Sam Young knew what was at stake from the beginning — when he began to question certain practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The 65-year-old Sugar Land resident was forewarned that he could be excommunicated for crusading against the church’s policy of allowing bishops to meet with children one-on-one to discuss topics regarding their faith and personal behavior. Young, who served for five years as a bishop, has been pushing for reforms to the routine meetings after learning that some of the questions bishops asked were sexually explicit. “Protecting children is more important than my membership in the church,” he said this week.
Young has been summoned to a rare excommunication hearing set for Sunday at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints building in Sugar Land. He is now preparing to challenge the charge and remain in the Mormon church, in which he has been a lifelong active member. In addition to serving as a bishop, he has been a bishopric counselor, a ward mission leader, stake activities director and a seminary teacher. “This is my church,” he said. “It’s been my church my entire life. My community is in the church. My wife is in the church. My children are in the church.
My grandchildren are in the church.” Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officials would not comment on the case but spokesman Eric Hawkins provided a statement: “Because of the personal nature of church disciplinary matters and to respect the privacy of those involved, the church does not provide information about the proceedings. Church discipline is administered by local leaders who are familiar with the individual and his or her circumstances.” The church’s website outlines its discipline process, explaining that doctrine promotes members growing and bettering themselves by following Jesus Christ’s example.
“Central to that process is freedom of choice, which shapes who we are,” the site reads. “Inevitably, as we make choices, we also make mistakes.” Some missteps are corrected through repentance, while others require more serious action. “The purpose of church discipline is not to punish but to facilitate full repentance and fellowship for a person who has made serious mistakes,” the site continues. The church considers Young’s case apostasy, or as it explains, “the repeated, clear and open public opposition to the church, its leaders and its doctrine.” An apostate, however, is far from what Young would consider himself.
He simply wants the church to reconsider its policy regarding interviews that take place between Mormon youth and church officials, he explained. The past few months have been a journey for Young, one that he never expected to take. He’s only known for about a year that the interviews included sexual questions like if the child masturbated or has been sexually active. He started asking around to learn more, even reaching out to his own daughters. Then countless church members shared stories with him and several agreed to let Young post what they wrote on his website, ProtectLDSChildren.org.
Many of the stories talk about how the interviews led to feelings of shame, guilt, self-loathing and even suicide. “There are thousands of kids whose childhoods were destroyed,” Young said. He started petitions to end the meetings and collected 58,000 signatures. Young recently completed a 23-day hunger strike at Temple Square in Salt Lake City to raise awareness of the issue. “I was asking the apostles to come down and meet with the people who were harmed by the policy, to meet people who were concerned,” he said. They ignored me.” The fast started on July 27. Two days later, the church issued a statement about the interviews, stating that steps were taken to improve the interactions.
“Church leaders at every level — from Sam’s local bishop and stake president to a recent conversation with a general authority — have met with him to express love, to listen and to counsel with him,” the statement read. Further meetings with him are not necessary to clarify his position on this matter.” At the end of August, Young received the notification for his excommunication proceedings. The church will take about 15 minutes to make its charges, and Young will have 45 minutes to respond. “My hope is that you will choose to change your course and to return to the covenant path,” the letter concluded. Young said his emotions went from angry to disappointed.
The church did change its guidelines for interviews in March, stating, “If the person being interviewed desires, another adult may be invited to participate in the interview. Leaders should avoid all circumstances that could be misunderstood.” Young said the change wasn’t enough — and places children in charge of deciding whether or not a parent is present in the interviews. He added that the new policy does not address the issue of sexually explicit questions. Kate Kelly can sympathize with Young’s case. She was excommunicated from the Mormon church in 2014, after advocating for the ordination of women to the priesthood.
Like Young, Kelly said she was disciplined for a “thought crime.” “It’s not anything you did, it’s what you thought and voiced publically,” she said. “You can think whatever you want, but you can’t say it out loud.” Kelly, who lives in New York, felt assured that the church would come around on her case, until talking to Janice Allred, another Mormon feminist who was excommunicated. “I said, ‘I think they’re going to do the right thing,’” Kelly recalled. “She patted me on the head and said, ‘That’s what I thought too.’” Kelly said excommunication is a heart-breaking experience. Still, she advises Young, “Put your faith in yourself and your cause.
And you decided it’s worth it.” In advance of his hearing, Young and a handful of supporters held a press conference Thursday in front of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints building in Sugar Land. Young said one of the hardest parts of the excommunication has been watching friends who are still members of the church not stand up for him. Most of Young’s supporters on Thursday were former church members who had left for various reasons. One of those supporters was Susan Watts, who said the church is just trying to disavow a person who has hurt the institution’s image. He doesn’t deserve to be excommunicated,” Watts said.
“But I think the church has an agenda, and they’re going to do it because they want to be rid of him.” Garth Ogzewalla, another former church member, said Young has been fair with the church but isn’t getting that fairness in return. “I think that the church is really losing out, because he’s a visionary as far as I’m concerned,” Ogzewalla said. “It seems like a lot of the excommunications are about people who are vocal and public about anything that isn’t accepted as the standard culture.
To anybody who stands out, it’s a real issue.” Steve Catts, who is still a member of the church, stressed the gravity of being excommunicated — that in many people’s eyes, not being in standing with the church means you are stripped of eternal salvation. Catts said the scandal and excommunication is forcing him to question his faith. “The shame is that the church doesn’t want people to speak out against the institution,” he said.