Those who give to the LDS Church deserve an accounting of their money, Editorial Board writes

The question of the church’s money goes well beyond Ensign Peak Advisors.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Church Office Building, located at 50 E N Temple St, Salt Lake City, is home to the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.

Mark 12:41-44

All over the world today, there are good and decent families, members in good standing of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who faithfully cast in the 10% of their income that is expected from active believers.

For some, tithing is easy. For others, it is the modern equivalent of the widow’s mites — a contribution that puts them that much closer to the financial edge. Yet they give, with faith that these funds will be put to use as God would have it.

Those who give deserve more than to be held in the good graces of ecclesiastical leaders. They deserve a full and public accounting of where their contributions go and how they are spent. If they are spent.

The issue has been in the news because a former employee of the church-owned Ensign Peak Advisors investment firm started complaining that the company’s $100 billion or more in assets was not being properly managed. That they were not distributing funds to charity, and that Ensign Peak Advisors avoided billions in income taxes and fines.

Whistleblower David Nielsen took his case to the IRS in 2019 and has since tried to interest the U.S. Senate Finance Committee in the matter. More recently, according to The Wall Street Journal, the federal Securities Exchange Commission has also opened a file.

While the legal process plays out, the real issue for the church and those who fund and support it is the shroud of secrecy the church has kept, not only over Ensign Peak since its creation in 1997, but also the church’s many other assets and real estate holdings. It has created a situation where a fund that has more cash and assets than many nations is not being transparent.

Every large organization — whether it is a government, a corporation or a nonprofit religious institution — is more likely to make the right decisions and keep to the ethical high ground if what it does is open and its leaders kept accountable. The LDS Church seemed to be aware of that up until the late 1950s, when it stopped making public accountings of its funds and financial activities.

Now, nobody knows if Ensign Peak or other church-owned firms are independently audited, if they have internal audit committees, if top leadership of the church even knows what it going on. And the larger community is left to wonder if those operations are dodging perhaps substantial taxes it should have paid, leaving the rest of the nation, LDS and otherwise, to pick up the slack.

Latter-day Saint leaders have been releasing some information about their financial dealings recently, including making quarterly SEC filings. But the old fear that full disclosure of its wealth would discourage people from keeping up their tithing has not gone away.

It may seem odd to see a $100 billion anything as the tip of an iceberg. But even that large fund is not the whole of the church’s assets, which also include other businesses, along with vast and varied real estate holdings.

Even accepting the church’s view that the point of tithing is not to make the church wealthy, but to give the faithful a tangible means of expressing their devotion, it still falls to those to manage all that money and property to let their members know where it goes.

Latter-day Saint officials have drawn a distinction between the tithing money that flows in and the profit earned when those funds are invested. It is from those profits, not the original tithing gifts, says the church, that billions have gone into such things as the City Creek Center shopping mall on the doorstep of LDS HQ in Salt Lake City. Or to bail out the church-owned Beneficial Life company.

An expansive reading of the First Amendment might grant the church, or any faith, an exemption from the laws regarding taxes, investments and public reporting requirements. But that would not excuse church leaders from the moral duty to make a full and detailed accounting of their holdings, investments and expenditures to members.

If those leaders are concerned that membership might not like what they would see, the answer would be to show that many of those billions were going to heal the sick, house the homeless, clothe the naked and feed the hungry, just as they have been admonished.

Downtown Salt Lake City, also right on the church’s doorstep, would be a good place to start.

Making such a report would do more to promote and grow the church than the travels of any number of missionaries. And it would simply be the right thing to do.