It's a truth your GetReligionistas have discussed many times. When you are covering a story about people linked to a faith with a clearly defined hierarchy it's pretty clear who you are supposed to call.
I'm not just talking about Roman Catholics. If a United Methodist pastor gets in trouble, there is a clear regional and national structure linked to the work of the clergy. Southern Baptist congregations are part of regional associations, state conventions and then they have ties of various kinds to the national Southern Baptist Convention. You have some place to start digging.
But when a minister goes REALLY off the tracks, it's hard -- especially in the world of nondenominational, independent evangelicalism or Pentecostalism -- to find a paper trail anywhere, along with people who were responsible for supervising the work of this or that clergyperson. And what about people who were only "sort of" clergy?
I thought of all of that while reading this recent piece at The Daily Beast that had this genuinely hellish tabloid headline: "UNHOLY: Pastor Arrested for Chopping Up Teen Kept Counseling Kids for 23 Years."
Now, in terms of facts linked to church life, the key word in that headline is "pastor."
When you hear "pastor," you kind of assume that we are talking about an individual who has gone to seminary, been ordained and has a pulpit somewhere in a church. Pastors fill a specific leadership role in a specific faith community, one with a tradition of some kind (even if its an independent local congregation). You hear "associate pastor" and you think someone who carries out a specific ministry, working in a larger church that has a senior pastor in the pulpit.
Now in this case, things are much murkier and the Daily Beast team never offers readers a clear look at the facts, in terms of the man at the heart of this nightmare. Once we make it past the mysteries linked to the sniffing dog and the headless torso, what we get is this:
Fred Laster, 16, was last seen with local youth pastor Ron Hyde several days earlier. Laster hitched a ride with Hyde after a family argument, according to his sister. Laster and his five siblings were living with their elderly grandparents at the time, after their mom died from cancer four years earlier.
When Laster called his twin sister later, the boy “sounded distant, emotional,” she told police. She asked Laster if he was alright and he said he was with Hyde. It was the last she ever heard from him.
Meanwhile, Hyde has worked as a youth pastor for the past 23 years. In that time, authorities and a local mother believe he may have preyed on other boys like Laster.
Now, what is a "youth pastor"?
The simple answer is that there is no simple answer. In my experience, a youth pastor may or may not have seminary training, may or may not be ordained and may or may not be working full-time on a church staff.
In a mystery of this kind, when part of the story is that a church leader has done a terrible thing, these kinds of details matter. You see, the question lurking in the background is this: Who was responsible for stopping this monster? What institution?
Readers are clearly told that Hyde has "worked as a youth pastor for the past 23 years."
Maybe, maybe not. Later in the story there is this:
60 years old at the time of his arrest, Hyde still worked as a faith-based mental health counselor. In his decades of freedom, the accused murderer has been in frequent contact with children. The FBI said Hyde had been a suspect in at least one previous child exploitation case.
“He’s travelled frequently throughout the United States and abroad. During the course of this homicide investigation, we determined that Hyde was a named subject in a previous international child exploitation case,” Charles Spencer, an FBI spokesperson said in a statement to press. “We’ve also learned that through his various positions and jobs in the Jacksonville area, he had the potential for additional child victims, because he had access to children in multiple positions he held throughout the area.”
So he had been a youth pastor all this time in multiple positions with local churches? He was a "faith-based counselor"?
Actually, it appears that was not the case. Most of his work was as a counselor with a wide array of institutions, both secular and religious. In other words, it appears that he may have rarely held a job linked to church ministry.
Remember that word "pastor"? Well, this guy appears to have had secular day jobs paid with tax-payer dollars.
There are more hints on this angle in this complicated passage in the Daily Beast feature, which finally mentions a church.
As a mental health counselor at Crosswater Community Church, Hyde advertised classes on “standing up to bullies,” as well as addiction counseling for “sex, pornography and relationships,” he wrote on his professional page. “If you’re ready to make a change, I can show you how.
The church where Hyde worked says they are cooperating with law enforcement.
“We are working and cooperating fully with the FBI in their investigation of Ron Hyde,” Pastor Jack Millwood of Crosswater Community Church told a local NBC affiliate. “I am personally not aware of any victims of Ron Hyde that involve anyone associated with Crosswater. If any person or persons has any information regarding potential victims of Ron Hyde, please contact the local FBI office.”
Now, watch the video at the top of this post. It appears that Hyde was someone to whom the ordained leaders of this independent congregation referred people when they needed the help of a professional, licensed counselor.
Looking at coverage elsewhere, the original text of a local ABC television affiliate report noted that Hyde had:
Several connections, as a licensed counselor ... in Jacksonville, Fla., and even state institutions. Church staff noted that he was not on the church payroll, but was linked to the church through referrals for professional counseling.
Thus, is it accurate to say that Hyde worked "at" this church? To say that Crosswater was the church "where he worked" implies, at least to me, that he was a member of the staff. When you call Hyde a "pastor" who worded "at" a particular church, the implication is that he is an ordained minister on the staff of that congregation.
Was that the case? Are we actually talking about a man who has ever served as an ordained minister at a local church, let alone as a "pastor" who led a congregation?
Based on the facts in that story, it would appear not.
None of my objections, in this case, have anything to do with lessening the horrors of Hyde's acts. I would also assume that it was just as hard for the Daily Beast to learn key details about this man's murky past as it would have been for the leaders at Crosswater church to have studied his background, as an licensed counselor with his own practice.
So here is the bottom line: Why is the word "pastor" in that bloody headline?