Thankfully, there is now a dedicated regional U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission office for Utah to combat fraud. It is the only state that has one. Hopefully that will help curb the trend. The state lawmakers have also stepped up creating a white collar crime offender registry similar to a sex offender registry to help inform and protect potential victims. As members, we can’t afford to be so naive as we have been in the past. It is time we started being as wise as serpents and not just harmless as doves.
The third point I wanted to make was how Robert Berchtold was able to manipulate the sympathy of those around him. He convinced Jan’s parents that part of his therapy for his pedophilia was to lay next to their daughter in bed alone with her. They thought by giving him access to their child that they were helping him recover. They were so consumed with fear and guilt that they felt obligated to sacrifice and do the “right thing.” Like Abraham offering up his son as a sacrifice, they were offering up their daughter to atone for their mistakes. I am convinced that the Brobergs not only allowed Berchtold’s abuse out of coercion, I believe they thought they were redeeming themselves. They were being charitable by allowing him to do this. This was AFTER he had abducted her and taken her to Mexico. I would find such manipulation to be unbelievable if I had not witnessed it with a predator and his victims in my own life. Skilled manipulators are able to convince their victims that they are the victims and that by enabling the abuse, you are doing a noble thing. If you call out their lies, you become the bad guy.
The manipulation of Jan was horrifyingly fantastic. He used the conditioning that we use with our children in the church to his advantage. He convinced her to believe a religious-like narrative in which her obedience to her omniscient alien parents would secure the safety of humanity. Her disobedience would bring calamity and destruction to her family. Children have an exaggerated view of their own power and are vulnerable to this kind of ego-centric narrative. By convincing her of this religious narrative, he made her into something of a cult member. Now, her parents were not only battling their own shame and their own sexual attractions, they were also battling their daughter who was as obsessed with being with Berchtold as he was with being with her. I can’t be certain, but I don’t think any of the Brobergs were aware of how other members of the family were being victimized until Jan was much older and no longer the object of Berchtold’s obsession. A culture of silence ensured that Berchtold was able to continue his abuse by isolating his victims.
So how can we, as members of the church, guard ourselves against these kinds of predators? First, we can say no to shame. There is no sin that is worth hiding. Christ has suffered for all of it. Confess it, forsake it, and give it over to Christ. The Savior can’t save us from the sins we hide. The scriptures say, “There hath no temptation taken you, but such as is common to man.” We all sin. Let’s be real about it and deal with it rather than obsess about what other people will think if they know. Predators take the mistakes people make, sometimes mistakes that they set them up to make, and use them as blackmail. If enough church members say no to shame and embrace the reality of the Savior’s atonement, those threats lose their power. The forgiveness of the Savior is empowering to victims. It allows us to regain our confidence and emotional strength which we can use to fight the abuse.
Second, we can learn the lesson my seminary teacher taught me all those years ago. Money and charm do not equal righteousness. Yes, most members with high callings have good jobs and nice stuff. It’s easy to think that the trappings of Earthly success are the mark of God’s favor. This becomes a kind of materialist faith in which God is a banker doling out material blessings to the faithful. The truth is, callings, money, jobs, and all the rest are what people see. God looks on the heart. None of that means anything to the Lord. There are plenty of our members hiding in high places in the church community who have black hearts. They can be doctor’s, lawyers, judges, church officials, and politicians. Sometimes they are brought to justice in this life and sometimes they aren’t. As disciples of Christ we need to start seeing one another as He does and not as the world does. If we do, we won’t be as easily deceived.
Third, we can talk to our kids about predators. We can tell them that it is never okay for an adult or anyone to touch them sexually. We can warn them of people who might use the church or other religious ideas to manipulate and victimize them. Before we can talk to our kids about predators, we have to be willing to accept their existence ourselves. The Brobergs seem like stupid people for believing the lies they were told. In truth, the only reason they believed Berchtold’s lies was because they wanted to believe them so badly. They wanted to believe that LDS men who go to church and have wives and families are good people who can be trusted with children. We cling to the illusions we want to have about the world and the dangers we are surrounded with. We don’t want to believe that evil exists and that it can take the shape of something that appears harmless and wholesome on the outside. We want to believe the false reality we believed before the evidence showed something else. If that means ignoring, minimizing, or denying that evidence, we will do it. Anyone can be a victim.
I’ve seen people manipulated by predators. I’ve seen entire family systems under the control of predators. It happens. I’ve been manipulated by them too. I’ve felt the guilt and shame of being a part of an enabling system; trapped in a false reality where good is evil and evil is good. Speaking lies is required; speaking truth is blaspheme. A culture of secrecy and silence keeps us from being agents of change to make our society better. As the world becomes more wicked and our national social fabric unravels, abuse will become more widespread. The internet makes the whole world a stalking ground for the predators of the world. We need to arm ourselves against the evils of our time. We need to say no to shame, no to materialistic religion, and no to a culture of silence that feeds the illusion that it doesn’t happen in our church.
When I was being manipulated by a predatory system, I knowingly put my children at risk. I allowed the predator access to my little boys because I was shamed into thinking that if I put up boundaries to protect them, that I would be hurting the predator’s recovery from depression. It was hard to open up about the situation. I felt like I couldn’t even write the truth in a private journal. I couldn’t even pray about it out loud. I wished I could just forget the things I had seen, heard and been told, but they kept intruding into my thoughts. The truth would not be denied. I broke the culture of silence. I talked to my bishop and my therapist. I prayed and pleaded to know what to do. The answer was unanimous. I was to protect my children. I did. I put up boundaries. When questioned by enabling family members, I was rejected. They denied telling me things I knew they had told me. It was implied that I was fabricating stories I would have never made up and wanted to forget. Even then, I desperately wanted to preserve a relationship with them. I stuck to the boundaries I had set, and to my knowledge, my boys were not harmed. I and they were lucky. I’ve overcome the need I felt to keep the secrets of the predatory system I was a part of. I don’t need to protect their secrets anymore. If any members of it read this, I suspect they will have no doubt of the identity of the predator. If they choose to read my next post in the series, there will be no doubt. They may be angry at me for tarnishing his memory, and that’s okay. I am done with playing this part.
He was a lifelong active member of the church who held many callings. He taught elementary school in two different states. He married in the temple and had six children. He also sexually victimized women and girls for decades. I don’t think anyone outside his immediate family knew the truth, and we were all shamed and manipulated into silence. We were told he was not responsible for his acts and that he had repented, and yet the behavior continued. If we did not forgive and forget each new offense, we were hurting his recovery from depression. We were judgmental and unforgiving. He wasn’t on any sex offender registries and had no criminal record. He was smart and careful and was the most manipulative person I have ever met. They are out there. We need to be honest with ourselves and others about the reality of their existence. We need to be aware of the grooming behaviors that predators use. We need to be vigilant and refuse to ignore the warning signs. It can happen and it does happen in our churches and in our families.
I bring my personal story of a family predator into the discussion, not to speak ill of the dead-he is deceased- or pass judgement on him. I leave that in the capable hands of my Savior. I bring my personal experience in to show empathy to those who are victimized by predators. Some watched this movie and had disdain and revulsion toward Jan’s parents. I don’t. I disagree with the choices they made, but I understand why they made them because I lived in a social system that was controlled by a manipulative narcissist. I’ve seen first hand how it works and why it works. We rely on the people around us to give us a sense of what truth is. If what we see is drastically different than what those around us seem to see, we question our own perception. It is only as I have cultivated a relationship with my Savior and consulted with mental health professionals that I have found the confidence to challenge the social systems around me. Even then, it takes tremendous courage. Even as I write this, I have to remind myself that I am not obligated to keep the family secrets. The denial is still strong with many members of the family and they can choose to live in it, but they don’t get to write my story or keep me from telling it.
As I live my life, I am amazed when I find victims who are strong enough to tell their stories for the benefit of others. Jan’s resilience and strength is incredible to witness. My favorite part is at the end when she confronts her abuser in court. He tries to imply that she is motivated by book sales and fame. She tells him coldly that she is motivated by the desire to expose predators like him to the world. She has become a powerful advocate for child victims because she and her family had the courage to face the truth about themselves and what happened to them. In some ways, her parents have had to have even more courage because their experience is less likely to elicit sympathy and more likely to elicit judgement and condemnation. Their willingness to submit to that judgement rather than lie to themselves and others about what they did has made Jan’s recovery and the family’s recovery much more complete. Secrets and lies destroy. The truth, even when it is uncomfortable, sets us free.
The only way we can destroy the evil among us is if we talk about it. I hope my words help to shine a light on a problem that we face within our membership. As we confront evil with courage and honesty, as the Brobergs did, the Savior can heal us and those we love. His grace is sufficient for us! His angels stand ready to assist us as we take the steps necessary to purge the church of the evils of abuse. A culture of silence polishes and shines the outside of the cup while allowing filth to grow and fester within. Christ wants us to be better. Let us roll up our sleeves and commit ourselves to battling the abusers in our midst and purge their behavior from among us. Let us clean and sterilize the cup on the inside. That is what the Savior would have us do.