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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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Baptists and bishops: Must-read pair of weekend thinkers from Russell Moore and J.D. Flynn

Baptists and bishops: Must-read pair of weekend thinkers from Russell Moore and J.D. Flynn

Back in the religion-beat Good Old Days — roughly 1985-95 or hereabouts — religion-beat professionals in most American newsrooms could count on getting travel-budget money to cover at least two major events every year.

That would be the annual summer meeting of the national Southern Baptist Convention — prime years in the denomination’s civil-war era — and a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, where some progressives were wrestling with Pope St. John Paul II and there were rumblings about a massive sexual-abuse scandal among priests and bishops.

Along with meetings of the Religion Newswriters Association, these were the dates on the calendars when the pros could get together and talk shop over a few modest meals/drinks on the company dime.

Well, those meetings roll on, of course, and continue to make news. A few reporters get to attend these major events, since they represent newsrooms that are (a) still quite large, (b) led by wise editors or (c) both. Lots of others scribes (speaking for a friend) catch key moments via streaming video, smartphone connections and transcripts of major speeches and debates.

With that in mind, here is a double-dose of weekend think-piece material linked to these two events which will take place in the next week or so in Birmingham, Ala., and Baltimore. Some people get barbecue and some get crab cakes.

First up, an essay by a key SBC voice, the Rev. Russell Moore of Beltway land, entitled: “10 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Southern Baptists.” There are some important topics early on (“Westboro Baptist Church isn’t one of us” and “There are some things in our past we’re ashamed of”) but the most important info comes near the end, in terms of topics currently in the news. For example:

#8. We’re more ethnically diverse than you might think.

Among the fastest growing demographics in the Southern Baptist life are African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American congregations. The most vibrant of our churches often include many languages and ethnic groups.

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Bottom line: Southern Baptist Convention's legal structure will affect fight against sexual abuse

Bottom line: Southern Baptist Convention's legal structure will affect fight against sexual abuse

If you have followed GetReligion over the years, you may have noticed several themes running though our discussions of news coverage of scandals linked to sexual abuse by clergy and other leaders of religious institutions.

Let’s run through this again.

* This is not a liberal Catholic problem. This is not a conservative Catholic problem. And there is way more to this issue than reports about high numbers of gay priests — celibate and noncelibate — in the priesthood. Once again let me repeat, again, what I’ve said is the No. 1 issue among Catholics:

The key to the scandal is secrecy, violated celibacy vows and potential blackmail. Lots of Catholic leaders — left and right, gay and straight — have sexual skeletons in their closets, often involving sex with consenting adults. These weaknesses, past and/or present, create a climate of secrecy in which it is hard to crack down on crimes linked to child abuse.

* This is not a “fundamentalist” problem in various church traditions. There are abusers in all kinds of religious flocks, both on the doctrinal left and the right.

* This is not a “Christian” thing, as anyone knows who has followed news about abuse in various types of Jewish institutions. Also, look of some of the scandals affecting the secular gurus in yoga.

* This is not a “religion” thing, as seen in any quick scan of scandals in the Boy Scouts, public schools, team sports and other nonprofits. This is a national scandal people — journalists, too — tend to overlook.

However, religion-beat pros do need to study the patterns of abuse in different types of institutions. It would be impossible, for example, to ignore the high percentages of abuse among Catholic priests with teen-aged males. It would be impossible to ignore the Protestant patterns of abuse in some forms of youth ministry or improper relationships linked to male pastors counseling female members of their flocks.

This brings me to the post earlier today by our own Bobby Ross Jr., about the massive investigation of abuse inside the Southern Baptist Convention, published by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. If you haven’t read Bobby’s post, click over and do that right now. I want to focus on one quote — mentioned by Bobby — from a Q&A with August "Augie" Boto, SBC general counsel, featured in that investigation. Here it is again.

Q: Since the SBC does not keep stats, we went out and tried to quantify this problem. We found roughly 200 SBC ministers and volunteers and youth pastors who had been criminally convicted. We're going to be posting those records online in a searchable database in order for people to use it as a resource ...

Boto: Good.

Q: What's that?

Boto: Good.

The key words are these, “Since the SBC does not keep stats.”

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