For decades now, conservative religious leaders have served up harsh attacks — often justified — at mainstream news coverage of religion news.
Sometimes these attacks include detailed, accurate discussions of issues linked to accuracy, fairness and balance. At the same time, many of these attacks are simply complaints about stories that religious leaders didn’t want to see in print — period.
Anyone who has worked on the religion beat knows all about both sides of that equation. Here at GetReligion, we have spent nearly 15 years trying to pay attention to all of that, the good and the bad.
Well, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram made waves the other day with a massive, stunning report about sexual abuse in the world of independent, fundamentalist — an accurate label in this case — Baptist churches. Our own Bobby Ross Jr., wrote a lengthy GetReligion post on that topic with this headline, “A culture of abuse: Must-read investigation on sex crimes in independent fundamental Baptist churches.” Bobby noted:
Bottom line: Investigative reporter Sarah Smith and her colleagues have produced a mammoth piece of journalism filled with infuriating case studies of pastors abusing underage girls and suffering few, if any, consequences.
In this case, a major evangelical leader — and frequent media critic — has responded with a positive column urging church leaders to dig into the Star-Telegram epic, while taking this topic seriously. I thought this would make a constructive think piece for this weekend.
Here is a sample of this Breakpoint essay by John Stonestreet of the Colson Center and his co-writer Roberto Rivera. The headline: “Another Abuse Scandal in the Church — Sin Isn’t Just ‘Out There’.” Here is a crucial chunk or two of that, opening with a reference to the oceans of ink spilled after the Pennsylvania grand-jury report about seven decades of clergy sexual abuse by Catholic priests:
… The Fort Worth report differed from the Pennsylvania report in one significant detail: The churches and clergy being exposed this time were on the opposite end of the ecclesiastical spectrum. One hundred sixty-eight leaders of independent fundamental Baptist churches, known as the IFBC, have been accused of a litany of crimes, including rape, kidnapping, and sexual assault. The victims included young children and teens, and stories included some of the most prominent IFBC leaders and churches in America.
This Fort Worth report hit me hard, maybe because I grew up on the outskirts of the IFBC movement. What I mean by “outskirts” is that my church followed Jerry Falwell out of the IFBC when he founded the Moral Majority and built a large university. Still, we had a bus ministry run by a group of really good men and women, who would get up extra early on Sunday mornings and pick up hundreds of mostly women and children who did not have a ride to church.
The reason we had a bus ministry is because Pastor Jack Hyles of First Baptist Church of Hammond (IN), invented the concept and used it to grow his church into one of the largest in the country. First Baptist, Hyles, and Hyles’ son David figure largely in the Fort Worth Star Telegram report, and more than once.
What on earth are we supposed to do with yet another report of even more sexual abuse within the church? Well, I hope that we’ll learn.
Over the past year, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, the larger culture has been reckoning with consequences of the sexual revolution’s worst ideas, especially the elevation of sexual desire above moral boundaries and the divorce of sexuality from marriage and babies. In response, Christians are tempted to wag our fingers and shake our heads at the scandals from Hollywood and D.C., as if somehow we’ve been better than all that.
Clearly, we haven’t.
Here’s another crucial passage:
Sin is personal, but it’s not private. In fact it can become structural, embedded as much in our institutions as in our hearts and minds.
Let’s be clear, no precious image-bearers should be sacrificed on the altars of any institution.
That sounds oh so familiar.
Long ago, after a clergy sex scandal of a different sort rocked the Episcopal cathedral in Denver, I wrote a column that ended with these words: “Sin and ink will always be a volatile mix.”
Please read it all.
FIRST IMAGE: Screenshot from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram report.