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LDS Church responds to leaked videos of briefings for Mormon apostles

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The Salt Lake Temple is seen on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016.

The Salt Lake Temple is seen on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The LDS Church and a former George W. Bush Cabinet member responded Sunday afternoon to the unauthorized leak of 15 videos of briefings provided to the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

"Most of these videos appear to be from briefings received by senior church leaders between 2007 and 2012," said Eric Hawkins, spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "In these committee meetings, presentations are routinely received from various religious, political and subject-matter experts on a variety of topics.

"The purpose," he added, "is to understand issues that may face the church and is in pursuit of the obligation church leaders feel to be informed on and have open discussion about current issues. This is an informational forum, not a decision-making body."

The videos were posted on YouTube by an anonymous source Sunday, the final day of the church's 186th Semiannual General Conference. Hawkins said the church did not know how they became public. Brief summaries of each video are available here.

The videos cover more than seven-and-a-half hours and provide a snapshot of the breadth of political, social and financial issues addressed by church leaders in regular meetings as they manage an international faith that today numbers 15.6 million members in more than 165 countries.

Former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt said he made presentations to the group as a private citizen on three occasions about different topics — the healthcare debate, religious freedom and tax policy. His presentation on religious liberty, which he said was "highly dated," was one of those leaked in the videos posted Sunday.

"Nothing that was spoken of there is uncomfortable at all for me," Leavitt said, "but it's always unfortunate when people take it upon themselves to get information surreptitiously and leak it for their own purposes."

Leavitt, a Mormon who served Bush from 2003-09 as Secretary of Health and Human Services and administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, was Utah's governor from 1993-2003.

Some videos show LDS apostles and other senior church leaders meeting in the Church Administration Building on Temple Square in regular meetings, collecting information from government officials, scholars and social science experts in various fields.

"The attendees have a wide range of interests, and the meetings are a way they seek to keep abreast of issues in the world," Leavitt said.

An eight-year-old video leaked Sunday shows an assistant to the president of Brigham Young University briefing the committee on the global financial crisis soon after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and a week after the IMF warned of painful international consequences.

"We have to pause and remember," said the late President Boyd K. Packer, then president of the Quorum of the Twelve, "that we’re leading 13 million people worldwide and this pestilence, somehow it’s touching them all."

Ironically, a leaked 2011 presentation included a briefing about the potential for a WikiLeaks-style release of private LDS Church information by hackers, a disgruntled church staffer or an "unintended" situation like a lost church computer or data drive.

The committee meetings are informational. Decisions of the Twelve are made unanimously after deliberation by the entire quorum and none of the videos show declarations of church policy nor ecclesiastical direction.

Two years ago, the Deseret News described how members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve remain up to date on world affairs and issues that affect Mormons and others.

For example, in addition to receiving briefings from experts, they share with one another the firsthand lessons learned through their own frequent and extensive international travel. Apostles each work six days a week, traveling about 44 weekends a year.

They also make a constant effort to understand the ramifications of issues, educating themselves through reading, research and surveys. They conduct regular video conferences with local church leaders around the globe.

Church leaders also have a rich tradition dating back to Brigham Young of hosting world leaders in Salt Lake City. The church has a program that brings ambassadors from nations around the world to meet with apostles and speak at BYU. Mormon leaders also have worked for the past decade to build bridges of interreligious cooperation.

The leaked videos show the Twelve, for example, gathering information about why Mormons, like those in nearly all other demographics, are taking longer to marry, and display their desire to work with other religions on common causes.

The videos also show church leaders in unguarded moments familiar to meetings with people who have worked together for years and are in a setting of trust.

One video reveals a briefing by former Sen. Gordon H. Smith, R-Oregon, a Mormon who served two terms in the U.S. Senate and became president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters in 2009.

Critics raised questions on blogs Sunday about his presentation. Smith, who had just left the Senate, talked about the nuclear capabilities of Iran and Israel and said he voted for the Iraq War because he believed it would open the way to LDS Church missionary work there.

In addition to Smith and Leavitt, Some of those who provided briefings in the leaked videos include:

• Robert George, a Princeton University law professor and author of "What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense."

• Elder Gerrit W. Gong, an expert on Asia as a former member of the U.S. State Department who at the time of the videotaped briefings was an assistant to the president of Brigham Young University. He became a LDS General Authority in 2010 and a member of the church's Presidency of the Seventy in 2015.

• Luis Tellez, president of the Witherspoon Institute, an independent research center in Princeton, New Jersey.

• BYU political science professor David Magleby, an expert on exit polls and elections.

In May 2012, Leavitt, George and Tellez briefed church leaders on religious freedom issues — "This is the fight of our lives," George said — such as the Affordable Care Act's contraception provision. They also covered the defense of traditional marriage and how religious freedom was strengthened by the Hosanna-Tabor case on the ministerial exception, upheld unanimously by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier that year.

In that meeting, church leaders and their guests discussed the strategic partnership of LDS and Catholic leaders on marriage and with Catholics and the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., on the American Religious Freedom Program. That program sought Religious Freedom Restoration Act-style laws around the country.

"Mostly what was spoken of is nearly five years old and has been overtaken by events and changed dramatically," Leavitt said.

In fact, the LDS Church announced a new position in January 2015 with its Fairness for All approach.

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com