Seeking the sympathetic critics of Bob Jones University

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As any journalist knows, institutions — secular or religious — do not like to talk about their failures, let alone their sins.

Often this is caused by their lawyers who are anxious to head off lawsuits or to protect their client’s rights when conflicts take place. When this approach is applied to media relations, the result is either total silence or a bullet-proof form of public relations that seeks to protect the mother ship — period.

We talk about this all the time in classes at the Washington Journalism Center, where my students come from a variety of different kinds of Christian college and university campuses, most of them linked to evangelical Protestantism. Sometimes it’s hard to separate legitimate legal concerns from a faith-lingo-soaked “do not hurt your Christian brother” brand of public relations that rejects all attempts to do journalistic work in times of pain, crisis or scandal.

Trust me. This is not a conservative vs. liberal situation. As a reporter, I have faced toxic denial among liberal faith leaders as well as conservative. As I have said many times here at GetReligion, the hellish sins in the clergy sexual abuse crisis touched liberal Catholic heroes as well as conservatives. There were devils on both sides, as well as heroes.

This brings me to that important, but strangely shallow, New York Times report about a sexual-abuse scandal that is unfolding at Bob Jones University, one of America’s most important academic institutions that can genuinely be called “fundamentalist.” The copy desk showed restraint in leaving the f-word out of the headline: “Christian School Faulted for Halting Abuse Study.”

As you read the story, look for the tell-tale marks left by lawyers and public-relations professionals. Here is the opening of the report.

GREENVILLE, S.C. – For decades, students at Bob Jones University who sought counseling for sexual abuse were told not to report it because turning in an abuser from a fundamentalist Christian community would damage Jesus Christ. Administrators called victims liars and sinners.

All of this happened until recently inside the confines of this insular university, according to former students and staff members who said they had high hopes that the Bob Jones brand of counseling would be exposed and reformed after the university hired a Christian consulting group in 2012 to investigate its handling of sexual assaults, many of which occurred long before the students arrived at the university.

Last week, Bob Jones dealt a blow to those hopes, acknowledging that with the investigation more than a year old and nearing completion, the university had fired the consulting group, Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, or Grace, without warning or explanation. The dismissal has drawn intense criticism from some people with ties to Bob Jones, and prompted some victims and their allies — including many who were interviewed by Grace investigators — to tell their stories publicly for the first time, attracting more attention than ever to the university’s methods.

At this point, it helps to know several things. First of all, the Grace organization has major evangelical credibility, but I stress the word “evangelical.” As the story notes, Grace was founded by Basyle J. Tchividjian, a grandson of the Rev. Billy Graham and a law professor at Liberty University, which was founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. In other words, the current leaders of Bob Jones sought help from an organization linked to two Christian leaders who had been condemned as inadequately fundamentalist by previous Bob Jones leaders.

Second, it appears that the vast majority of the reports being discussed here are about abuse that is alleged to have taken place in churches, institutions and homes that shaped students before they arrived on the Bob Jones campus. In other words, there are other lawyers of lawyers involved.

But here is the phrase that most interested me in the opening chunk of the story.

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Remember to substantiate charges

The International Business Times sure has a scoop. Headline:

Conclave 2013: Pope Benedict XVI ‘Did Nothing’ to Stop Paedophile Priest Nello Giraudo

The headline phrasing makes it seem like the conclave decided that Pope Benedict XVI “did nothing” to stop a pedophile priest. Or at least someone said he “did nothing” to stop a bad priest.

Which is why the actual story is so weird. I guess it’s mostly taken from an Italian TV report but there are some problems with following through with the allegations.

To get one thing out of the way, the “did nothing” from the headline is not an actual quote. Or if it is, the quote isn’t in the story. I’m not sure why it’s in quote marks. The top of the report:

Pope Benedict XVI has been accused of inaction over allegations of child sex abuse against an Italian priest.

Former priest Nello Giraudo, allegedly committed numerous sexual abuses on minors in the diocese of Savona, near Genoa, from 1980 to 2005, of which then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was made aware of in 2003 but failed to take action.

Many of the problems in the story would have been helped by just, for instance, telling us who, if anyone, is accusing Benedict of inaction. We’re told that former Savona bishop Domenico Calcagno sent a letter to Ratzinger asking for advice. We don’t know anything about how that letter was received, if or how it was responded to, or anything, really. Instead we’re told:

The Vatican neither opened an investigation nor reported the findings to Italian authorities.

That’s interesting information but in order to check it out, we need to have the words “according to …” included in the report.

It’s super easy to level accusations against someone but journalists should handle all allegations with the same care they would want if someone were accusing someone they knew of something ghastly. Lack of substantiation is a major problem — even if the accused is someone a journalist strenuously dislikes.

And while it’s easy to make a charge like “inaction,” journalists should know a little about who is responsible for pedophile priests and what options are on the table for handling them. Neither of these basic angles were handled well in the story.

Proofing image via Shutterstock.

Westernized Zen and the art of hiding sexual abuse

So many details will sound terribly familiar. At the heart of the news story is a powerful religious patriarch, surrounded by disciples who view him with a reverence that helps support an iron-clad climate of silence and secrecy.

In this case, however, the leader is Joshu Sasaki Roshi, one of the most famous Zen Buddhist monks in the world and a teacher who has had a tremendous impact in American elite culture. Now, it is being alleged (and in some cases confirmed) that since the 1960s he has sexually abused many, perhaps 100s, of his followers in Southern California and elsewhere.

Here is a key passage from a report in The Los Angeles Times:

A recent investigation by an independent council of Buddhist leaders has suggested that Roshi, a leading figure in Zen Buddhism in the United States, may have abused hundreds of others for decades. According to the group’s report, that abuse included allegations of molestation and rape, and some of the incidents had been reported to the Rinzai-ji board, which had taken no effective action.

“We see how, knowingly and unknowingly, the community was drawn into an open secret,” the council wrote, adding: “We have reports that those who chose to speak out were silenced, exiled, ridiculed or otherwise punished.” …

The council of Rinzai-ji oshos — senior Zen teachers ordained under Roshi — however, responded with a public statement: “Our hearts were not firm enough, our minds were not clear enough, and our practices were not strong enough so that we might persist until the problem was resolved. We fully acknowledge now, without any reservation, and with the heaviest of hearts, that because of our failure to address our teacher’s sexual misconduct, women and also men have been hurt.”

The allegations had lingered, literally, for decades and were allowed to become, in the words of one figure in the scandal “a tribal secret for 50 years.”

In this story, the details of the alleged abuse are described with hints, but that’s about it. Where this Los Angeles Times piece — for me — fell short was in its lack of crucial background material capturing the impact this man had on culture in Hollywood and among other cultural elites. This paragraph in particular intrigued me (in part because of what one Buddhist leader told me about a decade ago, that the whole New Age phenomenon in American culture was essentially Buddhism stripped of ethics and moral content):

Roshi arrived in Los Angeles 50 years ago and was among a wave of Japanese teachers to tailor Zen Buddhism to Westerners. He quickly became an exalted figure and opened about 30 centers, including one on Mt. Baldy that is known for its rigorous training regimen. It was commonly thought, Martin and other critics said, that if women left Mt. Baldy it was because they weren’t tough enough to handle the demanding conditions.

What, precisely, is meant by the statement that he was willing to “tailor Zen Buddhism to Westerners”? This would seem to be a crucial area to explore, in light of the ways his abuse was woven into his teachings. This piece is all but silent on this point.

However, a far superior New York Times piece has some fascinating material on what, precisely, Roshi was teaching and doing.

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The Southern Baptists’ scarlet ‘A’

Let’s say your church’s pastor is accused of molesting at least four teenage girls.

Let’s say your local congregation decides to keep the pastor in the pulpit while depending on the court system to sort out the accusations.

Let’s assume that the newspaper story about your church will not be pretty. Neither should it be, in my humble opinion.

But in the case of an autonomous Southern Baptist church, should the outrage extend to the national denomination? That’s the key question raised in an in-depth St. Louis Post-Dispatch report.

Starting at the top:

STOVER, MO. — Last Sunday, the Rev. Travis Smith paced First Baptist Church’s sanctuary, decorated for the holidays with poinsettias and a Christmas tree. He addressed his congregation, speaking to them about forgiveness.

Smith read verses from the Gospel of Matthew that follow the Lord’s Prayer:

“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you,” he said.

Since Smith’s arrest in October on sexual abuse and statutory rape charges, which follow similar allegations from 2010, forgiveness from his congregation has become critical to his survival as its pastor. It is this group of about 100 souls — not a bishop, nor a disciplinary committee nor national church leaders at a faraway headquarters — who will decide Smith’s future in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Unlike members of many denominations — such as Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalian and Presbyterians — Southern Baptists don’t conform to a centralized, hierarchical structure.

The forgiveness peg up high is catchy, but I’m not certain it’s entirely accurate. Based on my reading of the story, the church members have not forgiven their pastor so much as refused to believe the allegations against him. If he has not sinned, what’s there to forgive?

The story then proceeds to push the idea that the autonomous nature of Southern Baptist churches makes it easier for abusive pastors to keep their positions:

In any denomination, Christians confronted with the shocking news that their often-beloved pastor has been accused of sexual misconduct, many congregations circle the wagons, some experts say. …

In those denominations with a centralized hierarchy, it is often a high-ranking church official who provides incontrovertible evidence that an accusation against a pastor is credible, forcing the congregation to face reality.

In many scandals I have read about, high-ranking church officials hushed allegations of abuse and moved abusers from state to state — and even country to country — without alerting local members.

Given that fairly well-known history, I wish the story had provided more insight and analysis on the claim that hierarchical denominational bodies inherently handle such cases better than autonomous churches.

Critics are given a voice in the story:

Advocates for clergy sexual abuse victims say Southern Baptist leaders are hiding behind their governing structure to avoid taking responsibility for the misconduct of Southern Baptist pastors.

“There’s nothing about autonomy that precludes denominational structures,” said Christa Brown, author of “This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and His Gang.” “Other large congregational faith groups have regional bodies that assess a minister’s fitness to continue ministry.”

Who is Brown? Does she have a Southern Baptist background? Are those raising concerns about the Southern Baptists’ approach internal critics or outside voices? What do leading Southern Baptist theologians say about the autonomy issue as it relates to the ability of sexual predators to move from church to church with little oversight? These are questions I wish the story had addressed.

More from the story:

If the organizing body of a denomination claims no responsibility for supervising, or even ordaining clergy, it may be harder to hold it responsible when a pastor molests a child.

Even so, a Florida jury in May found the Florida Baptist Convention liable for the sexual abuse of a 13-year-old boy by former pastor Douglas W. Myers. Jurors decided the convention failed to check Myers’ background, which included a history of sexual abuse in Maryland and Alabama, according to news reports.

The incident is among dozens of sex abuse cases by pastors at Southern Baptist churches listed on Brown’s website

If the reporting is accurate, the Florida case seems to hold an important precedent. More details on that case — and exactly how the state convention was held liable for a local church’s hiring — would have improved the Post-Dispatch story. I am a little leery of facts attributed to “news reports.” I’d prefer that the reporter go ahead and verify the court records and decisions himself.

The story ends this way:

That theological tension between God’s invitation to forgive and his expectations of his servants has hung a burden on the congregants of First Baptist Church of Stover.

“This is a delicate situation for our church,” said Marriott, the church deacon. “We could jump to conclusions and dismiss him, but what if we’re wrong? We’re just a bunch of average people trying our best to live by God’s word.”

Smith’s sermon Sunday resonated with that struggle. Just as the Gospel of Matthew promises heavenly forgiveness to those who forgive, so, too, does it spell out consequences for those who refuse.

“But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

“Salvation,” Smith told his flock, “is conditional.”

Not to take a total detour, but salvation is conditional for Southern Baptists? Really?

All in all, give the Post-Dispatch credit for tackling an important subject matter. I just wish the newspaper had dug a little deeper.

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