Ryan McKnight, a former Latter-day Saint in Las Vegas, once had a lofty vision that, by exposing the inner workings of his onetime faith, he would prod it to be more transparent — a dream that now is fading due to a pandemic and a lawsuit.
A little more than five years ago, McKnight imagined a kind of Mormon “WikiLeaks,” an online website where anonymous tipsters — including those who work for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — could post internal papers by and about the Utah-based faith’s programs, policies and policymakers.
And given that his first effort — the publication in 2016 of 15 videos showing church apostles privately discussing issues including LGBTQ rights, politics and piracy — hit Latter-day Saint circles like a cannonball in a swimming pool, sending waves and ripples across social media, McKnight had reason to think big.
[Read the latest disclosure on Latter-day Saint church property]
Much has happened since then to dampen his aspirations — to the point that the website is shutting down, a reality that seemed inconceivable in the heady days after his first public foray.
In the wake of the videos’ release during the October General Conference release, the Nevada accountant was inundated with queries from insiders wanting to make private Mormon information public — but needing assurances of anonymity, given the potential to be fired from church employment.
“The response from the general public and the media really opened my eyes to the fact that there was a very real need,” McKnight says now, “for a repository for internal files and information related to the church.”
Even at the time, though, some challenged the pair’s use of proprietary material.
Writer and researcher Jana Riess was no fan of McKnight’s approach.
“I am very concerned about privacy in our culture more generally,” the Religion News Service columnist said in 2017. “People in the workplace have the right to expect that intraoffice communication and their emails will stay private.”
The move to make such exchanges public in the country or in the church “is disturbing,” Riess emphasized. “It is not good news for any of us.”
If there is a “silver lining” in MormonLeaks’ efforts, said the Cincinnati-based columnist, “it could be a nudge for the church to be proactive in becoming more transparent.”
Looking back, Riess says now, there hasn’t been “a noticeable increase in transparency.”
Eventually, though, McKnight and his partner, Ethan Gregory Dodge, wanted to be more than facilitators of others’ finds. They aimed to pursue in-depth investigative reporting and cover other religions, so, later in 2017, they launched the nonprofit Truth & Transparency Foundation, which would include their work on MormonLeaks.
“Instead of just acting as a repository for internal documents and files,” McKnight says, “we were now writing articles.”
They are proud of the work they have done, including this last — and, arguably, largest — data drop. This one represents “solid investigative journalism,” McKnight says, into the Utah-based faith’s national landholdings.
Revealing how much church leaders are paid
Dodge, who lives in San Jose, Calif., reached out to McKnight just after the first YouTube videos emerged.
At the time, Dodge was still “pretty fresh out of the church, having decided I didn’t believe in any of its truth claims in March that same year,” he recalls. “It was one of the hardest times of my life. I was still hurt and felt very betrayed.”
It became obvious to Dodge that “a dedicated site to accept leaks would be successful,” he says. “Having a cybersecurity background, I thought I could help him and help hold the church accountable in that way.”
The attention the two got the day they launched MormonLeaks “was unreal,” he says. “It was probably thanks to the fact that we were called ‘MormonWikiLeaks’ the first week of our existence and WikiLeaks tweeted asking us to change the name.”
Australian hacker Julian Assange, who had published tens of thousands of secret government documents, asked McKnight and Dodge to remove “Wiki” from the name. They obliged.
At first, Dodge chose to go by a pseudonym because someone close to him worked for the church, and he didn’t want to affect that person’s career.
When he finally did reveal his identity in September 2017, “it felt so authentic,” Dodge says. “Authenticity to myself was something that therapy helped me to realize I had always been lacking my whole life because of the way I approached my faith. In many ways, MormonLeaks was the vessel that helped me find it.”
In January 2017, MormonLeaks published copies of pay stubs for top Latter-day Saint leaders, dating back to 2000, and a 2014 memo from the Presiding Bishopric (which handles all financial issues for the faith), noting that the “base living allowance” for all church general authorities, including apostles, was being raised from $116,400 to $120,000.
Though a church spokesperson declined to confirm the veracity of the letter or pay stub, he did tell The Salt Lake Tribune that the “living allowance is uniform for all general authorities,” including the governing First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
That quote from the church, saying that all general authorities are all paid equally, “was so validating,” Dodge says. “Before that, I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep doing it long term, but that sealed the deal for me.”
Revealing general authority base pay “was one of their important contributions,” says Joe Geisner, a Latter-day Saint researcher in Santa Rosa, Calif. “We now have documentation that had never been available before, and it should have put to rest all the speculation. Ryan and Ethan did a great job making these documents available.”
MormonLeaks also was the first to publish the church’s extensive stock holdings, McKnight says, reporting on $32 billion “being held across 12 different shell companies.”
Still, Latter-day Saint blogger Steve Evans echoes Riess’ assessment.
“For what it’s worth, they have not made a dent in church transparency,” Evans says. “The administrative affairs of the church are as inscrutable as ever, such as we’ve seen … in the discovery of billions of dollars’ worth of investments. Perhaps the leaks have had the opposite effect, tightening internal security.”
Revealing abuse allegations
Among the foundation’s successes, McKnight and Dodge point to the release of a conversation between a child abuse victim and his abuser, which the former taped secretly and then gave to the website.
After that reporting, prominent Latter-day Saint filmmaker Sterling Van Wagenen was sentenced to six years to life in prison.
Another project, though, raised ethical questions for Dodge.
MormonLeaks published an explosive, taped conversation between a woman (later identified as McKenna Denson) and former LDS Missionary Training Center President Joseph Bishop, whom she accused of sexual assault.
She told The Tribune that she did not give MormonLeaks permission to publish it.
“When we released the tape of McKenna Denson confronting Joseph Bishop, that was the first time in my life I’d had to deal with and process so much criticism,” Dodge says. “I don’t think I’ve ever second-guessed myself more than I did in the weeks after that.”
Denson went public with her allegations and sued the church. The case eventually was dismissed.
With their move to broaden their approach, McKnight and Dodge pivoted into investigative journalism.
“We had intentions to secure funding for long-term success when we were hit with a lawsuit from the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Dodge says. “We needed funding to go further, but we needed a board to get serious funding. We couldn’t get a board put together because we didn’t have liability insurance, and because we were viewed as provocative and high risk, our insurance quotes were astronomical.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses copyright-infringement lawsuit happened right after the world shut down due to COVID-19, he says. “It was the most stressful and depressing time of life.”
In 2020, the foundation settled the lawsuit with the Witnesses.
The settlement came after the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, the publisher for the religious group, sued Truth & Transparency, alleging it violated copyright when it published Jehovah’s Witnesses’ educational videos on its FaithLeaks website.
“The result is absolutely agonizing and has been emotionally, mentally, and physically taxing on us, as it goes against our core values,” the foundation said in a statement. “... To be clear, Truth & Transparency maintains that we did not violate any of Watch Tower’s copyright, however, without the funds to make our arguments in court, we had no choice but to settle.”
It crippled the foundation financially, McKnight says, and caused it “effectively to cease all operations, even though we didn’t make any public statement about it.”
The foundation failed to file some tax forms and had its federal tax-exempt status revoked.
After that, Dodge’s wife was almost killed in a cycling accident, and McKnight faced financial hardships from the pandemic.
“Our lives started to go separate ways,” Dodge says.
He was able to use his skills as a full-time journalist, and McKnight also found permanent work. So they decided to close up shop.
“This decision has been bittersweet as we are extremely proud of the work we have done,” McKnight says. “It is sad to see it end.”
Others lament Truth & Transparency’s exit as well.
“It’s unfortunate that something like MormonLeaks even needed to exist in the first place, but clearly their role in the community helped inform more people about the shadow parts of Mormonism,” says Lindsay Hansen Park, executive director of Sunstone, which explores the religion’s history, theology, art, politics and culture. “It’s never pretty to look at institutional secrets, but sometimes it’s necessary.”
The death of the foundation, however, does not mean the dream of “truth and transparency” is over, McKnight says. He and Dodge plan to continue reporting on the LDS Church and religious accountability.
They may just find other vehicles to carry it forward.