Mormon Church practices discipline; news reports missed key transparency question

Usually when an organization has bad or embarrassing news, it'll release the details on a Friday, perhaps in the afternoon, realizing that Saturday's newspaper is (or was) perhaps the least-read edition of the week.

In the fictional White House of TV's "The West Wing," this was referred to as "taking out the trash day."

In the real world, however, some organizations will release bad news when it happens, which explains the wide media coverage of Tuesday's announcement from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more popularly known as the Mormon Church. Elder James J. Hamula, a general authority of the 15 million-member denomination, was "released" from his church administrative position as well as removed from the church membership rolls.

The Salt Lake Tribune gave us the facts:

For the first time in nearly 30 years, the Mormon church has excommunicated one of its top leaders.
On Tuesday morning, James J. Hamula was released from his position in the First Quorum of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after disciplinary action.
LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins provided no details about the removal. But the church did confirm Hamula was no longer a member of the church and that his ouster was not for apostasy or disillusionment.
In cases involving members of Mormonism’s presiding quorums -- rare as they are -- the faith’s governing First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles form a disciplinary council to consider such actions.

There was no gloating of any sort by the Tribune and certainly none at the Deseret News, the general-interest daily owned by the LDS Church. (Disclosure: I served as a national reporter for the DNews in 2014 and 2015.) And as you might expect, the "hometown" newspapers provided solid coverage of the dismissal.

Indeed, Deseret News reporter Tad Walch, who covers many major church-related stories, offered some insight into why the Hamula situation was announced by an LDS Church spokesman, when most excommunications are handled more quietly at a local level:

All church discipline is carried out in complete confidence," according to an article on the church's official Mormon Newsroom website. "Church leaders have a solemn responsibility to keep confidential all information they receive in confessions and interviews. To protect that confidence, the church will not discuss the proceedings of a disciplinary council."
"In rare cases," the article noted, "the decision of a disciplinary council may be shared publicly to prevent others from being harmed through misinformation."

Misinformation may yet result, dissident LDS Church member John Dehlin, who was himself excommunicated in 2015 for alleged apostasy, told local Salt Lake City television station Fox 13. The news report noted:

“The church is basically wanting to make sure that members don't think it's because he doubted the church or had questions about the church,” Dehlin said.
Dehlin argues that, because the church made that statement, it makes matters worse for Hamula.
“It just muddies the waters and contributes to the shame,” Dehlin said.

Which brings us to a question much of the media missed: Just how transparent does the LDS Church -- or any religious organization -- have to be when it comes to announcing a sensitive issue such as the departure of a prominent leader?

Yes, as various media sources noted, an action such as Hamula's excommunication is rare for someone of his ecclesiastical position. It had been nearly 30 years since this happened to a Mormon leader at this level of the hierarchy.

But where things were much more quietly discussed in years gone by, today's media climate would suggest more disclosure.

Or would it? Jana Riess, co-author of "Mormonism For Dummies®," one of the most readable explanations of the LDS faith in my opinion, blogs about "Flunking Sainthood" at Religion News Service and raised a point the rest of the media would have done well to explore:

Some things are private and deserve to remain private: loss of faith, for example. Some problems, however, have a community component and deserve to be made known, things like financial misdeeds, predatory sexual behavior or repeated lying to the community (as was the case with disciplined-but-apparently-not-excommunicated LDS leader Paul Dunn).
There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to know what caused the excommunication of Elder Hamula. And there’s another part of me that wishes the Church would be more transparent, particularly insofar as members are now asked to sustain all general authorities during a temple recommend interview. I put my trust in this person. What happened to betray that trust?
How much truth does a religion owe its people?

How much, indeed? It's a question more members of the media should ask, so as to help us all understand what's going on.

Sharpen those pencils, reporters.

Initial image: Stereopticon slide of the LDS Temple and Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, circa 1897. New York Public Library via Wikimedia Commons.

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