Mormon Church Discipline and Confidentiality

by Sharon Lindbloom
5 September 2017

In a rare move, on August 8, 2017, the LDS Church released and excommunicated one of its general authorities, Seventy James Hamula. Mr. Hamula was raised in the Mormon Church, and held many positions of leadership over the years, including Stake President, Mission President, Area Seventy, Area President, Assistant Executive Director of the Church History Department, and Executive Director of the Correlation Department. He was highly respected by Mormons who had served beside him in his various callings. His excommunication came as a shock to many. The Salt Lake Tribune reported,

“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.”

It’s very unusual that the Church would make any type of statement regarding the nature of the transgression that led to a member’s excommunication, even in the negative as here. On the LDS website Newsroom, an article titled “Church Discipline” states,

“All Church discipline is carried out in complete confidence. 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. A confidential record of the proceedings is kept by a clerk, but even if an individual decides to publicly share information about the process and seeks to position that process in their own light, the Church will be circumspect in any public statement. In rare cases, the decision of a disciplinary council may be shared publicly to prevent others from being harmed through misinformation.”

It’s entirely reasonable that the Church would publicly share the “decision of [James Hamula’s] disciplinary council” (i.e., his excommunication) since he held such a high position of leadership in the Church. This information regarding the council’s decision for excommunication could indeed “prevent others from being harmed.” But for the Church to state any “information they receive in confessions and interviews,” goes against the Church’s policy of confidentiality. What the excommunication wasn’t for should be regarded as no less confidential than what it was for. Because to rule out “apostasy” and “disillusionment” is to let the proverbial cat out of the bag. The only offenses left that require church discipline, according to the LDS Church, are serious sins of moral failing:

“Church discipline may be required for someone guilty of serious criminal offenses. It is also used to address apostasy — the repeated, clear and open public opposition to the Church, its leaders and its doctrine… This also applies to an individual who subscribes to the teachings of apostate groups that engage in practices contrary to Church doctrine, such as polygamy.

“In addition, other serious sin may require Church discipline. The Church has zero tolerance for abuse of any kind, including child abuse, spousal abuse, sexual abuse or child pornography, and anyone engaged in these practices would rightly face both criminal prosecution and Church discipline. Criminal activities, including fraud, robbery, burglary, the sale of illegal drugs or the abandonment of family responsibilities, also warrant Church discipline. And serious personal sin, including abortion or sexual sin, may require disciplinary action as part of the repentance process.”

My purpose in this article is not to discuss possible behaviors that may have led to James Hamula’s excommunication. The questions worthy of exploration here are: What would lead the Mormon Church to beak its own rules of confidentiality? Why did the Church publicly state that Mr. Hamula’s excommunication was not for apostasy, thereby implying that it was for moral failure?

It is rather well known that the Mormon Church is having trouble retaining its members. In late 2011 Church Seventy Marlin Jensen fielded a question about Latter-day Saints leaving the Church “in droves.” He said,

“The fifteen men [the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles]… really do know, and they really care. And they realize that maybe since Kirtland, we have never had a period of, I’ll call it apostasy, like we’re having right now…”

This season of “apostasy” has not abated in the intervening six years. The Mormon Church continues to lose members, many over historical issues that introduce doubt and disillusionment to otherwise faithful Latter-day Saints. The internet continues to provide a very accessible platform for ex-Mormons and doubting Mormons to confront faith-robbing truths related to Mormonism. Hardly a General Conference goes by without one or more Mormon leaders addressing the issue of doubt or apostasy. Read nearly any recent Ensign magazine and you will be implored to “follow the Brethren” despite their “flaws and failings,” to “overcome the danger of doubt,” to avoid “the beginning step to apostasy” of finding fault in Church leaders, and to “Please Come Back!” to the Church. (See “On the Lord’s Side,” Ensign, July 2017, 33; “Overcoming the Danger of Doubt,” Ensign, June 2017, 46-49; “The War Goes On,” Ensign, April 2017, 37; “Please Come Back!” Ensign, August 2017, 80.)

It could be that the LDS Church is concerned about the stability of currently doubting or questioning members; if these members speculate that a general authority has been excommunicated for apostasy (he did serve in the Church’s history department, after all!) it could tip the scales for them and lead them to apostasy themselves.

We may never know why the Church broke its rule of total confidentiality, but whatever the reason, Mr. Hamula has been thrown under the bus. His character has been seriously maligned by the LDS Church’s public comments.

This reminds me of the Mormon Church in Joseph Smith’s day. If the Prophet thought someone might cause trouble for him over the issue of polygamy, he went out of his way to publicly destroy the person’s character so no one would listen to any accusations or criticisms the person might allege.

Consider the story of Sarah Pratt, wife of Mormon apostle Orson Pratt. While Orson was away on a mission, Joseph Smith approached Sarah and asked her to become one of his plural (and polyandrous) wives. She refused him – twice – and threatened to expose Smith’s polygamous proposals if he ever asked her again. Some time after Orson returned home from his mission, Sarah explained what had happened between the Prophet and herself. Orson confronted Joseph; Joseph denied his proposals and promptly (falsely) accused Sarah of having an adulterous affair with another of Joseph’s critics. Later, this accusation against Sarah was made public, “confirmed” by “witnesses” in a publication printed to exonerate Joseph Smith of allegations made by one of his former confidants, John C. Bennett (see Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History, 29-34).

Sarah Pratt’s story was not unique in early Mormonism. LDS author Richard Van Wagoner explained,

“Fabricated stories designed to protect both individuals and institutions in Nauvoo are seen elsewhere. Sidney Rigdon in the 18 June 1845 Messenger and Advocate reported that Parley P. Pratt, in speaking of the means by which church leaders should sustain Smith, advised that ‘we must lie to support brother Joseph, it is our duty to do so.’ Not only were church leaders willing to violate the law to promote polygamy, they did not hesitate to blacken the character of individuals who threatened to expose the secret practice of plural marriage.

“Sarah Pratt was not the only woman to suffer from this policy. The 27 August 1842 Wasp, for example, branded Martha H. Brotherton a ‘mean harlot,’ and Nancy Rigdon suffered the same treatment after she opposed Smith’s polygamous proposals. Stephen Markham, a close friend of Smith, certified in the 31 August 1842 ‘Affidavits’ that he saw Nancy Rigdon in a compromising situation with [John C.] Bennett. He claimed ‘many vulgar, unbecoming and indecent sayings and motions’ passed between them and testified that he was convinced they were ‘guilty of unlawful and illicit intercourse with each other.’ …[However,] ‘the young men of the city came forward and gave certificates against Markham, stating that they believed Markham willfully and maliciously lied to injure the character of Miss Rigdon, and to help Smith out of the dilemma.’

“After Joseph Smith’s death in 1844, Orson Hyde attempted to further blacken Nancy Rigdon’s character in order to tarnish her father’s claim to church leadership…

“Jane Law, wife of Smith’s counselor William Law, was also blacklisted for rejecting Smith’s polyandrous proposal…” (Mormon Polygamy: A History, 38-39, footnote 12)

Today’s Mormon Church is, in many ways, quite different from the Mormon Church of 1840s Nauvoo. Yet what the LDS Church has done to James Hamula in breaking the confidentiality associated with his excommunication looks very much like a 21st century backhanded form of character assassination. For whatever reason, the Church has publicly eliminated apostasy and disillusionment as possible reasons for James Hamula’s excommunication, leaving people to surmise that, if the Church is to be believed, he must then be guilty of some serious unnamed moral failing(s). That might be true, or it might not. But this fact remains: The Mormon Church broke its own rules related to disciplinary councils.

To promise confidentiality and then renege on that promise in itself demonstrates a serious moral failing. Likewise, to disgrace someone by insinuation and innuendo is itself a disgrace. The LDS Church’s breach of trust via its broken promises and ambiguous gossip involving James Hamula is but one more item to add to the ever-growing list of reasons to question the intrinsic nature of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.