Sex scandals in free-church pews

presThere's a new sex scandal unfolding in the world of evangelicals, a small story that points toward an imporant and very complex larger story. Here's the top of a short, newsy report in the Dallas Morning News:

PLANO -- A Prestonwood Baptist Church minister arrested for soliciting a minor online has resigned from the church, Pastor Jack Graham told his congregation Saturday evening.

Dr. Graham addressed the crowd at the start of the church's regular worship service. He said the church had accepted Joe Barron's resignation, which took effect immediately. ...

Police arrested Mr. Barron, 52, Thursday morning after he drove from Plano to Bryan to meet with what he thought was a 13-year-old girl he had met online, authorities say. The girl turned out to be a Bryan police officer working in an ongoing Internet sex sting.

There's a small clue as to the scope of the story in those basic facts. The church's "regular worship service" is on Saturday night? Actually, that would be "a" regular worship service, since the congregation is so large that people worship in waves, in services at two locations. It is also important to note that Barron was "a" minister, as opposed to being "the" minister, or senior pastor. Here is one paragraph of crucial info:

Mr. Barron was one of about 40 ministers at the 26,000-member Plano megachurch. He'd worked there for about 18 months, ministering to married adults, ages 42 to 58.

Yes, 40 ministers in one congregation.

This scandal should blow over very quickly, since the minister in question is not a powerful figure whose name is easy to link to GOP politics. Of course, if there is some kind of link, then all bets are off.

But there is an important story here, one linked to clergy sexual abuse -- in Protestantism. To be specific, there are important reasons that it has been hard for activists to gain much traction trying to bring more attention -- justifiable attention -- to the subject of clergy sexual abuse among Southern Baptists and other free-church denominations.

The problem is real. And there are also very real legal problems facing those who want to clean the situation up, complications that are different from those facing, for example, Roman Catholic reformers. I have been interested in this topic for some time and here is a piece of a Scripps Howard column from five years ago:

"The incidence of sexual abuse by clergy has reached 'horrific proportions,' " according to a 2000 report to the Baptist General Convention of Texas. It noted that studies conducted in the 1980s found that about 12 percent of ministers had "engaged in sexual intercourse with members" and nearly 40 percent had "acknowledged sexually inappropriate behavior."

Sadly, this report added: "Recent surveys by religious journals and research institutes support these figures. The disturbing aspect of all research is that the rate of incidence for clergy exceeds the client-professional rate for both physicians and psychologists."

So why is it hard for reformers to attack this problem? Why can't Southern Baptist authorities crack down?

Ah, there's the problem. In a free-church movement -- one with no bishops, no authoritative central structure -- the local congregations are pretty much on their own when it comes to this kind of work. Let's go back to that Scripps piece:

Where does the buck stop, when sexual abuse hits Protestant pulpits? The Southern Baptist resolution calls on local churches to discipline sex offenders. Yet the most powerful person in modern Protestantism is a successful pastor whose preaching and people skills keep packing people into the pews. Can his own church board truly investigate and discipline that pastor?

Once that question is asked, others quickly follow. If the board of deacons in a Southern Baptist congregation faced an in-house sex scandal and wanted help, where could it turn? It could seek help from its competition, the circle of churches in its local association. Or it could appeal to its state convention. In some states, "conservative" and "moderate" churches would need to choose between competing conventions linked to these rival Baptist camps. Or could a church appeal for help from the boards and agencies of the 16-million-member national convention?

Everything depends on that local church and everything is voluntary. One more question: What Baptist leader would dare face the liability issues involved in guiding such a process? ... Some state conventions might have the staff and know how to create a data bank of information of clergy sexual abuse. But for Baptist leaders to do so, they would risk clashing with their tradition's total commitment to the freedom and the autonomy of the local congregation.

Do you see the point? For lawyers, the goal is to find a structure to sue, yet in the free-church way of doing things, there often is no structure larger than the local church or there are real questions about the authority and clout of the larger regional or national structures.

Everything is voluntary. There is no there, there. Things get even more complicated in the rapidly growing world of totally independent megachurches, both evangelical, Pentecostal and Fundamentalist.

There are activists working on all of this, including a Southern Baptist branch of the SNAP network that has received so much coverage in the Catholic crisis. Also, Southern Baptist journalists have also taken on the topic and you can pay attention to the ongoing coverage of this issue at the site. Check it out.

This is an important -- although frustrating -- story worthy of more coverage. Let us see if you see stories worth passing along.

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