SALT LAKE CITY – The two newest members of a top Mormon governing panel said Thursday that they hope to bring a new perspective as the first Latin-American and the first person of Asian ancestry to a previously all-white top leadership group that helps make church policy.
Ulisses Soares of Brazil and Gerrit W. Gong, a Chinese-American, made the comments during their first media interviews since being chosen for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' leadership panel called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles earlier this year.
They also weighed on how the religion handles sex abuse reporting and political civility:
'WE BRING NEW EXPERIENCE'
The selections of Soares and Gong as new members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles during a church conference on March 30 triggered excitement among many Mormons who for years have been hoping for the faith's top leadership to be more representative of a religion has more than half of the its 16 million members outside the United States.
Soares, 59, said the religion's direction won't change because that's always led by Jesus Christ, but he said he and Gong can enhance the church's capacity to meet the needs of an increasingly global religion that now that has more than half of the its 16 million members outside the United States.
"We bring some experience from other areas of the world," said Soares, an accountant and auditor for multinational corporations in Brazil before joining church leadership. "The lord uses different abilities, different talents to accomplish his great work. Coming from different cultures may help us to understand the specific needs or specific behaviors that we can address. We can be more sensitive. We can feel more empathy for the ways people feel things."
Gong, 64, was born in Redwood City, California, but his grandparents immigrated to the United States from China.
"The more places we go, the more people we understand and meet with, the greater we see that love which is a universal love," Gong said.
The religion has come under scrutiny recently for how it handles sexual abuse reported to its local lay leaders, including several lawsuits that allege church officials didn't properly pass along the reports to police. A new lawsuit was filed this week by a woman who says her father sexually abused her as a child and that Mormon church leaders allowed the sexual assault to continue by failing to report it to police.
Gong and Soares both echoed recent comments by top leaders that the religion has "zero tolerance" for abuse and said they offering training and support for local leaders about best practices. The religion recently issued an updated set of guidelines for how the male bishops should handle sexual assault reports. The guidelines direct them never to disregard a report of abuse — a more direct instruction than previous guidelines — and to call a church hotline that will help them sort out how to help victims and report the crime.
Soares said that the church tries to support the victim of the abuse as well as the person who is accused of abuse.
"Abuse is something we don't tolerate," Soares said. "When it comes to light, the church acts and tries to help and support the one who has been abused and the one who has abused ... to help the person who followed this kind of behavior to repent, to change."
Gong said most church leaders are concerned for children, women and those who are vulnerable and said Mormon parents can be confident that their children are safe.
"We take care of each other," Gong said. "When there are mistakes, we catch them when we can and immediately take action."
Gong, who worked for the U.S. State Department and the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies before being selected for a lower-tier church leadership panel in 2010, spoke about the current climate of political tension in the United States.
"There's never been a time where we needed greater civility, greater bipartisanship, greater vision for the future," Gong said. "I think it's in shared vision that sometimes we find the capacity to make the kinds of accommodations and compromises that constitute politics. Politics is the art of the possible, where we give up things in order to gain things for the greater good. If there's ever a time we needed some of that, it is now."