congregational autonomy

That strong New York Times #ChurchToo horror story -- with clues pointing to big SBC issues

That strong New York Times #ChurchToo horror story -- with clues pointing to big SBC issues

Throughout the 16-plus years that GetReligion has been around, I have received emails asking why the mainstream press has focused on clergy sexual abuse cases in the Church of Rome, but not abuse cases in liberal and conservative Protestant flocks.

That’s an important question and one that looms over the intense media coverage we are currently seeing — with good cause — at the Southern Baptist Convention meetings in Birmingham (click here for Bobby Ross Jr. round-up on preliminary coverage).

That is also the subject at the heart of a gripping #ChurchToo feature at The New York Times — “Her Evangelical Megachurch Was Her World. Then Her Daughter Said She Was Molested by a Minister” — linked to SBC debates about sexual abuse. It’s a solid, deep story about one controversy in a powerful congregation and it contains clues pointing toward larger issues that will, eventually, have to be covered in the national press.

You see, there are reasons that SBC leaders — the ones who truly want to act — have struggled to come up with a one-plan-fits-all proposal to crack down on the monsters in their midst. To understand why, I want to flash back to an important Joshua Pease essay that ran a year ago at The Washington Post. Here’s my commentary about that: “ 'The Sin of Silence' in The Washington Post: It's easy to hide sin in an independent-church maze.”

The following chunk of the Pease essay is long, but essential for those who want to understand the larger issues that lurk in the painful new piece at the Times.

Without a centralized theological body, evangelical policies and cultures vary radically, and while some church leaders have worked to prevent abuse and harassment, many have not. The causes are manifold: authoritarian leadership, twisted theology, institutional protection, obliviousness about the problem and, perhaps most shocking, a diminishment of the trauma sexual abuse creates – especially surprising in a church culture that believes strongly in the sanctity of sex. ...

The problem in collecting data stems, in part, from the loose or nonexistent hierarchy in evangelicalism. Catholic Church abusers benefited from an institutional cover-up, but that same bureaucracy enabled reporters to document a systemic scandal. In contrast, most evangelical groups prize the autonomy of local congregations, with major institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention having no authority to enforce a standard operating procedure among member churches.

Journalists: Please read that passage two or three times. The Southern Baptists have a real problem, here, and it’s not going to go away. It’s a theological problem, as well as a legal one.

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

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?

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