After midnight: Dramatic turn in Paige Patterson drama, with religion-beat pros on the scene

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Let's face it, it's going to be hard to do a GetReligion-style critique of a breaking hard-news story in The Washington Post that runs with this byline:

By Bobby Ross Jr., Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Michelle Boorstein -- May 23 at 6:44 AM

Luckily, Wednesday is Bobby's normal day off here at GetReligion. He was all over Twitter, into the wee, small hours of this morning, waiting for another shoe to drop in this high-profile drama in the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest non-Catholic flock.

So what can I say about a story reported by a current GetReligionista, a former GetReligionista and one of the nation's most experienced religion-beat professionals?

Let's start with the obvious, focusing on the crucial thread that unites those three names: This was a job for experienced religion-beat reporters.

Yes, there will be Southern Baptists -- young and old (hold that thought) -- who may debate one or two wordings in the story that finally ran this morning with this headline: 

Prominent Southern Baptist leader removed as seminary president following controversial remarks about abused women

There are leaders in all kinds of religious groups who, when push comes to shove, want to see a public-relations approach to anything important that happens to them and their institutions. When it comes to bad news, they prefer gossip and PR, as opposed to journalism.

Meanwhile, you can find the following in the 12th chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke

Therefore whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.

Let's focus on two crucial decisions that faced the team writing this latest story about the long, twisted tale of Patterson and his views on sexual abuse.

First of all, this story is quite long, for a daily news story. However, it really needs to be read in the context of Sarah's earlier exclusive, the one that you know the trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary were discussing behind those executive-session doors. You also know that this Post report spend some time being "lawyered up." I'm talking about the story that ran with this headline:

Southern Baptist leader encouraged a woman not to report alleged rape to police and told her to forgive assailant, she says

Let me note that this was an especially hard story to report, because the current leaders of the second seminary involved in this story -- Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary -- faced crucial questions about how to handle materials that are confidential under existing privacy laws. Thus, it was hard to get information from people on both sides of the story.

Still, this is devastating information. The story opens with this:

A prominent Southern Baptist leader at the center of controversy this spring over comments he has made about abused women allegedly encouraged a woman who said she had been raped not to report it to the police and told her to forgive her alleged assailant, the woman has told The Washington Post.
The woman said that she was raped in 2003 when she was pursuing a master of divinity degree in women’s studies from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., where Paige Patterson was president at the time. ...
A man who a seminary official confirmed was the alleged assailant’s roommate at the time of the incident said that the woman told him about the assault shortly after it allegedly happened. The woman also provided an email to The Washington Post from the seminary’s dean of students at the time referencing the alleged incident.

The key detail is the decision by Patterson, and one must assume other seminary leaders at that time, not to take this rape report to local police.

There's much more, including the fact that the woman in question was guilty of a minor infraction of the seminary's lifestyle covenant. Meanwhile, a crucial question looms in the background: What happened to the male who allegedly raped her? That's a violation of seminary rules, the laws of the state and the laws of God. Period. The seminary was dealing with an immediate, timely, accusation of rape. The woman involved:

... said she had been dating the man she alleges raped her and had allowed him into her apartment the night she said he assaulted her. The two were kissing when he forced himself on her, she said. She said she reported it the next morning to the administrator who handled student discipline. That administrator then reported the incident to Patterson, she said, and she was required to meet with Patterson and three or four male seminarians she said were proteges of Patterson’s. She said she doesn’t remember the specific words Patterson used but that he wanted to know every detail of the rape.
Patterson and other administrators did not report the incident to the police, and she claims that Patterson encouraged her not to, as well, she said. The Post confirmed that a report was never filed with the Wake Forest Police Department.
The woman said she was put on probation for two years, but she doesn’t know why, saying it was perhaps because she was with another man alone in her apartment, which was against seminary policy.

If I had been involved in reporting the new story about the fall of Patterson -- which is long -- I would have found it agonizing not to have been able to add some background from this earlier report.

Read this -- based on a document -- and try not to throw something at a nearby wall:

The woman shared a letter written to her by Southeastern’s dean of students at the time. In the letter, dated April 9, 2003, Allan Moseley told the woman that she would be put on probation after the incident, with suspension or expulsion as possible next steps if there were subsequent behavior the school deemed inappropriate. “It is evident that your memories of moral lapses with [the alleged assailant’s name] cause you sadness and humiliation,” Moseley said in the letter.

What happened to the male seminarian? Yes, it would be next to impossible, under privacy laws, for the current leadership of that seminary to crack open that discipline file.

But back to the new story that broke this morning in Fort Worth. That was a perfect example of a tense stakeout by reporters. How long did the local TV folks stay on the scene? As Bobby noted:

Still later, Bobby added:

For journalists who are looking down the road into the future, it's pretty clear what happens next.

At last summer's meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, there was a dramatic moment in Phoenix in which the SBC's leadership yielded -- in discussions of race and, in particular, the hellish tactics of the alt-right -- to the concerns of the next generation or two of Southern Baptist leaders.

One cannot stress too much that this was not an issue of "conservatives" losing out in a clash with Southern Baptists who have a more modernized take on scripture and church life. No way. I would also add that there was more to that drama than concerns about Donald-Trump-era politics, even though some of the next-generation SBC leaders were and are #NeverTrump #NeverHillary people.

Now, how will the #ChurchToo issues play out at this summer's SBC meetings in Dallas?

Today's Post story offered exceptional depth, in terms of reporting this conflict between the two generations. Let's look at two passages, as I try to wrap this up, starting with the voice of R. Marie Griffith, director of the John Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University

Griffith said Patterson’s leaving doesn’t reflect less commitment among the younger generation of conservative male evangelicals to female submission -- but it does show they have a limit as to what that means. “There are an awful lot of people who believe in female submission but don’t counsel people to stay with abusive husbands. His view will turn out to appear extreme. I don’t think this [Patterson leaving] questions female submission to male authority but maybe it does the extreme to which Patterson and others are willing to go. That’s fallen out of favor.”
Younger male evangelical leaders, she said, “are ready to say: Enough with excusing these critical issues.” They feel, she said: “If the denomination is going to thrive, it really needs to start afresh.”

Younger male evangelical leaders on the right? Certainly. But I would stress that the voices of doctrinally conservative women -- they do exist -- were also crucial in this showdown.

Let's keep reading, as we encounter just a whiff of Trump-era heat:

Barry Hankins, a history professor at Baylor University, ... agreed that there has been a generational shift, with Patterson’s departure representing a turning point in Southern Baptist circles and in evangelicalism more broadly. Gradually, an older guard of leaders like Patterson and Richard Land, who led the SBC’s lobbying arm, are giving way to a younger generation of leaders, like Russell Moore, who now leads the convention’s lobbying arm, and Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
The younger generation tends to take a more modern approach to issues like gender and race and its leaders are less likely to find themselves in Patterson’s shoes, he said. Younger leaders are also less likely to adopt an attitude that conservative Christians represent a “moral majority” that should be a dominant force in politics, Hankins said.
Instead, he said, they talk about a “prophetic minority,” an attitude that Christians can still find their voice as they are becoming a smaller slice of America. “The movement has passed onto a different view of how conservative evangelicalism relates to the culture,” he said.

That's all for now. I do not know if Bobby will be able to offer some thoughts and insights later this week.

But you know that this story is not over. For starters, will Patterson step down as the keynote speaker at the big SBC show in Dallas?

Stay tuned.

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