Sex scandals in free-church pews

presThere’s a new sex scandal unfolding in the world of evangelicals, a small story that points toward an imporant and very complex larger story.

Here’s the top of a short, newsy report in the Dallas Morning News:

PLANO – A Prestonwood Baptist Church minister arrested for soliciting a minor online has resigned from the church, Pastor Jack Graham told his congregation Saturday evening.

Dr. Graham addressed the crowd at the start of the church’s regular worship service. He said the church had accepted Joe Barron’s resignation, which took effect immediately. …

Police arrested Mr. Barron, 52, Thursday morning after he drove from Plano to Bryan to meet with what he thought was a 13-year-old girl he had met online, authorities say. The girl turned out to be a Bryan police officer working in an ongoing Internet sex sting.

There’s a small clue as to the scope of the story in those basic facts. The church’s “regular worship service” is on Saturday night? Actually, that would be “a” regular worship service, since the congregation is so large that people worship in waves, in services at two locations. It is also important to note that Barron was “a” minister, as opposed to being “the” minister, or senior pastor. Here is one paragraph of crucial info:

Mr. Barron was one of about 40 ministers at the 26,000-member Plano megachurch. He’d worked there for about 18 months, ministering to married adults, ages 42 to 58.

Yes, 40 ministers in one congregation.

This scandal should blow over very quickly, since the minister in question is not a powerful figure whose name is easy to link to GOP politics. Of course, if there is some kind of link, then all bets are off.

But there is an important story here, one linked to clergy sexual abuse — in Protestantism. To be specific, there are important reasons that it has been hard for activists to gain much traction trying to bring more attention — justifiable attention — to the subject of clergy sexual abuse among Southern Baptists and other free-church denominations.

The problem is real. And there are also very real legal problems facing those who want to clean the situation up, complications that are different from those facing, for example, Roman Catholic reformers. I have been interested in this topic for some time and here is a piece of a Scripps Howard column from five years ago:

“The incidence of sexual abuse by clergy has reached ‘horrific proportions,’ ” according to a 2000 report to the Baptist General Convention of Texas. It noted that studies conducted in the 1980s found that about 12 percent of ministers had “engaged in sexual intercourse with members” and nearly 40 percent had “acknowledged sexually inappropriate behavior.”

Sadly, this report added: “Recent surveys by religious journals and research institutes support these figures. The disturbing aspect of all research is that the rate of incidence for clergy exceeds the client-professional rate for both physicians and psychologists.”

So why is it hard for reformers to attack this problem? Why can’t Southern Baptist authorities crack down?

Ah, there’s the problem. In a free-church movement — one with no bishops, no authoritative central structure — the local congregations are pretty much on their own when it comes to this kind of work. Let’s go back to that Scripps piece:

Where does the buck stop, when sexual abuse hits Protestant pulpits? The Southern Baptist resolution calls on local churches to discipline sex offenders. Yet the most powerful person in modern Protestantism is a successful pastor whose preaching and people skills keep packing people into the pews. Can his own church board truly investigate and discipline that pastor?

Once that question is asked, others quickly follow. If the board of deacons in a Southern Baptist congregation faced an in-house sex scandal and wanted help, where could it turn? It could seek help from its competition, the circle of churches in its local association. Or it could appeal to its state convention. In some states, “conservative” and “moderate” churches would need to choose between competing conventions linked to these rival Baptist camps. Or could a church appeal for help from the boards and agencies of the 16-million-member national convention?

Everything depends on that local church and everything is voluntary. One more question: What Baptist leader would dare face the liability issues involved in guiding such a process? … Some state conventions might have the staff and know how to create a data bank of information of clergy sexual abuse. But for Baptist leaders to do so, they would risk clashing with their tradition’s total commitment to the freedom and the autonomy of the local congregation.

Do you see the point? For lawyers, the goal is to find a structure to sue, yet in the free-church way of doing things, there often is no structure larger than the local church or there are real questions about the authority and clout of the larger regional or national structures.

Everything is voluntary. There is no there, there. Things get even more complicated in the rapidly growing world of totally independent megachurches, both evangelical, Pentecostal and Fundamentalist.

There are activists working on all of this, including a Southern Baptist branch of the SNAP network that has received so much coverage in the Catholic crisis. Also, Southern Baptist journalists have also taken on the topic and you can pay attention to the ongoing coverage of this issue at the site. Check it out.

This is an important — although frustrating — story worthy of more coverage. Let us see if you see stories worth passing along.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Bethany

    wow, that aspect of protestant organization had never occurred to me. How interesting (and frustrating). It’s also notable that the church abuse scandals that tend to get attention are with young boys, and not women and girls, even though these are far more common. Is this because it is more common that women and girls are questioned in their innocence or truthfulness?

  • Michael Bates

    “Free churches” is an odd term to apply in a country without an established church. “Congregationally-governed churches” would be more accurate, albeit more awkward.

    Also missing from this discussion is a distinction between congregational governance and presbyterian or federal governance, where there is authority beyond the individual church but it is organized from the bottom-up through presbyteries, synods, and general assemblies, rather than top-down through bishops.

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    There is lacking in the coverage any legal ramifications that may arise. How are congregations normally organized and incorporated? Are there different methods? What does each method mean in a legal sense and mean for purposes of litigation?

    This coverage was also lacking in the coverage of the priest-sex scandals of the Roman Catholic church. In that scenario, individual dioceses were litigated as was possible (I know WIsconsin has a statute of limitations, but a former Wisconsin priest was transferred to California, so California victims could sue the archdiocese of Milwaukee in California courts, but Wisconsin victims were no longer able to litigate). This, of course, would entail a reporter versed in law and knowing a lawyer who is versed in laws dealing with churches.

  • Maureen

    Jeri Massi’s done a lot to expose this sort of thing and help the victims in Independent Fundamental Baptist churches. She’s got a blog ( and a book out named Schizophrenic Christianity ( Might want to take a look.

  • FW Ken

    I’m going to shot at for saying this, but isn’t it about time reporters took a closer look at the professional victims and quit treating their comments as expert testimony? I’m not saying that they don’t serve a useful purpose in the grand scheme of things. But shouldn’t someone be asking about their credibility, given their investment (financial? certainly psychological) in clerical sex abuse? They are not objective witnesses, any more than Abe Foxman, who’s living depends on people defaming Jews, or Bill Donohue of the Catholic League.

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  • Scott Eaton


    It is interesting that we hear about these sex scandals in Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, but never among our Orthodox brethren. I am not trying to be accusatory here. It is a sincere question. Are the Orthodox clergy free from these kinds of scandals? Or does it just go unreported? I do not recall any reports from any major or even minor news outlets reporting on this.

    As a member of the Orthodox Church I thought you might have some insight into this or at least an interest. I hope that what has sadly been true among Roman Catholics and Protestants is not true among the Orthodox. But I don’t think we should be naive either.

  • franksta

    Michael #2: It is true that “free” is used in contrast to “established” in some senses, but it is also commonly used to denote “independent” and/or “congregationalist” churches. The old paradigm of polity being either “congregationalist,” “presbyterian,” or “episcopal” seems to work here (all lower-case, since to add to the confusion, there are denominations by those names). And yes, the presbyterian/federal-type churches do have more accountability, since even though they are “bottom-up” organizations, there is at least accountabilty by virtue of being “organized”.

    Scott #8: I seem to recall at least a couple of EO clergy-abuse watchdog blogs/sites, but haven’t seen them in a while.

  • tmatt


    GetReligion has commented on the COVERAGE of several Orthodox scandals, but not directly or publicly linked to sexual abuse.

    There was a very public case in Dallas a year ago, but the coverage was very conventional. These cases tend to get wide coverage in the Orthodox media, which is rarely seen by MSM reporters.

    Here is one site dedicated to this cause. Check it out:

  • jason

    Two things: The coverage of the Roman Catholic scandal focussed in part on the abuse itself, but the real heat was in how the hierarchy handled the abuse. This is another aspect of the lack of “there” there. Without the hierarchy to mishandle the problem, there is less story to tell.

    Secondly, the “hierarchy” that will step in and provide oversite to the “free” churches will be their insurance companies. This story ( highlights that. So does this one (

    Where did we see a story several months back about figures on protestant sex abuse coming from a few major insurance carriers covering the majority of protestant churches in the US? I would think I would have read about it here, since it is my primary source of religious new coverage.

  • jason

    Found it:,2933,286153,00.html

    This commentary. He doesn’t link to the AP story that he refers to. Grrrr.

  • Maureen

    “….the real heat was in how the hierarchy handled the abuse… Without the hierarchy to mishandle the problem, there is less story to tell.”

    I hate to mention Jeri Massi again, but based on stuff she’s reported — you can replace “hierarchy/old boy network” with “everybody” in some non-hierarchical denominations. Instead of pressure to protect the reputation of the priesthood and intentional shuffling around, there is pressure to protect the reputation of the whole church and of pastors, and anybody who talks or thinks otherwise is the bad guy. This apparently can tie in with other forms of misbehavior (financial skulduggery, double lives and lying, physical abuse, weird theology going unchallenged, and harassment of all kinds) and an emphasis on being controlling as what one should expect from a pastor. The reshuffling also takes place, but just takes place in a different way; people still aren’t warned and abuse continues.

    There are certain bad things that can happen in small groups with an “us against the world” feeling; and if said groups are linked, it can happen a lot.

    I’d say there’s quite a “there” there.

  • Jerry

    FW Kenprofessional victims – So you are accusing the arresting officer of making up the solicitation and all the evidence that went with it? That’s what it sounds like. We should always retain the presumption of innocence our legal system is built upon. Following that principle I also assume the police are innocent of being “professional victims” until proven otherwise.

    I also don’t see any fundamental reason to treat a church differently than any other institution when it comes to investigating and arresting sexual predators.

    Also, I’m not sure which kind of organization faces the biggest problems in dealing with sexual criminals – the Catholic church which for a long time engaged in a cover-up versus an independent Church. But I don’t think it should really matter: if there is a potential crime, the police should be involved to investigate.

  • Christa Brown

    Here’s the June 2007 Associated Press story with the data on Protestant clergy sex abuse.

    And an article with more analysis of the data:

    The gist of it: An average of 260 cases per year of Protestant clergy abusing minors are reported to the major insurance companies. This compares to an annual average of 228 cases of “credibly accused” Catholic priests, as reported to Catholic review boards. I can’t help but wonder how many more cases of Protestant clergy abuse might be revealed if the largest Protestant denomination in the land – Southern Baptists – bothered to keep track of “credible accusations” in the same way that Catholics now do.

  • Lloyd

    Knowing some of the victims of abuse as well as Joe Barron and others personally as well, this is a difficult one for me.

    On one hand I am unequivocally FOR rooting all of this out and having victims achieve some sort of ‘peace’ as well as the potential for prevention it may have.

    However unless there is some evidence of a larger organization purposefully covering it up (as in the case of the Catholic church), I would not want every charitable organization (from small to those as large as the SBC),living in fear of helping or spending most of their money against frivolous lawsuits which WILL come if people start organizing and storing the data, whether they are justified or not.

    I guess I need more time to actually absorb the facts on this one since it is so personally shocking to me.

  • Dave

    Unitarian Universalism is a free-church movement, but when stories of sexual misbehavior of UU ministers started surfacing the Unitiarian Universalist Association put measures in place to deal with it and prevent it, largely through sanctions by the UU Ministers’ Association and through safe-space programs that congregations were urged to adopt.

    Afaik there was never any MSM press on this matter, possibly because the misbehavior universally involved adult women members of the respective congregations, which lacks the same shock value as younger victims.

  • Jeri Massi

    I just finished writing my first book on this topic, but I confined my research to the Independent Fundamental Baptists. The Stop Baptist Predators website also has quite a catalog, largely from Southern Baptist churches

    The Religious Right is a horrible culprit when it comes to not disciplining and not expelling grossly perverted ministers. The Religious Right cries out against these sins in the secular world but ignores the exact same sins that occur within its own pulpits.

    For example, Daryl Gilyard was first investigated (and confessed to) sexual sins while in the pulpit at Victory Baptist Church in Richardson, TX. He then pastored Shiloh Baptist in Jacksonville and is now facing criminal charges there for sending lewd messages to an under age girl, and yet he is now in the pulpit at First Timothy Baptist Church in Jacksonville.

    Dave Hyles was expelled from the pulpit of Miller Road Baptist Church in Garland Texas for having affairs with 14 different married women and using them to film pornography. He then moved to Illinois where he became the prime suspect in the suspicious death of Brent Stevens, the son of his lover.

    He was then accepted onto church staff at Pinellas Park Baptist Church (Now Crosspointe) in Pinellas Park, Florida, where he was abruptly expelled and left office. His former church secretary was later busted for prostitution. He then moved to Berean Baptist Church in Orange Park Florida, with no warning given to the congregation, and within a few months again left abruptly (with an unexplained black eye). He was admitted to the congregation of First Baptist of Jacksonville without any call for him to give account of what happened to Brent Stevens. And yes, then Pastor Jerry Vines was warned, because I sent him Brent Steven’s autopsy and inquest reports, at which Dave Hyles pleaded the fifth Amendment.

    I’ve been documenting these abuses for seven years now, and I have no idea how the leaders of either the IFB or FBC can live with themselves.

    Jeri Massi

  • j brown

    “The gist of it: An average of 260 cases per year of Protestant clergy abusing minors are reported to the major insurance companies. This compares to an annual average of 228 cases of “credibly accused” Catholic priests, as reported to Catholic review boards.”

    Clarifying Stats: Approx 46,000 Catholic priests (228 cases).
    According to National Council of Churches in 1998, 400,000 protestant ministers (260 cases).

    Catholic estimates on homosexual inclinations among the priesthood. 35% to 60%

    Protestant Ministers: standard estimate – 5%

    Certainly young boys are more likely to be the objects of Catholic priestly interest than of protestant ministerial interest.

    Protestant ministers noted for problems with “skirts.” But if you’re a protestant minister and you’re pursuing young boys; your ministerial career is probably terminal, like yesterday. (Of course there are exceptions but they are rare.)

    ( If Bill Clinton would have been a Repub., he would not have completed his term in office. If Newt Gingrich had been a Democrat he’d still be ruling the House.)

  • j_s_howard

    And yes, the presbyterian/federal-type churches do have more accountability, since even though they are “bottom-up” organizations, there is at least accountabilty by virtue of being “organized”.

    Bull****. All you have to do is schmooze a few higher-ups in your Presbytery and you can do whatever the hell you want. Big churches (and their pastors) have too much pull to ever be disciplined. Organization can work in favor of wrongdoers.

    Re: the pastor I mention above, I sent documents from that pastor’s divorce case file that made his adultery obvious (but he’s still ordained) to a local ‘alternative’ weekly. Their response? A conservative, “family values” minister cheating on his wife isn’t unusual enough to be news.

    How much other pastor wrongdoing do we not know about because the church’s reputation is so shot nobody bothers reporting it?

  • Doug

    Jack Graham is not the son of evangelist Billy Graham. Billy Graham has two sons; Franklin and Ned Graham.

  • Dave

    Besides the difference in church governance (e.g., free church vs. presyterian vs. episcopal), it’s also worth considering different churches’/movements’ beliefs about ordination.

    Free churches usually see ordination as related to the position more than the person (Pentecostals are a notable exception). The authority lies in the calling to a church or a church-related position. For instance, in the United Church of Christ (of Jeremiah Wright fame), to be ordained, you need three things: a seminary education, a sense of God’s call that is confirmed by your local church and a regional (association) Committee on Ministry, and a call to a position which requires the ministries and Word and Sacrament (e.g., a local church pastorate, a hospital or college chaplaincy, etc.).

    Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and many others believe that the Sacrament of Ordination is indelible. In other words, it “imprints the soul” of the recipient in a permanent way. The person is endowed with a gifts and a calling that others do not receive. The fact that he or she sins (even in a major way) does not alter the person’s identity as “set apart.” This understanding of ordination most often leads to lives of extraordinary dedication and service on behalf of God, but it also presents difficulty in our throw-away society where we see people as commodities to use or throw away.

    Which leads to another thought: our society has largely made sexual misconduct an unforgiveable sin. That flies in the face of a key idea the Christian church stands for, namely that anyone who sincerely repents will be forgiven, no matter how badly or how often he or she sins. So how should we deal with these offenders? Are they trash? Are they even welcome to sit in the pews of our churches, given that they might end up having children or women sitting beside them? Or can we find a place in our churches — and in our hearts — for them, despite their sins? And if we can, is there any chance it might be in the pulpit?

  • Dave

    Comment #22 is from the other Dave.

  • Dave

    Comment #22 is from a totally different Dave who’s new to this site. Sorry for the confusion.

  • Jeri Massi

    Bull****. All you have to do is schmooze a few higher-ups in your Presbytery and you can do whatever the hell you want. Big churches (and their pastors) have too much pull to ever be disciplined. Organization can work in favor of wrongdoers.

    Nonsense. Just scan the news clippings. You will not find career Presbyterian ministers “doing whatever the hell they want.” Yes, in liberal Presby denominations they preach philosophy instead of Christ, and that is permitted. But both the PC-USA (liberal) and PCA (conservative) have sterling records when it comes to expelling child molesters and cooperating with investigations.

    Neither denomination is problem-free. But you cannot lay charges of tolerating child molesting or child porn on their doorsteps.

  • Jeri Massi

    This caveat: The Free Presbyterian Church is exempt from the statement I made above. I think they are a band of Ulster political extremists who do not even belong on US soil. But then, as they are run by a Protestant Pope who is exempt from the standard rules of Presbyterian government, and as they have no available Book of Church Order, I dispute that they are truly Presbyterian at all. It’s just a name of respectability to slap on.