A Mormon conference this weekend in Utah will usher in a new era of church leadership that comes as the faith grapples with heightened scrutiny about its handling of sexual abuse reports and one-on-one interviews between local lay leaders and youth.
Church President Russell M. Nelson will preside over the twice-annual gathering for the first time since taking office. Two new members will be chosen for an all-male top governing body.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints this week announced updated guidelines for the reporting of sexual abuse following news that a former prominent missionary leader was accused of sexually assaulting two women in the 1980s.
The new guidelines call on lay leaders to never disregard a report of abuse or encourage a person to stay in an abusive home. They also say children can bring a parent or other adult to one-one-one interviews with local church leaders. Parents previously were allowed only in a hallway or adjacent room. Youth can still go alone if they choose.
Some say the changes fall short.
On Friday, about 1,000 Mormons and ex-Mormons marched to the church’s Salt Lake City headquarters to deliver petitions demanding an end to the closed door, one-on-one meetings that start at age 12, along with the sexual questions they sometimes include.
Mormon spokeswoman Irene Caso said in a statement Friday the faith condemns any inappropriate behavior or abuse regardless of when or where it occurs, and that church leaders are given instructions for youth interviews.
The statement also seemed to express a willingness to change: “As with any practice in the Church, we continually look for ways to improve and adjust by following the Savior in meeting the needs of our members.”
Nelson is expected to speak at this weekend’s conference, but it’s unknown if he’ll address the issue or the larger topic of sexual misconduct that has been thrust into the national spotlight by the #MeToo movement. Church leaders usually focus their conference speeches on spiritual guidance and religious themes.
Nelson, a 93-year-old former heart surgeon, was appointed the 17th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in January following the death of president Thomas S. Monson, who served for a decade.
Both Nelson and Monson rose up church leadership ranks after being named to a governing body called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, modeled after Jesus Christ’s apostles. Members of the all-male panel serve under the church president and his two counselors and remain on the panel until they die.
Church members and scholars will be closely watching Saturday to see if the Utah-based church adds diversity to its top leadership tier, which is made up entirely of white men from the U.S. with the exception of one German, Dieter Uchtdorf.
More than half of the religion’s 16 million members live outside the United States, and some Mormons would like to see the church’s global footprint represented in leadership.
The last time there were openings on the quorum, in October 2015, the church chose three Utah men.
Women aren’t allowed on the religion’s highest leadership councils or in the faith’s lay clergy that lead local congregations. Church officials say their doctrine states men and women are equal, but only men are allowed in the lay priesthood because the religion follows the “pattern set by the Savior when it comes to priesthood ordination.”
A contingent of Mormons have advocated for years for a change in doctrine to allow women in the priesthood — including large rallies outside church conferences in 2013 and 2014 — but the Mormon church remains committed to its patriarchal structure. Nine highest-ranking women in the church oversee three organizations that run programs for women and girls. These councils sit below several layers of leadership groups reserved for men.
The new leaders are likely to come from next-tier of church leaders, which is called the Quorum of the Seventy, which is where the last 12 men chosen were working before their selections.
The new Quorum members will join a quorum undergoing a substantial turnover following a string of deaths as previous leaders succumbed to the effects of aging.
After Saturday, five of the 12 panel members will have been appointed in the past three years. Prior to 2015, it had been six years since a new quorum member was chosen, and more than a decade since the leadership council had two openings.