If I have learned anything in my 40 years working on the religion beat (and studying it), it's this: Repentance is really hard, even for the leaders of religious institutions.
Some would change that to say "especially" for the leaders of religious institutions.
This is true, I have found, for leaders on both the theological left and right (as anyone knows who has covered sex-abuse scandals among Catholic clergy). And many evangelicals choose to hide the sins of leaders. Ditto for leaders of liberal Protestant flocks.
As we are finding out during the current American tsunami of ink about sexual harassment and assaults, this trend is also found in Hollywood, inside the D.C. Beltway and elsewhere. That's rather obvious. It's also obvious that religious leaders should do a better job of handling sin than other folks. Some do. Many do not.
This brings me to an important Washington Post headline that many GetReligion readers made sure that I saw over the weekend: "How a conservative group dealt with a fondling charge against a rising GOP star." Similar stories ran elsewhere.
So how did Family Research Council leaders deal with the sins of Ohio Republican Wesley Goodman? They tried to shut him down, while seeking to keep things private and -- in the age of easy-to-copy emails -- got caught. This journalism truth is also clear: Many evangelical leaders, like their liberal-church counterparts, would rather line up for anesthesia-free root canals than cooperate with mainstream news reporters.
Here's the top of the Post story, which features tons of references to emails and documents to support key points:
On a fall evening two years ago, donors gathered during a conference at a Ritz-Carlton hotel near Washington to raise funds for a 31-year-old candidate for the Ohio legislature who was a rising star in evangelical politics.
A quick aside: Yes, I winced at the reference to "evangelical politics." I would rather see something like, "who was a rising star among evangelicals in Republican circles." But readers will soon see that this young man was a leader among evangelical activists, before running for office with the GOP. Back to the story:
Hours later, upstairs in a hotel guest room, an 18-year-old college student who had come to the event with his parents said the candidate unzipped his pants and fondled him in the middle of the night. The frightened teenager fled the room and told his mother and stepfather, who demanded action from the head of the organization hosting the conference.
“If we endorse these types of individuals, then it would seem our whole weekend together was nothing more than a charade,” the stepfather wrote to Tony Perkins, president of the Council for National Policy.
“Trust me . . . this will not be ignored nor swept aside,” replied Perkins, who also heads the Family Research Council, a prominent evangelical activist group. “It will be dealt with swiftly, but with prudence.”
In this case, "prudence" meant taking some form of action against the person in question -- seeking some degree of repentance and treatment for a married bisexual male -- but keeping things secret. That's easier to do during in-house ecclesiastical scandals (think bishops in various kinds of flocks) than in social-media-era politics.
Thus, the Post team was able to add this killer summary of the goods:
The incident, described in emails and documents obtained by The Washington Post, never became public, nor did unspecified prior “similar incidents” Perkins referred to in a letter to candidate Wesley Goodman. The correspondence shows Perkins privately asked Goodman to drop out of the race and suspended him from the council, but Goodman continued his campaign and went on to defeat two fellow Republicans in a hotly contested primary before winning his seat a year ago.
Oh, and there is this:
Both liberals and conservatives are wrestling with how to deal with sexual harassment and abuse allegations within their ranks.
However, adding doses of religious language to these dramas heats things up, for sure. Oh, and it's crucial that Goodman kept doing what he wanted to do, rejecting attempts to rein him in.
But back to journalism: It's clear that the Post team was working with highly detailed documents. This allowed reporters there to do exactly what they needed to do -- offering lots of people chances to verify facts and speak their minds.
The result: Silence. Note how that silence shaped a key piece of this puzzle. Note the "it is unclear" language:
Perkins told Goodman in late 2015 he should not run for office until he addressed his behavior.
“Going forward so soon, without some distance from your past behavior and a track record of recovery, carries great risk for you and for those who are supporting you,” he wrote on Dec. 18, 2015.
Perkins also said he was “obligated” to disclose the situation to CNP members who had supported Goodman’s campaign. It is unclear whether he took such action.
The Post reached out to six CNP donors who contributed to Goodman’s campaign on or around the date of the Ritz-Carlton event. None responded to requests for comment.
Would Family Research Council leaders have returned calls from Post religion-desk professionals? I don't know, but it's clear that -- at some point -- someone needed to blend theology with honesty.
There are more quotes from other documents, as Perkins tried to undercut Goodman's political efforts. However, all of this remained shrouded in silence. There's that familiar pattern, once again: Liberals help hide liberals and conservatives help hide conservatives.
Repentance is hard, even for religious people. I've noticed that this is true in political circles, as well.
If you want to know more about this scandal, including icky pictures of racy text messages, then check out coverage in The Daily Mail. I'll skip the details.
Go here for Cleveland.com coverage, which opened with this smashing summary:
WASHINGTON -- In public, Wesley Goodman was an up-and-coming conservative who championed pro-family and anti-LGBT causes and aspired to someday run for Congress.
In private, he exchanged salacious texts and emails with gay men he met on Capitol Hill, and sent sexually suggestive messages to young men he met through conservative circles who were too intimidated to publicly complain, according to three people who knew him when he worked in Washington.
Goodman's double life ended this week when he resigned from the Ohio legislature after House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger was alerted to Goodman's involvement in "inappropriate behavior" with a man in his state office in Columbus.
Here is a parting question for evangelicals who read this blog: What do you think Family Research Council leaders should have done, when Goodman declined to back away from politics? Call a press conference and take all of this public, on behalf of his victims? Call reporters in "conservative" media to give them the scoop?