By Dennis Wagner / USA Today
RELIGIOUS NEWS SERVICE – The leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been ordered to appear before a magistrate in England on fraud charges filed by a disaffected ex-Mormon who disputes fundamental teachings of the religion, according to documentation obtained by The Arizona Republic.
But some legal experts in England say it is unlikely prosecutors would seek to have him extradited, and they are surprised the summonses were issued at all.
Two summonses direct Thomas S. Monson of Utah, the church president, to attend a March 14 hearing in the Westminster Magistrates Court of London to answer accusations that key tenets of the LDS faith are untrue and have been used to secure financial contributions.
The criminal complaint was lodged by Tom Phillips, a Mormon who said he withdrew from the church after holding positions in England as bishop, stake president and area executive secretary. He now serves as managing editor of MormonThink, an online publication that critiques the church’s history and doctrine.
“The church occasionally receives documents like this that seek to draw attention to an individual’s personal grievances or to embarrass church leaders,” said Eric Hawkins, a spokesman at church headquarters in Salt Lake City who said he had not seen the legal document. “These bizarre allegations fit into that category.”
Legal scholars in England expressed bewilderment at the summonses, saying British law precludes challenges to theological beliefs in secular courts.
“I’m sitting here with an open mouth,” said Neil Addison, a former crown prosecutor and author on religious freedom. “I think the British courts will recoil in horror. This is just using the law to make a show, an anti-Mormon point. And I’m frankly shocked that a magistrate has issued it.”
Phillips’ complaint is based on the Fraud Act of 2006, a British law that prohibits false representations made to secure a profit or to cause someone to lose money. Conviction may carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
Judge Elizabeth Roscoe signed the summonses Jan. 31. A court official in London confirmed the issuance of the paperwork, which directs Monson to answer allegations that untrue religious precepts were used to obtain tithes comprising 10 percent of church members’ incomes. Two British subjects, Stephen Bloor and Christopher Ralph, are identified as victims.
Harvey Kass, a British solicitor, referred to the summons as “bizarre,” adding: “I can’t imagine how it got through the court process. It would be set aside within 10 seconds, in my opinion.”
Kass and Addison said they see no likelihood that the British government would seek to extradite Monson or that the United States would comply with such a request.
Phillips listed seven church teachings that he claims are demonstrably false, including the origins of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, part of the church’s canon of scripture. “These are not statements of mere ‘beliefs’ or opinions or theories,” he wrote. “They are made as actual facts and their truthfulness can be objectively tested with evidence.”
Phillips, who lives in Portugal, alleged that the LDS church in Great Britain has taken in $257 million in member donations since 2007. He said tithes are mandatory for good standing in the church.
According to Phillips’ online biography, he converted to Mormonism in 1969 and rose through church leadership for 33 years. Before leaving the faith in 2004, the biography says, he served as LDS area controller for the British Isles and Africa and as financial director for corporate entities in the United Kingdom.
Phillips said his belief in LDS doctrines eroded as he began researching questions raised by fellow Mormons. He now describes himself as “a secular humanist or atheist, or whatever you want to call it.”