Ethics

Who you gonna call? New York Times offers a spiritual piece of the Bill Hybels puzzle

Who you gonna call? New York Times offers a spiritual piece of the Bill Hybels puzzle

It would be hard to imagine darker days for believers who truly want to see repentance and reform on issues of sexual abuse in religious institutions.

Are you a supporter of traditional forms of church life, in part because you believe that local pastors and churches need supervision and structures of accountability?

Uh, consider the pain, confusion and fog surrounding the fall of Theodore "Uncle Ted" McCarrick. Are the top Catholic shepherds doing a good job protecting the sheep?

Are you a supporter of free-church evangelicalism, because you believe ancient forms of Christian faith are cold and locked into patterns of decline?

Well, that brings us back to the ongoing efforts at Willow Creek Church to learn what did or did not happen behind closed doors during interactions between women and the church's founder and superstar preacher Bill Hybels.

How do the leaders of an independent megachurch investigate the private affairs of the man who created their empire? Who has the authority to discipline a superstar? You can see that struggle at the top of the latest New York Times story about this ongoing drama:

Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago announced ... that it plans to launch a new independent investigation into allegations that the Rev. Bill Hybels, the church’s influential founding pastor, sexually harassed female co-workers and a congregant over many years.

The announcement came one day after The New York Times reported on accusations from Pat Baranowski, Mr. Hybels’s former executive assistant. She said that Mr. Hybels had sexually and emotionally abused her while she worked at the church and lived with him and his family in the 1980s.

Heather Larson, one of two top pastors at Willow Creek, said in a statement: “It was heartbreaking yesterday to read about the new allegation against Bill Hybels in The New York Times. We have deep sadness for Ms. Baranowski. The behavior that she has described is reprehensible.”

The church’s other top pastor, the Rev. Steve Carter, resigned on Sunday. He said he could no longer work at Willow Creek in good conscience.

So, who you gonna call?

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The discussion continues: You are a pastor and a reporter calls. What do you do?

The discussion continues: You are a pastor and a reporter calls. What do you do?

This week's "Crossroads" podcast -- recorded by telephone, with me here in Prague -- is extra long and should be of special interest to clergy and other religious leaders who have ever found themselves facing a journalist who is holding a pen and a notepad (or calling on the telephone).

Now, I am not saying that journalists will not be interested in this topic.

You see, this podcast is yet another response to that urgent question raised by my colleague Bobby Ross, Jr., about how pastors should or should not respond when contacted by the press. Click here to catch up on that thread.

What do reporters think when clergy refuse to talk? Do journalists understand why so many clergy are afraid of the press?

Yes, this fear does have something to do with clergy fearing that many journalists "just don't get religion." Clergy fear mistakes. They fear reporters yanking their words out of context. Hold that thought.

In this podcast, host Todd Wilken (a radio pro and a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, at the same time) and I talked about two very specific scenarios, when it comes to a reporter requesting an interview with a pastor.

Number 1: You are a minister and you return to your office and there is a message waiting for you. A journalist has called requesting an interview. The note does not include information about the subject of the story (something journalist should share right up front, in my opinion).

Do you return the call?

Well, in this case let's say that the minister KNOWS what the story is about and knows that it's about a problem that has emerged in this church, religious school, etc. Let's say a student has been disciplined and a circle of parents is mad. It's safe to assume that the parents called the newspaper or local television station.

In other words, this is a BAD news story, from the point of view of most pastors. Should ministers return these calls?

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Cardinal Ted McCarrick, Part II: The New York Times takes a stab at this old story

Cardinal Ted McCarrick, Part II: The New York Times takes a stab at this old story

I’d heard that at least one major newspaper was at work on l’affaire McCarrick. On Tuesday, there it was: A double-bylined piece in the New York Times.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the now-retired head of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., was famous in his prime for being a mover, shaker and chief fundraiser in the church. He was also a sexual molester of young, handsome male seminarians; something several of us reporters knew at the time. But, as I explained here, none of us could prove it, and the victims who could have helped us refused to go on the record.

Then in June, two dioceses released the shocking news that McCarrick had been credibly accused of sexually molesting a 16-year-old altar boy 47 years ago.

Now, the Times, via its Sunday magazine, already had this story in 2012 when a freelancer managed to document a number of the important details.

But that story never ran. Six years later -– and with McCarrick in his dotage, and out of power -– the nation's most powerful newspaper has finally published this 3,054-word piece.

Better late than never, I suppose. But there are some odd holes in this narrative.

As a young man studying to be a priest in the 1980s, Robert Ciolek was flattered when his brilliant, charismatic bishop in Metuchen, N.J., Theodore E. McCarrick, told him he was a shining star, cut out to study in Rome and rise high in the church.

Bishop McCarrick began inviting him on overnight trips, sometimes alone and sometimes with other young men training to be priests. There, the bishop would often assign Mr. Ciolek to share his room, which had only one bed. The two men would sometimes say night prayers together, before Bishop McCarrick would make a request — “come over here and rub my shoulders a little”— that extended into unwanted touching in bed.

Mr. Ciolek, who was in his early 20s at the time, said he felt unable to say no, in part because he had been sexually abused by a teacher in his Catholic high school, a trauma he had shared with the bishop.

“I trusted him, I confided in him, I admired him,” Mr. Ciolek said in an interview this month, the first time he has spoken publicly about the abuse, which lasted for several years while Mr. Ciolek was a seminarian and later a priest. “I couldn’t imagine that he would have anything other than my best interests in mind.”

I’m glad the Times finally got Ciolek to fess up. I called him nine years ago and he refused to comment. Other reporters had called him, too.

The Times story later says he was paid an $80,000 settlement by the Church in 2005 that insured his silence on what McCarrick had done to him. Seriously?

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Catch a Deuteronomy reference? Another #ChurchToo case emerges in Tacoma

Catch a Deuteronomy reference? Another #ChurchToo case emerges in Tacoma

Most everyone has heard of the imbroglio that drove famed Willow Creek Church pastor Bill Hybels from his Chicago-area pulpit in recent months -- because that received tons of mainstream news coverage.

Fewer news readers have heard how the #ChurchToo movement has filtered down to lesser-known clerics.

Thanks to former GetReligionista Mark Kellner who alerted me to the story, I’ve been following recent revelations in the Tacoma News Tribune about a local Assembly of God pastor who’s been forced from his pulpit after similar complaints: Sexually suggestive remarks, a relationship with another woman that allegedly turned physical and a prior investigation that cleared him of all wrong. He leads a 4,500-member congregation, which is megachurch level here in the religion-parched Pacific Northwest.

The bottom line? This is a story that really needed attention from a religion-beat pro.

The Trib first came out with this story on July 2, updated it a day later here, then filled in various holes and updated it again this past Sunday with the following: 

Revelations surrounding Tacoma megachurch pastor Dean Curry have reached the crisis stage.

Last week, Curry stepped down as leader of Life Center Tacoma in response to a complaint of physical misconduct with an ex-employee. This week, a former church board member filed formal complaints with federal and state agencies, alleging prior instances of sexual misconduct by Curry with female church employees and congregation members.

The complaints to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the state Human Rights Commission come from Julee Dilley, who was elected to the Life Center Board in 2014. She said she and her husband left the church in 2016 over concerns about Curry’s conduct and the church’s response to it.

The allegations described in Dilley's complaint appear to be distinct from the more recent misconduct charge brought to the Northwest Ministry Network by the former church employee. That record is confidential, and the employee has not been identified publicly.

What so often happens in these instances is a reporter publishes a few facts he can prove.

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Despite risks in a time of audience skepticism, anonymous sources can be invaluable 

Despite risks in a time of audience skepticism, anonymous sources can be invaluable 

We live in an ethical epoch when editors at BuzzFeed and Politico have no scruples when a reporter sleeps with a prime source on her beat, after which she lands a prized New York Times job, at the very top of the journalism food chain.

Not that flexible conflict-of-interest standards are anything new. Ben Bradlee, as lauded as any journalist of his era, exploited a close friendship with President John F. Kennedy when he was Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief, giving fits to his competitors at Time. Bradlee was covering events that, one could argue, that he had helped shape in his conversations with Kennedy.

In 2018, such stuff matters more than ever, given the low esteem of “mainstream media” performance. The latest evidence comes in a survey reported June 11 by the American Press Institute, The Associated Press and NORC at the University of Chicago.

We learn that 35 percent of Americans have a negative view of news organizations, and 42 percent think news coverage veers too far into commentary, while 63 percent want to get mostly facts alongside limited analysis. Importantly, 42 percent don’t understand how the use of anonymous sources works and 68 percent say the media should offer more information about story sources.

President Donald Trump’s frequently fake “fake news” attacks on reporters, of course, continually involve complaints about unnamed sources. For sure, the Washington press corps, which makes such lavish use of anonymous sources in coverage critical of the Trump administration, must do everything possible to maintain accuracy and fairness.

Once upon a time -- in 2005 -- the staff Credibility Group formed in the wake of the horrid Jayson Blair scandal advised New York Times colleagues in a report titled “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust [.pdf here].” It warned that the daily should “keep unidentified attribution to a minimum” and “energetically” enforce limits across the board -- in hard news, features, magazine sections, and with copy from the growing number of freelance contributors.

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Will Southern Baptists do more than pass a resolution on #SBCToo sins and crimes?

Will Southern Baptists do more than pass a resolution on #SBCToo sins and crimes?

The 2018 Southern Baptist Convention is in session and, so far, the news out of Dallas has been pretty predictable. The big news, if you are into that civil-religion thing, is that Vice President Mike Pence will address the gathering tomorrow.

Baptist Press has a live blog here, with the status of resolutions and other votes, and an actual live-cam up is streaming here (and here on YouTube).There's lots going on at several hashtags, such as #SBC18, #SBC2018 and #SBCAM18. The official Twitter feed for the meeting is right here.

As I wrote yesterday, in a high-altitude overview post, I think the key to the meeting will be actions -- not just resolutions -- to change policies in seminaries linked to counseling and reports of domestic abuse. Also, watch for efforts to create some kind of SBC-endorsed clearing house collecting official reports of abuse by clergy and church leaders.

The highlight of the pre-convention events was a panel discussion focusing on domestic violence and abuse in the church. This was the latest evidence of a conservative consensus -- at least among current and emerging SBC officials -- on minimum steps toward reform. A report in The Tennessean opened, logically enough, with remarks from popular Bible teacher Beth Moore, one of the key women speaking out on #SBCToo issues. A key passage:

"None of us want to throw stones, but it keeps us from even responding to a criminal situation because we think, 'Listen, I've had my own sexual dysfunction,' " Moore said. "There is a long, long shot of difference between sexual immorality and sexual criminality that we have got to get straight."

Once again, we see a strong emphasis on the difference between sin and crime, a line that lots of clergy and church counselors have struggled to recognize. Continuing, with fellow panelist Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission:

Russell Moore, who is not related to Beth Moore, said he has seen abusers time and again misuse grace in such a way that it hides them from being held accountable. He said that destroys what the New Testament teaches about the meaning of grace. 

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Click that URL: 'Acts of Faith' newsletter pauses to reflect on Southern Baptists and journalism

Click that URL: 'Acts of Faith' newsletter pauses to reflect on Southern Baptists and journalism

When I was the religion-beat pro in Charlotte in the early 1980s -- first at The Charlotte News and then at The Charlotte Observer, as well -- the great Southern Baptist Convention civil war was coming to a head.

Charlotte was and is a great religion town. When one of your main drags is the Billy Graham Parkway, you live in a town that gets religion.

When I was there, Charlotte was the only major city south of the Mason-Dixon Line in which there were more Presbyterians (several brands of those, however) than there were Baptists. The town was also a power center for the "moderate" Southern Baptists who turned out to be on the losing side of the great SBC showdown with those preaching "biblical inerrancy."

I spoke fluent Southern Baptist, since I grew up the home of a well-connected Southern Baptist pastor in Texas. I was ordained as a Southern Baptist deacon when I was 27 years old. In the Charlotte news market -- in which I urgently attempted to cover both sides of the SBC war -- some local conservatives concluded that I was a liberal.

Then I moved to Denver, which was a fading liberal mainline Protestant town in a region that was evolving into a power center for evangelicals. I did my best to cover both of those camps fairly and accurately and the old powers that be soon concluded I was some kind of Bible Belt fundamentalist, or something.

Why bring this up? Because there is a fascinating passage in a recent Washington Post "Acts of Faith" newsletter that, for me, called these experiences to mind.

But first, what is this newsletter thing? It's digital, but it's not really an online thing. The Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Michelle Boorstein use it as an email platform for sharing insights behind the news. Since your GetReligionistas just love that kind of info, I think everybody should sign up for this digital newsletter.

So here is the URL for this edition of the newsletter. Go to the end and there's a place to manage Post online newsletters and features.

Then click here to sign up for this digital newsletter. The all-purpose Acts of Faith website is right here.

Now, back to the SBC material, from Boorstein, that reminded me of the old Charlotte days: 

In the last couple weeks the Post religion team has been unusually focused on Southern Baptists, as one of the giants in their movement fell from power dramatically because of various comments and actions related to women.

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Lakewood Church as family empire: Houston Chronicle business reporter gets it right

Lakewood Church as family empire: Houston Chronicle business reporter gets it right

Every so often, the Houston Chronicle covers some aspect of the Osteen empire at Lakewood Church, the nation’s largest Christian congregation. In the late 1980s when I worked at "the Chron,"  I followed the Rev. John Osteen, the patriarch who founded Lakewood in the 1960s and built it into a famous congregation with a TV ministry and an international outreach.

At the time, Lakewood was in northeast Houston and its billboards advertised the place as the “Oasis of Love.” I wrote a 1988 story about their move into a new building that John Osteen boasted only cost $5 million (while other megachurches were spending five times that on their capital projects) so that extra money could go to missions. Then in 2005, Lakewood moved across town to the 16,000-seat Compaq Center (former home of the NBA Rockets) on a major freeway smack in the middle of town.

Starting May 31, the Chronicle came out with “The Preacher’s Son,” a three-part series about its pastor, Joel Osteen, the son who took over when his dad died in 1999. The main writer was not a religion reporter but a business writer, as there was much emphasis on Lakewood Church as a $90 million/year business complete with financial statements and property records. The result was a wealth of information on the church I don’t think has ever been released.

The first part of the series kicks off with a segment from one of Osteen’s sermons, then:

This is how Osteen has become the nation's most ubiquitous pastor and one of its wealthiest. He has earned the allegiance of the hopeless, the doubtful and the downtrodden with a credo of beguiling simplicity: Don't dwell on the past. Think positive. Be a victor, not a victim.

A self-described "encourager," he rarely addresses or even acknowledges the fundamental mysteries of Christianity, let alone such contentious issues as same-sex marriage or abortion. Instead, he exhorts listeners to take charge of their destinies and confront whatever "enemies" they face -- debt collectors, clueless bosses, grim medical diagnoses, loneliness.

In an era of bitter cultural and political divisions, he has redefined what it means to be evangelical by dispensing with the bad news and focusing solely on the good. His vanilla creed has proven irresistible, especially to those down on their luck.

Then the focus shifts to the numbers:

Broadcasts of its thunderous, music-filled services reach an estimated 10 million U.S. viewers each week on television -- and more via websites and podcasts. Many of them go on to buy Osteen's books, devotionals, CDs, DVDs and other merchandise.

A 24-hour Sirius XM station, launched in 2014, expanded his domain to include people commuting to work or running errands.

He has taken Lakewood on the road with monthly Night of Hope events, lavishly produced spectacles of prayer and song that fill stadiums across the country at $15 a ticket. Attendees post branded photos from the events on Facebook and Twitter, where Osteen has amassed a combined 28 million followers.

His 10 books, self-help manuals filled with homespun wisdom about the power of positive thinking, have sold more than 8.5 million printed copies in the U.S. alone, according to NPD BookScan.

It's religion as big business, run by a close-knit family that excels at promoting Osteen as an earnest, folksy everyman. 

That does nail it, you must admit.

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Aborting for Down syndrome -- and eventually autism? Slate doesn't spot the religion ghost

Aborting for Down syndrome -- and eventually autism? Slate doesn't spot the religion ghost

Not long ago, I was at a picnic with a family whose youngest daughter has Down Syndrome. The child never stopped moving and she had a predilection for (1) Running into the street and (2) Finding the nearest mud puddle and getting herself as dirty as possible. Keeping her still while we ate was a fantasy.

It was impossible to talk for more than a few sentences before the child would run off. I kept on wondering: How do they do it? And knowing in many ways, they are not doing it; that the mom never gets a break except for the few hours a day when the child is in kindergarten.

There’s literature out there about the joys of a Down Syndrome kid, but the reality can be much more complex and even cruel, which is why I was interested in a story in Slate titled “Choosing Life with Down Syndrome.”

It begins with a profile of Celeste Blau, a married woman in her early 30s living in a Cleveland suburb who discovers during her pregnancy that her first child has Down syndrome (DS).

Thanks to advances in pre-natal testing, it’s pretty easy to find out whether your child has the disorder. Typically, one learns of it at about 20 weeks, when a lot of women have ultrasounds to see if they have a boy or girl.

Though not widely discussed in public, the default assumption in certain milieus is that aborting after a Down syndrome diagnosis is now the natural and obvious thing to do. Introduction to this option is, after all, a primary purpose of prenatal testing. In several recent op-eds in the Washington Post, Ruth Marcus articulated the view of the “silenced majority” of women who would have aborted a fetus with Down syndrome if prenatal tests had come back positive: “That was not the child I wanted. That was not the choice I would have made,” she wrote. “You can call me selfish, or worse, but I am in good company. The evidence is clear that most women confronted with the same unhappy alternative would make the same decision.”

The piece then goes into the numerous pieces of actual and proposed legislation now out there that makes it a crime for a woman to abort a child solely because he or she has Down Syndrome.


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