Sitting in his office in the LDS Church administration building, Elder Dallin H. Oaks carefully reads a news report that says he admitted to "falsely telling" a journalist he had no knowledge of an event involving the excommunication of a church member.
"Life isn't fair," Elder Oaks said. "Somebody said that time heals all wounds. But it's also true that time wounds all heels," he added in jest.But in a serious tone, Elder Oaks, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Council of the Twelve, said he feels "wounded" by an Associated Press story that he said dwelled on his admission that he made a statement he couldn't defend, and downplayed his efforts to promptly correct his unintentional error.
"It impugned my integrity and seriously distorted the account of the facts as it was presented," Oaks said in an interview this week.
The apostle said he didn't willfully mislead a news reporter. He explained that he had misspoken during an hourlong interview and when he was notified of that, he called the reporter to retract a "statement I could not defend."
The story was published four days later in the Arizona Republic newspaper, without the statement.
Meanwhile, in Phoenix, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Steve Benson expressed frustration over what he sees as high-ranking church officials twisting the truth and deceiving members.
"I'm tired of playing this little game," he said in a phone interview from his office at the Arizona Republic. "The church needs to respect its members. . . . It wants to muzzle its members."
Benson, a sixth-generation Mormon and grandson of church President Ezra Taft Benson, wants no longer to be a "muzzled" member. On Sunday he announced he had requested his name be removed from the rolls of the Mormon Church. The next day, he disclosed to the Associated Press details of confidential conversations and correspondence between him and Elder Oaks.
The subsequent news story published locally in Tuesday's Salt Lake Tribune was the latest episode in a saga surrounding recent disciplinary action taken against six prominent Mormon scholars and feminists. Five of them - one who was disfellowshipped and four who were excommunicated - said they were disciplined for apostasy and are victims of an orchestrated purge.
Earlier this month, Elder Oaks spoke with an Arizona Republic reporter about the recent string of disciplinary councils. During the interview, they discussed whether Elder Boyd K. Packer, also a member of the Council of the Twelve, talked with local stake President Kerry Heinz, who later presided over a disciplinary council that excommunicated church critic Paul Toscano.
In the interview, Elder Oaks said he had no knowledge of whether Elder Packer met with the stake president. According to the Arizona Republic story, Elder Oaks also said that if Elder Packer told the stake president what action to take against a church member, it would violate church policy and "be contrary to what I know about Elder Packer and the way he operates."
Benson claimed that Elder Oaks told him a different story during their confidential discussions held two weeks earlier. Benson would not say why he had a private talk with Elder Oaks. But he said that during their talk Elder Oaks disclosed that Elder Packer and Heinz were old friends who did get together at Heinz's request and that such a meeting was a mistake.
Benson added that Elder Oaks referred to Elder Packer when saying, "You can't stage manage a grizzly bear."
Oaks declined to discuss what Benson said took place in their private discussion. "Even though I could defend myself by affirming or denying those things, I don't feel free" to do that without violating a pledge of confidentiality, he said.
The dispute over what Elder Packer said in a meeting with Heinz has attracted news media attention because some of those disciplined and their supporters had claimed Elder Packer was personally conducting a crackdown on church dissidents.
In a statement issued Friday, Elder Packer said, "Late in June, President Kerry Heinz asked his regional representative if he could arrange an appointment with me. We had served together in the seminary program 35 years ago.
"Even though general authorities of the church are free to contact or respond to local leaders on any subject, I felt there may be some sensitivity about his request," Elder Packer said. "I, therefore, in a meeting of the Council of the Twelve Apostles, raised the question as to whether I should see him. The brethren felt I could not very well decline to see a stake president.
"I therefore consented but asked President Heinz if he would feel all right about his file leader, President Loren Dunn, being present. He readily agreed," Elder Packer said. The meeting was held Sunday, July 11, 1993.
"We talked doctrine and philosophy," Elder Packer said. "I absolutely did not instruct him to hold a disciplinary council and did not then, nor have I ever, directed any verdict. By church policy that is left entirely to local leaders. When he left, I did not know what he would do."
In his interview with the Deseret News, Benson said what Elder Oaks told him didn't square with what was said to the reporter. So he transmitted a confidential letter to Elder Oaks pointing that out. Benson said he also warned that if the apostle did not "set the record straight" he would no longer feel obligated to keep their discussion confidential.
After receiving the letter, Elder Oaks said, he reviewed the transcript of his interview with the reporter and found he couldn't defend his comment about having no knowledge of Packer meeting with Heinz.
"How do you make a statement like that? I can't give any better explanation than the fact that I was talking a mile a minute and I just said something that on mature reflection I (concluded), `I can't defend the truthfulness of that,' " Elder Oaks said.
But he let his other statements stand "because I could defend those," he said.
While Elder Oaks said he was glad to correct his misstatement, he didn't like Benson's methods. "He has taken a confidential meeting where he had repeatedly assured me that he would never speak of subjects we were discussing . . . and now he has written me a letter using that confidential meeting to pressure me. And I deeply resent that."
Benson said he had no hidden agenda to corner a church authority. He said he wrote Elder Oaks before the story ran, thanking him for retracting a statement and explaining his intention was to give Elder Oaks a chance to set the record straight.
But after later learning that Elder Oaks left intact the other comments that troubled Benson, Benson said he followed through on his threat to go public.
In a followup letter transmitted Friday to Elder Oaks explaining why he decided to speak openly about their confidential conversations, Benson said, "I feel you violated the trust and faith between not only you and me, but between the church leadership and the members at large. I therefore felt it my moral obligation to break the silence that otherwise would have served only to perpetuate falsehood and false faith."