Rachael Denhollander

Protestants also face #ChurchToo scandals. Reporters: Here’s a handy way to assess them.

Protestants also face #ChurchToo scandals. Reporters: Here’s a handy way to assess them.

Loathsome #MeToo scandals have accumulated across secular realms this past year and more, media shops included.

A #ChurchToo parallel first burst into the news 33 years ago with pioneering National Catholic Reporter coverage of child molestation by priests. Now, Pope Francis’ February 21-24 emergency meeting about this unending problem is a must-cover item on newsroom calendars.

But North American journalism should be giving more attention to Protestants’ degradation on this and related issues. There’s no good data about such variegated churches, but by every indication misconduct is far more widespread than parishioners would like to admit.

A handy way to assess matters in Protestantism’s large evangelical sector occurs Dec. 13, a “summit” meeting on sexual violence and harassment at Wheaton College, outside of Chicago. The event will be live-streamed in case reporters cannot attend in person. Speakers include luminaries Eugene Cho, Max Lucado, Beth Moore and the host, Ed Stetzer, a trend-watcher who directs Wheaton’s Billy Graham Center (bgc@wheaton.edu, 630–752-5918).

Stetzer’s urgent summit summons stated that “trust has been broken, power has been abused” and, most important, there are the “deeply wounded” victims -- “more than we’d ever want to count.” So “it is past time all church leaders deal with it.” The scandals “are many, and the damage is real. … Turning a blind eye is simply not an option. … Something’s got to change, and soon.” He cited no examples but they’re not hard for reporters to find.

The meeting is supposed to deal with how churches can prevent abuse, make pastors accountable, end cover-ups, protect children, respond effectively to victims, repent of wrongdoing, and move ahead. With such an ambitious agenda for just one day, the event appears more an inaugural alarm bell than the source of long-term solutions.

The Internet is abuzz with impatient victims and victim advocates who complain that Wheaton’s speaker list is thin on expert counselors and on evangelical victims and advocates, including two well-known attorneys.

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You’ll collect story ideas and contacts galore at religious eggheads’ annual extravaganza

You’ll collect story ideas and contacts galore at religious eggheads’ annual extravaganza

Each year, thousands upon thousands of religion scholars assemble during the days preceding Thanksgiving for simultaneous conventions of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the professional counterpart for Scripture specialists, the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). This year, the two organizations gather November 17-20, in Denver. Coverage this month, or planned for a year hence, is a good investment for forward-looking media with the cash and the interest.

The Religion Guy has attended several of these egghead extravaganzas and attests that it’s no simple task. The 300 pages of program listings accessible here (.pdf) and here (.pdf) offer many #MEGO (my eyes glaze over) sessions aimed at specialists. But you’ll discover journalistic wheat amid the hyper-technical chaff, usually concepts for future stories rather than breaking news (though one year The Guy scored a dandy AP spot story).

Equally important, you can prowl the exhibit hall and corridors to greet and collect contact info from a dizzying variety of expert sources. AAR’s communications director Amy Parker can facilitate coverage of both the AAR and SBL (phone 404-727-1401 or email via that website mentioned above).

The two conventions are such a magnet that several organizations schedule meetings in conjunction with the big show, as in the following examples.

Speakers at the Biblical Archaeology Review “fest” November 16-18 will range from star skeptic Bart Ehrman to evangelical exegete Ben Witherington. This magazine is in the business of translating historical disputes for non-specialists and it’s must reading for reporters who want to follow such developments.

Westar Institute, whose much-publicized “Jesus Seminar” strived to debunk New Testament authenticity, will meet November 16 on two follow-up projects, promoting varied movements that fought orthodoxy in Christianity’s early centuries, and pondering “post-theism,” including this: “Why should we talk about God at all?”

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Veritas Forum invites college students to think through 'life’s hardest questions”

Veritas Forum invites college students to think through 'life’s hardest questions”

It’s back to school time, and how’s this for a bracing lineup of campus lectures in just the past four weeks?

At Yale University, distinguished philosophy professor Shelly Kagan, who is an atheist, hosted a top theologian, Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright, from Scotland’s University of St. Andrews to jointly ponder “Living Well in Light of Death.”

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat visited Ann Arbor to advise University of Michigan students that “Faith Is Not a Sideshow.”

At arch-rival Ohio State, a panel on “Living and Dying Well” consisted of a physician, a biological ethicist, and a specialist who helps patients with end-of-life planning.

Bob Cutillo, a physician working with Colorado’s homeless, spoke at the Mayo Clinic and its medical college on “The Doctor’s Gaze: Some Ancient Opinions on How We See Our Patients.”

Then it was celebrated attorney Rachael Denhollander, leader of the sexual abuse victims in the Michigan State and USA Gymnastics scandals and among Time magazine’s “100 most influential people.” Her double-header this week at New York University, then Columbia University Law School, addressed how justice can be reconciled with religious faith and forgiveness.

So began the season for the Veritas Forum of Cambridge, Mass., which organizes campus lectures to address “life’s hardest questions” from traditional Christian viewpoints that it believes academe neglects. To date there’ve been Veritas events at 185 colleges and universities, including at all but one of America’s top 25 schools in the new Wall Street Journal rankings.

Lecture topics run the gamut, for example “What Does It Mean to be Human?? “Is There Truth Beyond Science?” “Does Science Point to Atheism?” “Is Tolerance Intolerant?” “Contradictions in the Bible?” and “What Makes Us Racist?”

The concept is particularly intriguing due to heavy involvement of conservative or “evangelical” Protestants, often depicted in the media as anti-intellectual or at best mediocre thinkers.

The journalism hook?

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'The Sin of Silence' in The Washington Post: It's easy to hide sin in an independent-church maze

'The Sin of Silence' in The Washington Post: It's easy to hide sin in an independent-church maze

Trust me on this: If you read the Joshua Pease essay, "The sin of silence: The epidemic of denial about sexual abuse in the evangelical church," you will be angry and you'll have questions.

The Washington Post labels this as a "Perspective" piece -- think "analysis," not pure opinion -- but it includes lots of on-the-record sources and information, as well as personal observations by Pease. The writer is identified as "a freelance writer, was an evangelical pastor for 11 years." I would have added some kind of reference to his book, "The God Who Wasn't There: looking for a Savior in the middle of pain." 

Yes, once again we are in "theodicy" territory, a common topic here at GetReligion.

The overture for this piece -- detailing abuse Rachael Denhollander suffered when she was seven years old -- is unforgettable, especially for parents who grew up in church. I wish I would quote it all, but this passage will have to do.

The man’s behavior caught the attention of a fellow congregant, who informed Sandy Burdick, a licensed counselor who led the church’s sexual-abuse support group. Burdick says she warned Denhollander’s parents that the man was showing classic signs of grooming behavior. They were worried, but they also feared misreading the situation and falsely accusing an innocent student, according to Camille Moxon, Denhollander’s mom. So they turned to their closest friends, their Bible-study group, for support.

The overwhelming response was: You’re overreacting. One family even told them that their kids could no longer play together, because they didn’t want to be accused next, Moxon says. Hearing this, Denhollander’s parents decided that, unless the college student committed an aggressive, sexual act, there was nothing they could do.

No one knew that, months earlier, he already had.

A few lines later there is a quick, passing reference to what I think is one of the crucial facts in this complicated story. The church in which this abuse took place has, in the years since that moral train wreck, shut down.

It's gone. Did the leaders learn their lessons? Who cares? It's gone. It's hard to hold anyone accountable when churches simply vanish.


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Beyond Dallas, onrushing #ChurchToo furor may spell trouble for biblical 'complementarians'

Beyond Dallas, onrushing #ChurchToo furor may spell trouble for biblical 'complementarians'

At this writing we don’t know whether Paige Patterson will turn up for his star appearance to preach the keynote sermon at the June 12-13 Dallas meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

Whatever, thanks to Patterson, reporters will flock to this gathering of the biggest U.S. Protestant denomination.

That’s due to the mop-up after Patterson’s sudden sacking as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (per this GetReligion item). It’s a dramatic turn in the onrushing #ChurchToo furor hitting U.S. Protestants after decades of Catholic ignominy over sexual misconduct.

The ouster involved his callous attitudes on spousal abuse, rape and reporting, plus sexist remarks, as protested by thousands of Baptist women. Patterson and Southwestern are also cover-up defendants in a sexual molesting case against retired Texas state Judge Paul Pressler. The storied Patterson-and- Pressler duo achieved what supporters call the SBC’s “conservative resurgence” and opponents the “fundamentalist takeover.”     

 The prime figure among their younger successors is R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. He has denounced the current scandal as “a foretaste of the wrath of God,” and predicts ongoing woe for Southern Baptists and other  evangelicals. Doubtless he’s also upset over the downfall of SBC headquarters honcho Frank Page.

Mohler especially fears damage to the “complementarian” movement in which he and Patterson have been allied. It believes the Bible restricts women’s authority in church and home. Their evangelical foes charge that this theology disrespects women and their policy input, ignores victims’ voices and fosters abuse and cover-ups.

The Religion Guy has depicted the debate between “egalitarian” evangelicals and complementarians here. For other background, note this narrative from a female ex-professor at Southwestern.

Complementarians gained momentum with the 1987 launch of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, backed by conservatives including Patterson’s wife Dorothy, Mohler, Daniel Akin who succeeded Patterson’s as president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and many non-Baptists. 


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Sex abuse in Protestant life: Is Rachael Denhollander the tip of a newsworthy iceberg?

Sex abuse in Protestant life: Is Rachael Denhollander the tip of a newsworthy iceberg?

When former gymnast Rachael Denhollander stood up in court at the end of January and stunned the country with her speech to her abuser, Larry Nasser, she was a media star. Here she was the first woman to publicly accuse Nasser and the last -- after a long string of some of America’s best-known gymnasts -- to tell him what she thought of his years of criminal sexual contact.

As my GetReligion colleague Bobby Ross reported, her speech was notable for many reasons. She talked about God’s forgiveness, tossed in a C.S. Lewis quote near the end, then added that she lost her church over the matter.

That's news. Only Christianity Today really went after what happened and named the organization: Sovereign Grace Ministries, whose flagship church -– Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md. –- got hit with a sexual abuse lawsuit. Sovereign Grace Ministries issued a rebuttal on Feb. 13. 

Sadly, no reporters are pursuing what Denhollander is alleging: That Sovereign Grace Ministries is really the tip of the iceberg and that sexual abuse of the young in Protestant churches may dwarf the horrors exposed, starting 16 years ago, in the U.S. Catholic Church.

Blogger Warren Throckmorton is going after the story and has posted more from Denhollander’s Facebook page about the issue. And I want to cut and paste a few of her remarks, because it speaks to what reporters are not getting about this issue. She says.

This call does not rise from a sort of Javert-like obsession with SGC, but from the knowledge that evangelical churches are plagued with serious problems related to how we respond to and counsel victims of sexual assault. In fact, experts have stated that both the amount of abuse, and the failure to report it, is likely worse than in the Roman Catholic Church – a religious organization often used by evangelicals as a byword for sexual assault scandals.

The italics are mine. For those of you who’ve read any religion reporting in the past decade and one-half, including many posts on the blog, the story of sex abuse in the Catholic Church has gone on for many years and still continues. So, how does one process the claim that what has happened among Protestants may have been worse?

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Journalism 2018: The name on the masthead frequently is not as crucial as the one on the byline

Journalism 2018: The name on the masthead frequently is not as crucial as the one on the byline

It seems like just yesterday that I was complaining about an incomplete, slanted Washington Post story on a controversial religious topic.

Actually, it was last Monday.

In that post (titled "Not the right kind of paper to report both sides? About that story on fired Catholic teacher"), I noted — not for the first time — that it's often difficult these days, even in the Post, to tell what's supposed to be real news and what's simply clickbait and/or aggregation.

Today, I come to you with another Post story on a controversial religious topic. Except this time I intend to offer praise, not criticism.

Welcome to the world of Jekyll-and-Hyde media criticism.

Yes, this new story has one of those clickbait-style headlines at which the Post specializes online:

This former gymnast raised an army to take on Larry Nassar. Can she take on sex abuse in churches next?

But unlike the previous story, this one — by a different writer and perhaps handled by different editors (who knows?) — addresses the complex topic in a fair, impartial manner.

he lede:

Rachael Denhollander’s children recently asked her a question that continues to show her the cost of coming forward against sports physician and convicted sex offender Larry Nassar, a campaign which has given her a platform to speak out about a sexual abuse scandal in Sovereign Grace Ministries, a network of churches mostly based across the United States.
Last month, Denhollander’s statement in Nassar’s sentencing turned her into a Christian celebrity. In her victim statement in court, the former gymnast said her advocacy for sexual assault survivors “cost me my church.” Her own children recently asked her about this, why they stopped going to the church they belonged to for five years.
“It was painful to have to search for a church again because we really, really loved the people at our former church,” she said.
“That simply was part of the cost of coming forward” as one of Nassar’s victims, she added, and also speaking out against how churches handle sex abuse allegations.
Denhollander, who declined to name her former church, said she and her husband, Jacob, left the Louisville church in 2017 because of elders’ lack of response to the concerns she has described as “the intentional failure to report sexual assault perpetrated in multiple churches, by multiple elders, at Sovereign Grace Ministries.” Their church was not part of Sovereign Grace Ministries (now Sovereign Grace Churches), she said, but it did support the organization, which had been accused of covering up cases of child molestation. A class-action lawsuit was dismissed in 2014 for reasons including statute of limitations issues, and current leaders of Sovereign Grace Churches say those accusations are “completely false.”

The piece is fact-based and allows those accused of wrongdoing an opportunity to present their case.

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Friday Five: Nassar victim forgives, nuclear Mass, #WeRemember, KFC halal and more

Friday Five: Nassar victim forgives, nuclear Mass, #WeRemember, KFC halal and more

I'm a Christian.

Jesus tells me I'm supposed to forgive people. 

He also says I'm supposed to love my enemies and pray for people who persecute me.

In cases such as someone cutting me off in traffic or rooting for the Evil Empire, I'm (eventually) all about that W.W.J.D.

But I wonder: If a gunman had just shot up my high school, would I be concerned for the soul of the 15-year-old whom police took into custody? 

That's why I found these words from a student at Marshall County High School in Benton, Ky. — site of a mass shooting this week — so remarkable:

"The shooter needs prayers. What he did is absolutely awful, and you can’t justify it to make it OK at all. But he is still a child of God, and he obviously needs God very badly in his life."

I also find it hard to comprehend how a victim of Larry Nassar — the molester sports doctor who abused countless girls and women — could talk in terms of grace and forgiveness.

More about that in just a second as we proceed with today's Friday Five:

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