Philander Knox Smartt III arrived in Puerto Rico on July 1, 2013, as an energetic 43-year-old, and expected to preside over Mormon missionaries serving in that collection of islands for three years.
Ten months later, however, Smartt was dismissed as mission president and booted from the church for unspecified misconduct with multiple young female missionaries.
The victims, all older than 18, “chose not to pursue criminal charges,” LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said in a statement in response to Salt Lake Tribune questions about the episode, and the Utah-based faith provided “ecclesiastical and emotional counseling” to the sister missionaries “who had been deceived and victimized.”
Hawkins noted Wednesday that “no police report was requested by the victims,” but added that “without question, these actions were reprehensible, immoral and against the laws of God and the standards of the church.”
This episode comes to light during the #MeToo movement, when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well as other religious institutions are facing increased scrutiny for their response to reports of clergy misdeeds.
Smartt, a wealthy Alabama lawyer-developer, assigned several female pairs to isolated islands, far from other missionaries or the mission home in the capital of San Juan. He bought clothes and jewelry for some of the women. He flew them from place to place in his private plane, which he arranged to be sent to the mission within a few months of his arrival.
Smartt’s treatment of the female proselytizers in his care was exposed when one sister missionary took the unusual step of phoning her stake president on the U.S. mainland. (Mormon missionaries generally call home only on Christmas and Mother’s Day and only to their families.) She reported what was going on, and that regional lay leader alerted officials in the faith’s Salt Lake City headquarters.
“Any missionary who informs church leaders, family members and/or legal authorities about abuse should be commended, and may use any available means to do so,” Hawkins said. “This is what occurred in this case, and it prompted immediate action by the church.”
Within days, general authority Craig Zwick, then a member of the faith’s Seventy, was dispatched to Puerto Rico to take over the mission.
“This is a tragic and heartbreaking case of deception and betrayal that has impacted the lives of a number of people,” Hawkins said. “When church leaders learned of what had occurred, the mission president was immediately and dishonorably released from his position, sent home and excommunicated.”
Smartt did not respond to repeated phone and email messages for this story.
Sources who were in Puerto Rico at the time but were not authorized to speak on the record said they believe the church handled the Smartt matter appropriately and with sensitivity toward the women. Multiple young sister missionaries declined to be interviewed but noted that they, too, appreciated the church’s response.
It was far different from how the church reacted to sexual assault allegations against former Missionary Training Center President Joseph L. Bishop.
In the Bishop case, McKenna Denson has said he raped her at the church’s flagship MTC in Provo in the 1980s. Denson alleges in a lawsuit filed this month against Bishop and the LDS Church that she told her story to about 10 Mormon authorities but was never believed.
Bishop, who has denied the charges but has acknowledged some sexual misconduct, has said church officials never asked him about the alleged rape nor imposed any kind of church sanction on him.
After Denson threatened legal action, a church-hired attorney compiled a dossier of damaging information about the Colorado woman in an apparent effort to assess her credibility.
By contrast, when the church learned about Smartt, LDS leaders took swift action against him and moved to protect the victims, said sources familiar with the intervention, and neither Zwick (now an emeritus general authority) nor any other LDS leaders blamed the young missionaries for what happened.
They reportedly interviewed all the young women serving in Puerto Rico, not pressing for details but letting them share whatever they wanted of their experience.
The LDS Church continues to offer counseling to the victims, Hawkins said. “The wife and family of the [ousted] mission president have been assisted by the church with the legal, emotional and personal consequences resulting from the immoral and sinful behavior of one man.”
None of the victims left her mission early, the sources reported.
“We feel profound sorrow for what each of these women has experienced,” Hawkins said. “It is particularly heartbreaking that they have suffered because of the actions of a man who should have been a trusted priesthood leader.”
And trusted priesthood leaders play a key role in recommending “worthy and honorable” men to serve as Mormon mission presidents, he explained. Once these local leaders, who know them best, sign off, the nominees undergo “a searching interview with a general authority.”
“A mission president is a position of significant trust, and those who serve in that role are expected to live and exemplify the highest standards of personal conduct in both public and private settings,” Hawkins said. “In this case, that expectation was betrayed.”
As Christians, he said, “we want to do all within our power to both alleviate suffering and prevent abuse.”
To that end, Mormon authorities, including Zwick and LDS leaders from mission regional headquarters in the Dominican Republic, “were very caring and concerned for the welfare of the sisters,” said Idahoan Gaye Patterson, who was in Puerto Rico at the time with her husband, Ken, as a senior Mormon missionary. “They were there to make sure [the sisters] were protected.”
‘Between a rock and a hard place’
Shortly before Smartt’s actions were discovered, his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which is often a debilitating disease. The diagnosis was widely known among missionaries and came to be seen as the catalyst for the couple’s sudden departure, though LDS leaders never offered any reason for their absence beyond saying that the president had been released.
Marie Cornwall, a retired Brigham Young University sociology professor and former director of the LDS Church-owned school’s Women’s Research Institute, understands the faith’s dilemma.
The LDS Church rarely makes public pronouncements about discipline, especially not the reasons for it, Cornwall said. “I wouldn’t expect it to make any announcement to local leaders or anyone at the time.”
The problem in this case, she said, is that when “there’s no notification to people that there was a problem with him, other victims might not know to come forward. What do you do to make sure the person doesn’t go on to abuse others?”
On the other hand, if LDS officials made “the announcement that he had inappropriate [behavior] with some of the sisters, everyone would speculate about who and how for the rest of the [victims’] missions,” Cornwall said. “If the sisters were going to be able to stay on their missions, it couldn’t be told to everyone.”
The female missionaries and the now ex-wife might have been urging Zwick, who declined to be interviewed for this story, and the others “not to talk about it,” Cornwall said, because the women were “happier not to have it out there.”
The church was, she said, “between a rock and a hard place.”
To the sociologist, the hero in the story is the “whistleblower” who veered from missionary protocol to report Smartt to her leader back home.
Cornwall sees rising strength in younger Mormon women, particularly thousands of them who jumped at the chance to serve missions in 2012 when the age limit for sister missionaries was lowered from 21 to 19.
“They are educated enough to know when someone is doing something wrong,” she said. “They are not putting up with it — you don’t fool with them.”
Digital Editor Rachel Piper contributed to this story.