May 11, 2023

Patrick Hardy: LDS Church has dodged hard questions of accountability

When church policies cause harm, we should admit fault, welcome suggestions, give public apologies, and make restitution.

The Salt Lake Tribune

By Patrick Hardy | Special to The Tribune

 May 4, 2023.

When news broke in February that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had made extensive, yearslong efforts to obscure the size of its $32 billion investment portfolio in violation of U.S. tax law, the church responded with a terse press release.

“We affirm our commitment to comply with the law, regret mistakes made, and now consider this matter closed,” it said, in what appeared to be the closest thing to a public apology the church has given on any topic in its modern history.

Seemingly confirming the closed-ness of the matter, the church’s auditing report in the last General Conference made no mention of the settlement with the SEC nor the $5 million fine leveled against the church and its investment arm, Ensign Peak. The announcement of compliance with “Church-approved accounting practices” rang rather hollow in the wake of such public revelations of impropriety.

While the church may consider this matter closed, it remains very much open for members such as myself who question the purpose of various church practices and the vociferous defense of inadequate safeguards or apparent misconduct. Another such matter surfaced last year when The Associated Press published a lengthy report detailing how the church failed to report a horrific case of child sexual abuse to law enforcement. While the church made a strong case — affirmed by the Arizona Supreme Court last month — that its legal obligations were met with regard to the reporting of abuse in this instance, no part of the church’s response evinced any self-accountability about why better policies didn’t exist to require the reporting of abuse in the first place, why it continues to lobby against reforms to clergy-penitent privilege (which exempt religious leaders from reporting abuse learned in confessional settings), and what changes will be made to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

These are just two recent examples of how the church has dodged hard questions of accountability and bristled at the mere suggestion of institutional fallibility. Controversial aspects of the church’s history dealing with Black and indigenous people, women, and the LGBTQ community provide opportunities (and I would argue, moral obligations) for a grand project of truth and reconciliation.

The strategy to ignore, downplay, or deny instances of harm does not befit the Church of Jesus Christ — we must have a higher, holier ethic of transparency and accountability. To me, this means that when church policies or practices cause harm, directly or indirectly, we ought to readily admit fault, welcome suggestions for improvement, give genuine public apologies, and make restitution as best as possible.

To be clear, I truly believe that the upper leadership of the church and the vast majority of people working in advisory roles or serving in local leadership are honorable, decent people trying the best they can to follow Jesus Christ and live His teachings. I’m certain that they abhor child abuse and are committed to following the law. However, too frequently the institutional response to revelations of misconduct and harm does not reflect transparency and accountability. Too frequently, the church’s structure and operations seem to prioritize image control and the avoidance of negative consequences. These choices have downstream effects: when the church declines to acknowledge faults, give genuine public apologies, and make necessary policy changes in the wake of justified criticism, it damages the trust of its members and validates its opponents.

Talking openly about such issues should not be seen as petty faultfinding. Certainly, there are honest mistakes made in the course of church service that don’t deserve public criticism. However, when church policies and practices become a source of harm, we need not stand idly by, or worse, impulsively rush to defend them. It is precisely because I’m a member, and one in a position of authority, that gives me a heightened sense of responsibility for calling out misconduct and harm.

It’s my sincere hope that the church can become a model of transparency and accountability, and fearlessly pursue healing and justice for all. In an age when declining institutional trust is a feature of every generational cohort and affects virtually every major institution, including religion, there has never been a better time for swift, bold action to restore trust.

Patrick Hardy is Sociology PhD student at the University of Iowa and the second counselor in the bishopric of his ward.

Patrick Hardy is sociology Ph.D. student at the University of Iowa and the second counselor in the bishopric of his ward.


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