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, the 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.”
But as the story unfolded, 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 different 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 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 “O.U.R. is dedicated to combatting 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, the 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.
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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 Elder Ballard’s name, he proceeded to trade on Elder Ballard’s name.
He began his remarks by saying that Elder Ballard has been “like a grandfather” to him. Over the course of his comments he also managed to slip in the facts that Elder Ballard had blessed and set apart his son for an LDS mission and that Elder Ballard had enthusiastically attended the very same heritage tour they were all currently taking.
He emphasized that Elder Ballard 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, claim 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 News, which can hardly be dismissed as a leftist rag, 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 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 unique role the Book of Mormon is supposed to have played in the founding of the United States of America.
However, Fox News is reporting that the church has removed articles about Ballard from its official website, resulting in “Page Not Found” error messages.
According to Vice’s second article, O.U.R. 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.
Update: After this story went to press, Tim Ballard issued a statement in which he emphasized his commitment to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and reiterated his suspicions that last week’s statement from the church was merely a media hoax, since the church had not “publicly verified its authenticity.” He also depicted himself as the victim of character assassination because of his work rescuing children. “Evil pedophiles will stop at nothing, and they have allies in government, in the media, in big corporations, and even in public institutions. They continue to lie about and attempt to destroy my good name . . . and they will never stop,” his statement said.
Deseret News, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, has independently verified the authenticity of the LDS Church’s earlier statement that withdrew its association with Tim Ballard.
Jana Riess is the author of several books and a senior columnist for Religion News Service. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.