Jana Riess: Allegations against Tim Ballard, inspiration behind ‘Sound of Freedom,’ explain rebuke by LDS Church

The faith has worked to distance itself from this anti-slavery activist.

(Sarah Silbiger | The New York Times) Tim Ballard, the founder of Operation Underground Railroad, talks during a meeting about human trafficking on the southern border of the U.S., in the Cabinet Room of the White House, in Washington, Feb. 1, 2019. Ballard has been accused of sexual misconduct, according to a VICE News report.

Late last week, news outlets began reporting that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had issued a statement distancing itself from Tim Ballard, founder of Operation Underground Railroad, which uses quasi-military sting operations to combat the sexual exploitation of children. The organization was celebrated in the recent movie “Sound of Freedom.”

Apparently Ballard himself found out about the rebuke via a media report, rather than through the church. “I called my stake president and said, ‘Did you know about this?’ No. No idea,” he told a group of supporters in Boston over the weekend. “I don’t believe the church did this. I truly don’t.”

As the story unfolded, though, we got a glimpse of why the church may have wanted to distance itself from Ballard. According to reports in Vice.com, Ballard has been accused of sexual misconduct with at least seven women:

Sources familiar with the situation said that the self-styled anti-slavery activist, who appears to be preparing for a Senate run, invited women to act as his “wife” on undercover overseas missions ostensibly aimed at rescuing victims of sex trafficking. He would then allegedly coerce those women into sharing a bed or showering together, claiming that it was necessary to fool traffickers. Ballard … is said to have sent at least one woman a photo of himself in his underwear, festooned with fake tattoos, and to have asked another “how far she was willing to go,” in the words of a source, to save children. These sources requested anonymity because they fear retaliation.

VICE News said attempts to contact Ballard or his current organization were unsuccessful, but Operation Underground Railroad told the magazine he had exited the organization in June and that “OUR is dedicated to combating sexual abuse, and does not tolerate sexual harassment or discrimination by anyone in its organization.”

Before the news broke, the church in its statement already seemed eager to downplay any relationship between Tim Ballard and M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. They are not related, but the church acknowledged that both Ballards had been friends in the past, drawn by a mutual interest in caring for children, but said the friendship is very much over.

The church’s statement cited “the unauthorized use of President Ballard’s name for Tim Ballard’s personal advantage” and also said that Tim Ballard had engaged in behavior that was “regarded as morally unacceptable,” though it didn’t specify what that behavior was.

The VICE article explained, perhaps, Ballard’s speech to an audience on an American Covenant Tour in Boston this weekend in which, while claiming he had never traded on apostle Ballard’s name, he proceeded to trade on the church leader’s name.

He began his remarks by saying that President Ballard has been “like a grandfather” to him. Over the course of his comments he also managed to slip in the facts that President Ballard had blessed and set apart his son for a Latter-day Saint mission and that the apostle had enthusiastically attended the very same heritage tour they were all currently taking.

He emphasized that the church leader sought him out. “He asked me to take him on this tour! President M. Russell Ballard asked me to take him on this tour. … It wasn’t my idea.”

This was in the same section of the talk where he also said, “I have never used Elder Ballard’s name, ever! I have never traded on his name, or asked for anything. I’ve never had any business dealings with him. He’s like a grandfather to me.”

Then he became more aggressive in discrediting Vice.com, which had carried the story of the church’s denunciation. “Do you know Vice? Do you think the church would make a statement to Vice?” he asked his supporters, who responded with derisive laughter.

“Vice magazine has promoted the concept that pedophiles should be called ‘minor-attracted persons.’ To normalize it. Vice Magazine has done more hit pieces on the church than maybe any other. I can’t imagine that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would make a statement to a tabloid. I can’t imagine, but I can’t confirm it.”

Ah. When in doubt, call your accusers pedophiles or supporters of pedophiles. As a secondary self-defense, assert that any criticism of you is politically motivated. Tim Ballard went there, too.

“Three days before that horrible story launched, it was leaked to the press that I was going to run for the U.S. Senate,” he said. “Do you think that’s a coincidence?”

The problem with Ballard’s assertion that this is a liberal hatchet job is that Vice wasn’t the only news outlet that apparently received the statement from the church and reported on it. FOX 13 News ran the story. Utah’s KUTV, a CBS News affiliate, is also reporting that it received the statement.

Tim Ballard returned a couple of times to how devastating the attack has been on his children, “who are being harassed right now” because everybody believes that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that he’s long defended, has turned against him. “I’ve written how many books, made how much money for [church-owned] Deseret Book?” he said.

Tim Ballard’s episodes on the church’s official “Come Follow Me” podcast and “All In” podcast appear to still be available on Deseret Book’s website as of this writing, as well as his many books promoting Christian nationalism and the role the Book of Mormon, the faith’s signature scripture, is supposed to have played in the founding of the United States.

However, FOX 13 News is reporting that the church has removed articles about Ballard from its official website, resulting in “Page Not Found” error messages. [The Salt Lake Tribune confirmed that the faith has deleted several articles that mentioned the anti-slavery activist and his work.]

According to Vice’s second article, OUR acknowledged that it has “retained an independent law firm to conduct a comprehensive investigation of all relevant allegations” about sexual misconduct but declined to comment further while the investigation is underway.

No wonder the church could not distance itself fast enough. I am bracing myself for further revelations in this sordid, ugly story.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Religion News Service columnist Jana Riess is shown in 2019.

(The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)