Jana Riess: The good and the bad for the LDS Church in the top stories of 2023

There’s a mix of positive news (more missionaries and temples) and negative news (more abuse and financial scandals).

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Russell M. Nelson leaves the morning session of General Conference with his wife, Wendy, in April. He missed attending the October conference in person after injuring his back in a fall.

I’m trying something different this year with my end-of-year list of the major news stories. I’m organizing it into two categories for the two kinds of people who seem to write to me: the über-Saints who only want to hear good news about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and, at the other extreme, those who refuse to acknowledge the church ever does any good in the world.

So, here’s something for everyone. You can choose to read only those stories that speak to your own confirmation bias and pretend all the rest isn’t happening. Enjoy.

The good news

1. Temples, temples, temples. President Russell M. Nelson announced the sites of 35 more temples (15 at the April General Conference and 20 at the October conference). If you’re keeping score, that means he has jump-started 153 temples since he took office at the beginning of 2018, more than any other president of the church. In fact, there were only 159 temples in operation at the end of 2017, meaning he has effectively doubled the church’s temple prospects in just under six years.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The yet-to-open Layton Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023.

2. The church stepped up its charitable giving. It estimated the value of its charitable contributions at over $1 billion in 2022, with more expected in 2023. Some of that has gone to outside organizations such as UNICEF and other nonprofits, and some has stayed in-house to help members through the church’s own welfare and counseling programs.

3. The Church History Library opened up more documents to the public. There’s been a steady release of journals this year, including Spencer W. Kimball’s long-awaited diaries, the prison journal of polygamist Isabelle Harris and the final installments in the 27-volume Joseph Smith Papers series. Next up: the Brigham Young Papers project, making public the journals and letters of the church’s second president.

4. There’s been an uptick in missionary service. The church has now exceeded its pre-pandemic missionary service levels. There were 67,000 full-time missionaries before COVID-19 shut things down, and there were more than 72,000 as of last month. It’s too soon to tell if this is a temporary “double cohort” effect in which some of the people who would have served in 2020 and 2021 simply waited a couple of years before serving, adding to the totals, or if this will be a new normal. The church is clearly planning for the latter, since it is investing in 36 new missions.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Patrick Kearon delivers his first address as an apostle at the fall commencement at Brigham Young University-Hawaii in Laie on Friday, Dec. 8, 2023.

5. Nelson moved quickly to replace an apostle. After the death of M. Russell Ballard on Nov. 12, many assumed the church would keep to its usual custom of waiting until the next General Conference to announce and sustain a new apostle. But in an unusual move, the church ordained a new apostle on Dec. 7, just four weeks after Ballard’s death. The choice was widely hailed: Patrick Kearon, a British convert who has served the church for years as a general authority, is a popular advocate for humanitarian work and refugees. (He also has a professional background in public relations, which could help the church deal with some of the issues seen in the next five news stories.)

The bad news

1. Terrible revelations have emerged about the church’s cover-up of sexual abuse. Continuing its award-winning investigative reporting into the church’s mishandling of sex abuse cases, The Associated Press published a story in December about “the lengths to which the church goes to ensure confidentiality for perpetrators who make spiritual confessions.” The AP’s research last year was about how the church’s “help line” for lay bishops discouraged the reporting of sexual abuse to the police. This year, the bombshell was about the church’s damage-control efforts in paying victims to ensure they would not sue. In other cases this year, meanwhile, court-ordered payouts to victims have begun, including a $1.1 million settlement in Tacoma, Wash., and $1 million paid to a victim in California. More negative news stories are surely on the way, as the AP has obtained tape recordings and reams of documents about the church’s handling of abuse and abusers.

(Jason Dearen | AP Photo) Chelsea Goodrich poses for a portrait in Ketchum, Idaho, on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. Goodrich's father, a popular Idaho dentist and former bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was excommunicated after sharing details about his relationship with her when she was a child during a religious confession. Recordings obtained by The Associated Press show that instead of helping prosecutors, the church used a legal playbook that has helped protect itself from sex abuse claims. Goodrich's father is today a free man, and she says she decided to speak out to protect other children.

2. The SEC fined the church and Ensign Peak Advisors $5 million for violations of investment disclosures. Or, as the Securities and Exchange Commission put it, for “disclosure failures and misstated filings.” At issue was the church’s $100 billion-plus investment fund that has been created from surplus tithing and donations, and specifically the U.S. stocks it contains. The SEC charged that the faith’s investment arm, Ensign Peak, with the church’s knowledge and approval, set up 13 shell companies “to obscure the amount of the church’s portfolio.” The church issued a statement, saying, “We affirm our commitment to comply with the law, regret mistakes made and now consider this matter closed.” The church may consider the matter closed, but its finances have been an issue of concern in subsequent media stories. This included a “60 Minutes” interview with the Ensign Peak whistleblower who first released documents showing the extent of the church’s gigantic nest egg; a Wall Street Journal investigation into the church’s empire and the cost of its “temple-building spree”; and James Huntsman’s lawsuit seeking the return of $5 million in tithing that has proceeded and also spawned at least one additional suit.

3. More people are leaving Mormonism. While there was some good news (relayed above) about an increase in the missionary force and a boost in conversions after COVID-19, many of this year’s statistical developments reflected stagnation or decline. The church’s statistics for 2022 showed little congregational growth and a “children of record” number (89,000) that is lower than it was when the church had several million fewer members. In the U.S., a PRRI study showed Latter-day Saints had the highest rates of daily prayer but also the highest percentage of people who had thought about leaving their religion, while another study found that Utah is now only 42% Latter-day Saint. Even “American Idol” alum David Archuleta’s mom left the church.

4. The Tim Ballard sex abuse scandal (and general weirdness) has been a public relations nightmare. This fall, the church took the unusual step of publicly denouncing prominent member Tim Ballard, the founder of Operation Underground Railroad and the self-designated hero of the summer film “Sound of Freedom.” In the days and weeks that followed, the reasons became clearer: Ballard stands at the center of a firestorm of controversy surrounding his “operations” for retrieving children from sex trafficking. Six of the female volunteers and staff members on these operations were allegedly expected to pose as Ballard’s wife, complete with bedtime shenanigans to make the ruse appear realistic; at least one has accused him of violent, repeated sexual assaults. The church is involved because of Tim Ballard’s formerly close personal friendship with apostle Russell Ballard (no relation); one allegation, as yet unproved, is that Elder Ballard provided Tim Ballard with a list of wealthy tithe-payers who might be persuaded to donate to Ballard’s organization. The church has denied this charge.

(The New York Times, left; The Salt Lake Tribune, right) Embattled Operation Underground Railroad founder Tim Ballard, left, and the late apostle M. Russell Ballard, no relation.

5. We have the oldest governing First Presidency in history. The year was marked by some mild instability in church leadership due to several of its elderly leaders being sick or injured. Most alarmingly, apostle Jeffrey Holland was hospitalized this summer shortly after the death of his wife, Patricia; the church revealed that his health was affected by COVID and kidney dialysis. He came close to death but has enjoyed a recovery that a fellow church leader (and physician) described as miraculous. Meanwhile, Nelson (now 99) missed being at General Conference in person in October because of a fall; apostle Ballard died at age 95; and President Henry Eyring’s wife, Kathleen, died at age 82 after a long illness. Presidents Eyring, 90, and Dallin Oaks, 91, now serve with Nelson as the oldest First Presidency in church history.

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