With each passing week, it seems the Tim Ballard scandal continues to grow. In the last few months, breaking stories drop with regularity — a new lawsuit, another alleged abuse victim comes forward, new details emerge about his alleged organizational mismanagement, or yet another almost-unbelievable story is shared that further exposes the culture of dysfunction he allegedly helped perpetuate in his organization and in Mormon circles. Yet despite the publicity garnered by this international story, many of the Catholic public figures who promoted The Sound of Freedom  — the film about Ballard that claims to be “based on a true story” — have remained silent even as the scandal surrounding the film’s subject expands.

I first heard about Tim Ballard and his (former) organization, Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), when the 2018 documentary Operation Toussaint appeared in my Amazon Prime movie recommendations, probably in 2019 or 2020. Then, as now, the film had a nearly 5-star rating, so I decided to watch it.

Operation Toussaint (which is now available to watch in its entirety for free on YouTube) bills itself as the story of Tim Ballard, a man who left his high-ranking position as a special agent in the Department of Homeland Security in order to start his own agency, OUR, dedicated to rescuing children from child sex traffickers in foreign countries. The documentary presents Ballard’s biography (or perhaps hagiography) and features interviews of public figures including self-help guru Tony Robbins, conservative commentator Glenn Beck, and the late Utah senator Orrin Hatch praising his work and his character. These snippets punctuate the film’s central plot, which depicts Ballard and his team planning and carrying out an underground mission to rescue sex-trafficked children in Haiti.

Along the way, we meet Ballard’s wife and nine children, two of whom they adopted from Haiti. We see Ballard meet with and deliver presentations for US government officials. We learn that Ballard became inspired to dedicate his life to combatting the sex trafficking industry after hearing the story of Gardy Mardy, a boy who was kidnapped from his church in Haiti in 2009 when he was three years old. The documentary tells how Ballard made the difficult decision to leave his government position in order to help search for the boy.

Gardy Mardy was never found, but in the film it is claimed that on this mission to Haiti, Ballard’s team rescued 28 other children from traffickers.

At the time, I found the documentary compelling and interesting, although something about it seemed concocted. Rather than telling this story from a detached perspective, the producers of Operation Toussaint seemed to be creating an advertisement for Tim Ballard and his operation. Still, I thought that there’s nothing wrong with a film promoting someone who is working for a good cause, even if it didn’t provide a totally objective point of view.

Questions about Ballard and OUR

I didn’t think much about Tim Ballard again until late 2021, when Jeannie Gaffigan and I interviewed David Lafferty for a podcast. In the episode, entitled “What Happened to Jim Caviezel?” Jeannie and I talked to David about the Passion of the Christ actor’s promotion of QAnon-related rhetoric and propaganda. David explained that Caviezel had recently filmed The Sound of Freedom, and he mentioned some of the controversies related to Ballard and his organization.

In the time since we recorded that podcast, I became more familiar with many of the questions and controversies surrounding Ballard and OUR. I read a 2020 VICE World News investigation that “identified a divide between the group’s actual practices and some of its claimed successes.” The report said that its findings on OUR weren’t “outright falsehoods but a pattern of image-burnishing and mythology-building, a series of exaggerations that are, in the aggregate, quite misleading.” Also in 2020, Utah-based investigative journalist Lynn Packer dug into evidence that suggested that Ballard and OUR were mismanaging funds and making false and unsubstantiated claims about the number of people they had really saved from the sex trafficking industry. Packer discussed the results of his investigation in multiple videos on his YouTube channel. His work came to my attention when he summarized it in a lengthy interview with John Dehlin on the Mormon Stories podcast. In it, Packer said that Ballard was, in his opinion, a “flimflam man.”

An August 2020 New York Times report on groups exploiting the QAnon conspiracy theory and its related “Save the Children” slogan to rake in donations quoted Ballard suggesting that the conspiracy theories presented an opportunity for those combatting sex trafficking, saying, “Some of these theories have allowed people to open their eyes. … So now it’s our job to flood the space with real information so the facts can be shared.”

Sound of Freedom

It would take The Sound of Freedom, which was filmed in 2018, until 2023 to find a distributor. It had been produced by 20th Century Fox, but was later dropped by the studio. Eventually, the film was picked up by Provo, Utah-based Angel Studios, which produces the series The Chosen, based on the life of Jesus. Despite these obstacles and delays, the film — which had a $14.5 million budget — was a surprise hit, grossing over $200 million to date and outperforming Indiana Jones in its July 4 debut.

After the release of Sound of Freedom, the scrutiny of OUR and Ballard increased, and the criticism of them became more widespread. Inevitably, many of the film’s critics incorporated this skepticism into their reviews.

For example, a Rolling Stone review drew attention to Caviezel’s recent QAnon-adjacent public statements, describing “speeches and interviews in which he hints at an underground holy war between patriots and a sinister legion of evildoers who are harvesting the blood of children.”

Although the film lacked support from the mainstream press, its support from religious media and public figures more than compensated. As a July 2023 VICE article explained, “The film, which is being marketed directly to religious audiences as the film Hollywood doesn’t want them to see in something like the way the record-setting Passion of the Christ was, reportedly saw an impressive $10 million in gross sales before even opening. More usefully, perhaps, for OUR, many of the writeups about the film gloss over OUR’s long history of exaggeration and misrepresentation, helpfully bolstering the organization’s tallest tales about itself.”

The film has ecumenical appeal, representing a high-profile collaboration between members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (members are commonly known as LDS or Mormons) and Catholics. Tim Ballard and the leadership of Angel Studios are members of the LDS Church and Caviezel, writer-director Alejandro Monteverde, and producer-actor Eduardo Verástegui are Catholics.

Many high-profile Catholics praised and promoted the film. Bishop Joseph Strickland hosted a screening of the film in Tyler. Fr. Mike Schmitz, a popular podcaster, posted a video to his YouTube channel describing the film as a “true story” and telling his viewers through tears, “I can’t emphasize enough how you should go see this movie, not only to support it, but it’s a good movie and we need to put this in front of us.”

The video currently has over 568K views.

Catholic Answers apologist Trent Horn went even further by making insinuations about critics of the film in a video entitled, “The Perverted Critics of Sound of Freedom.” In it, he suggests that those with objections to the film should still praise it, suggesting that they should write things like, “Sound of Freedom is a well-made film, it tackles an important subject, even though it’s star, Jim Caviezel, has dabbled in conspiracy theories related to human trafficking. In spite of that, this is still a good and important film worth seeing.”

Horn then offers his theory on the criticism of Sound of Freedom, saying, “Here’s what I think. The world rejects any truth that threatens their lies, especially powerful subtle truths.” He then spends the bulk of the video suggesting that negative reactions to the film are connected to support for the “sexualization of children,” with statements like, “I think it’s obvious that a film that gets people to really question how children are sexualized these days, there are many people in Hollywood and in culture that don’t like it because people will look at woke libraries and the books that are present there, look at drag shows where children are invited, children are invited to LGBT Pride parades and the debauchery that happens there, the idea of exposing kids to sex safely.” In his video, Horn failed to acknowledge the legitimate questions about the truthfulness of Ballard’s claims —let alone the possibility that the entire film was an entirely fictional story based on Ballard’s self-promotion and propaganda.

It should be noted that the film itself stays away from open conspiracy theory. Instead, Sound of Freedom provides a mild dose of standard action movie fare to its audience. As a review in the Atlantic put it, “It’s fine—not great but not terrible, either. It doesn’t make any reference to ‘deep state’ bloodsucking or congressional sex cabals. It’s a straightforward, if plodding, action movie about a man on a righteous quest—with zero character development and way too many close-ups of people either crying or smoking cigars.”

That said, given its baggage, an artistic evaluation of the film seems trivial given questions about whether it accurately represents Ballard and his “quest.”

Ballard Exposed

In September, Tim Ballard’s public image rapidly began to unravel. On September 15, 2023, an official spokesman for the LDS Church told VICE News that Tim Ballard had misrepresented his relationship with a Mormon apostle, President M. Russell Ballard (no relation), and that Tim Ballard “betrayed their friendship, through the unauthorized use of President Ballard’s name for Tim Ballard’s personal advantage and activity regarded as morally unacceptable.”

Many Mormons initially rejected the authenticity of the statement, but it was soon confirmed with LDS officials by other outlets including the Salt Lake Tribune. Soon, the LDS Church removed articles from its official website that referenced Ballard and his work.

The Salt Lake City Fox affiliate also reproduced excerpts from the statement they received directly from LDS spokesman Doug Anderson via his official church email address, which said, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints never endorsed, supported or represented OUR, Tim Ballard or any projects associated with them.”

The allegations against Ballard quickly escalated, with multiple women coming forward saying that in the course of their work with Ballard and OUR, Ballard had sexually groomed, harassed, and abused them. A married couple has also filed suit, claiming that Ballard’s behavior led to their separation.

Without going into extensive detail, suffice it to say that other news and information has emerged about Ballard, ranging from the predictable (Ballard was ousted as CEO of OUR prior to Sound of Freedom’s release) to the bizarre (the “intel” leading to the investigation of the disappearance of Gardy Mardy was based on the purported visions of a psychic). New revelations about Ballard’s alleged sordid activities or financial corruption have emerged with regularity.

Speaking as an outside observer, it seems that the Mormon world has been thoroughly rocked by the Ballard scandal. This story has been covered by sources ranging from the Mormon-owned Deseret News to the Salt Lake Tribune. Mormon (and ex-Mormon) commentators, pundits, and podcasters have brought the issue front and center. Multiple outlets have scrutinized evidence that Ballard was excommunicated by the LDS Church at the end of September.

Many of Ballard’s past associates in the Mormon world have washed their hands of Ballard, expressing dismay and disgust about his behavior. For example, longtime friend and collaborator Glenn Beck said that he felt “duped” and “betrayed” by Ballard. Their moral outrage (or at least their public expressions of it) is palpable. As one would and should expect.

What I haven’t seen is accountability from prominent Catholic figures for uncritically promoting The Sound of Freedom and Ballard’s narrative. The videos are still up, the articles remain, and the slanderous attacks against those who attempted to sound the alarm about Ballard still loom large on Catholic websites.

Image: Screencap. Tim Ballard and Jim Caviezel promote The Sound of Freedom.

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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