I’ve been following MormonLeaks closely since my January blog post on their release of general authority salaries. I’m not wild about the organization. They’ve acted recklessly at times, and their choice of documents suggests a less-than-neutral position towards the church. But… I have to admit that twice now I’ve appreciated wider discussion resulting from specific leaks: the videos and salary information. And this latest batch has some promising material as well.
The Ethics of Church Leaks
As Hawkgrrrl discussed in yesterday’s post, people are usually supportive when confidential information is leaked to expose wrongdoing (whistleblowing). Opinions are mixed, however, when it comes to releasing sensitive details of legal and presumably ethical operations. In the case of Edward Snowden, releasing classified information about a legitimate operation presented a very serious threat to national security. For many, that was inexcusable.
In the case of MormonLeaks, national security is not an issue (if it is then I’m WAY out of the loop). But we aren’t dealing with a whistleblowing situation, either. Ryan McKnight, founder of MormonLeaks, freely admits he doesn’t believe the church acts illegally. For McKnight, it’s all about the virtue of transparency. According to an interview on RadioWest, McKnight believes that although the church may not have a legal obligation, it has an ethical obligation to release financial records as well as “corporate policies and procedures.”
So McKnight helps the church meet an ethical obligation by releasing confidential documents without permission. Makes perfect sense.
Opacity of Church Financial Records in the United States
The LDS Church claims the right to keep financial records confidential as a matter of religious freedom. It has, literally, paid millions of dollars in settlements costs rather than release financial records in court trials. However, a lot of religious people agree with McKnight, that churches have responsibilities to be financially transparent.
A 2015 Forbes article quotes Reverend Frank Benson Jones, a strong opponent of “prosperity preachers,” saying, “I have heard of some churches that require the members of the staff to sign non-disclosure agreements, and that is a sure sign the church is doing something wrong.” The Evangelical Council on Financial Accountability accredits evangelical groups demonstrating compliance with high financial standards (including the release of financial records upon request). According to Wikipedia, the mission of the organization is not only to help those groups gain public trust through financial accountability and transparency, but also to “protect the donor public from possible unethical conduct in the management of the affairs of the charities.” Many religions deal with financial transparency issues in their own ways, including Catholics, Jews, and Muslims.
Okay, so if transparency is important, how much is adequate? In a 2015 blog post, “The Folly of LDS Church Financial Transparency,” Tim J. Gordon argues that releasing financial records doesn’t do a whole lot. He points to financial statements the church is required to file in the United Kingdom.
What do we learn from the UK financial statement, anyway? Well, the Church brings in more than it spends, and 97.66% of their expenses are related to “Charitable Activities.” It doesn’t tell us the most basic things us financial voyeurs need to know, like how much is spent on those amazing red and blue cleaning supplies.
We have a guy from the Church Auditing Department stand up in conference every year announcing that the church follows appropriate accounting practices. Do members really need (or want) more than this? So far, MormonLeaks has released financial records of some church units. I know it’s all in the name of transparency, but I really have a hard time caring when I look at the spreadsheets.
MormonLeaks Doesn’t Seem Neutral
McKnight and his team are committed to publishing documentation regardless if it reflects poorly or favorably on the church. Unfortunately, the organization is built around the idea of anonymous submission of confidential records without permission, which inevitably attracts more critical submissions.
One recent release struck me as odd, a bunch of temple ordinance data for a dozen or so prominent historical figures, including Adolf Hitler. The reports were from various years (Hitler’s was printed in 2000). As a family history consultant, I wasn’t surprised by the information, but I knew many people would find it upsetting. Just like in a lot of other leaks, more context would be appropriate. Like, how this is why rules have changed in the last decade to require people to share common ancestry with those they do vicarious work for, because idiots in the not-too-distant past kept doing work for famous people or random names in historical records. I was amused by the inclusion of Chief Massasoit in that list. There is a bronze statue of the man next to the Harold B. Lee Library on the BYU campus. I’d be shocked if his work hadn’t been done a dozen times by BYU students, let alone by hundreds of my Mormon cousins who all claim descent from him (I’m skeptical). But the most frustrating part is all members of the church have access to ordinance data for deceased individuals via FamilySearch. McKnight argues that the leaks are necessary because members have a right to know what the church is doing, but if every member could easily access this data already, who was this inflammatory release for?
McKnight rarely provides his own context for the documents beyond a sentence or two (in at least one case overlooking a fascinating backstory supporting the MormonLeaks mission). Pretty much all initial discussion and context for most of these leaks have been left to Reddit users. Not exactly “neutral” territory.
The Benefits of MormonLeaks
In the RadioWest interview, McKnight admitted he didn’t expect the church to change policies or enact reform in response to leaked documents. The real value in the MormonLeaks site, he contested, is the surrounding conversations. He talked about adding up the thousands of comments from news articles and Facebook posts, representing “both sides of the fence,” having conversations that finally don’t need to rely as much on “suppositions” and “faulty information.” This is a valid point. I have found these conversations valuable.
Discussions surrounding leaked videos last October raised important concerns about the relationship between Mormon politicians and church leaders, and I got to learn a new term: “Church-broke.” The video with an Oregon ex-senator, Gordon H. Smith, and an area authority, Ralph Hardy, vouching for him, was disturbing to me, but I’m distrustful of politicians, generally. As much as I disliked Smith’s actions, it became apparent later that he was not unusual. At a celebration of Senator Harry Reid’s retirement, the same Ralph Hardy extolled the virtues of “Brother Reid,” talking about how many times Reid had “gone to bat” for the church using his government position. It was a bit jarring to see the picture from the Inaugural Prayer Breakfast in January showing Ralph Hardy and Gordon H. Smith (now an area seventy) standing alongside D. Todd Christofferson. Turns out Ralph Hardy and Elder Christofferson worked together at a D.C. law firm for years. What I learned? The church is WAY more involved in national politics than I’d like to admit.
MormonLeaks gave us a hard number: $120,000. Even though it was technically known that general authorities all get paid the same amount per a 2012 Bloomberg article (you really think the church would release new information?), this was the first time we found out what the church meant when they said “modest” figure. As we all know, modesty is in the eye of the beholder. I just about choked when I saw that $120k, but apparently it “merely reaffirm[s] the church’s reputation for frugality with its funds.” The ensuing discussion over at By Common Consent about whether the source of the funds to pay general authorities should matter was fascinating. What I learned? The Deseret News hates MormonLeaks. Really.
Leaked PowerPoint Slide
This leak from yesterday is something I’m excited about and hope will spark discussion. It’s from a presentation titled “Area Business Weekends” from December 2015. The header on the slide is “Issues and Ideas Leading People Away from the Gospel”, and then it shows a series of colored bubbles (some bigger, some smaller) spread across a spectrum. At the far left are more progressive Mormon concerns (disagreement with current policies, church history, secularism, Ordain Women, John Dehlin). In the middle are more “personal sin” concerns (pornography, Sabbath, chastity, lack of righteousness, lack of commitment). On the far right are conservative Mormon concerns (false prophets, doomsday preppers, church losing it’s way, needing “something more”, Denver Snuffer, Robert Norman). What I like about this chart is the recognition of many reasons for disaffection besides the traditional “personal sin” umbrella. A Mormon Stories podcast has already been posted on this topic, and I’m curious to see where the discussions will go from here (if any discussions develop at all). This is a chart I wish all bishops had in their possession. Too many get blindsided by these issues.
Update: Today (3/1/17) MormonLeaks received a legal notice from the church requiring the removal of this powerpoint presentation, citing copyright and other intellectual property rights. This is the first I’ve seen the church address MormonLeaks directly.
- With regards to MormonLeaks, do the ends justify the means? Does the good resulting from the leaks outweigh the negatives?
- Do you feel it appropriate to discuss the leaks, knowing the documents have been procured and disseminated in a questionable way?
- Is there a leak you are particularly happy about?
- Is there a leak you are particularly unhappy with?
 Apparently it is not considered a breach of journalistic ethics to provide a link to illegally leaked material as long as “it is for the betterment of the story and the readers’ awareness.” How about that?
 About 6:05 mark.
 About 23:55 mark.