Dallas Morning News offers newsworthy but superficial coverage of church sex abuse settlement

I want to call attention to a story on today’s Dallas Morning News Metro & State section cover about a sex abuse lawsuit settlement involving Dallas Theological Seminary.

I have a rather simple point to make about the superficiality of the coverage.

But first, this important context might be helpful: In news reports everywhere, it’s difficult to miss the ongoing Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal. Just today, Pope Francis acknowledged that the mess is “outraging the Catholic faithful and driving them away.”’

However, if the Catholic scandal is a case of a massive church hierarchy mishandling and covering up countless rotten deeds, how can journalists wrap their minds — and their notebooks — around similar abuse in free-church settings?

Free-church settings are those where congregations — such as independent megachurches, Churches of Christ/Christian Churches or autonomous congregations that are part of a voluntary association such as the Southern Baptist Convention — operate outside the realm of a church hierarchy.

In other words, the buck stops — or fails to stop — with a local pastor or elder/deacon group, as opposed to a formal structure with real denominational control.

As GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly noted just recently:

(I)t is possible for evil leaders to hide in a church bureaucracy. But that same bureaucracy can, with good leaders, be used to confront evil and to document it. It's also easier for lawyers and public officials to attempt to force (think lawsuits aimed at pools of resources and shared insurance policies) larger, united church bodies into action.

It's true. It's rather easy to hide large problems in a great cloud of fog. A reporter with good sources may be able to nail down a problem in one local church. But how does one go about showing the larger picture in the world of independent and near-independent Protestant congregations?

Bad pastors can simply move on and there is no shepherd above them. Who warns the next independent church? Who keeps tracks of the wolves? There is no there, there.

So there is a big story here. But how does one report it, in an age of shrinking newsrooms and budgets to support skilled reporters working for weeks or months to verify information from legions of sources?

So that leads us back to the Dallas Morning News story.

The crucial details from the Texas paper:

An evangelical seminary in Dallas has settled a fourth lawsuit claiming that it knowingly allowed a child molester to graduate, enabling him to have access to boys he'd rape years later as a North Texas pastor.

Dallas Theological Seminary required that Jon Gerrit Warnshuis undergo counseling before receiving his diploma in 1992 — but didn't report the allegation to law enforcement or tell future employers, according to the lawsuit.

Nearly a decade later, Warnshuis was convicted in Denton County for sexually abusing three boys. He is serving a 40-year prison sentence and will be eligible for parole in 2021.

His victims sued the seminary, as well as Oak Hills Community Evangelical Free Church in Argyle and Warnshuis, claiming that the school created dangerous conditions for future congregants by granting Warnshuis a diploma.

"Warnshuis was thus cloaked with all the powers, appearances, and indices of a Man of God that permitted him to infiltrate the community earning the trust of the victims, their families, the congregation and the community at large," the latest lawsuit said.

That lawsuit, filed in January, was settled in August. The two other victims sued in Dallas County in 2008 and 2009 and settled their cases in 2010. The terms of the settlements with the seminary were not disclosed in any of the cases, and the church was dropped as a defendant in all three. Another suit was settled in Tarrant County in 2005.

The story proceeds to expand upon the relevant facts of this case and the previous ones. But what’s missing?

That would be any kind of context about the free-church nature of this abuse and the questions and challenges raised by it. Part of the story’s superficiality undoubtedly has to do with a common complaint here at GetReligion. That is, the Dallas Morning News — once the home of the nation’s best religion section and a handful of America’s best Godbeat pros — no longer has a full-time religion writer.

Thus, breaking-news generalists without special expertise and experience on religion news are assigned to such stories and write about them as individual incidents or tragedies, as opposed to pieces of a larger puzzle of the #ChurchToo movement.

My simple point, then, is that the story covered by the Texas paper is sad indeed, but it’s part of a bigger, sadder tale ignored by today’s report.

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