The Mormon church sponsors a committee that gathers information on members who criticize the church and passes its findings on to local church leaders.
The existence of the committee was disclosed here last week during a meeting of liberal Mormons, and a church spokesman confirmed the report.
The spokesman, Don Lefevre, told Religious News Service on Monday that the aim of the group, known as the Strengthening Church Members Committee, is to prevent members from making negative statements that hinder the progress of the Mormon church, officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Lefevre said the committee neither makes judgments nor imposes penalties.
"Its purpose is implied by the committee's name, to strengthen members in the church who may have a problem or may need counseling," Lefevre said. "It's really an attempt to help the individual."
Lefevre said the committee receives complaints from church members about other members who have made statements that "conceivably could do harm to the church."
"What this committee does is hear the complaints and pass the information along to the person's ecclesiastical leader." Any discipline is "entirely up to the discretion of the local leaders," he said.
Eugene England, a professor at Brigham Young University, urged conference participants to pressure the church to disband the committee. Its effect, he said, is to undermine the church _ just the opposite of what officials say it intends.
Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, is affiliated with the church.
Lavina Fielding Anderson, a former professor at Brigham Young, said she had learned of the "internal espionage system" during her research on the relationship between Mormon feminists and intellectuals and church leaders.
Anderson, who edits the independent Journal of Mormon History, cited cases in which local church leaders had conducted interviews with church members or punished them based on information in the files.
Another speaker at the conference, the four-day Sunstone Symposium, announced a plan to fight back against what he termed "spiritual abuse."
James Tuscano, a lawyer from Salt Lake City, said a group called the Mormon Alliance, officially the Mormon Defense League, had been formed last month to seek reform in the church.
Tuscano said the Alliance's goal will be to "uncover, identify, define, name, chronicle, resist and even combat acts and threats of defamation and spiritual abuse perpetrated on Mormon individuals and institutions."
Tuscano said the organization is needed because Mormon intellectuals have been feeling besieged. Feminists, environmentalists, anthropologists, historians and journalists are among groups that have felt heat from church headquarters.
The symposium was sponsored by the Sunstone Foundation, an independent organization formed to study Mormon issues. Last year, two weeks after the symposium ended, the church's hierarchy issued a statement denouncing the conference, contending participants had discussed publicly matters that the church "holds sacred."
The statement asked members to decline participation. Leaders of the symposium said attendance this year, estimated at 1,500, was up from last year.
Tensions in the church between intellectual freedom and censure were the theme of many of the conference sessions. Some speakers said the church exerts strong pressures on members to conform and obey, even as they give lip service to intellectual freedom.