Al Mohler: “We thought this was a Roman Catholic problem”

In the wake of #metoo organizing that took down Southern Baptist Convention heavyweight Paige Patterson, Al Mohler has written an article titled The Humiliation of the Southern Baptist Convention for the well-known evangelical magazine Christianity Today. Mohler is the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Mohair’s article reveals a special brand of head-in-the-sand egoism. When he writes that he did not see these scandals coming, he appears to forget the role he played in defending his own friends against allegations of mishandling child sexual abuse cases.

We thought this was a Roman Catholic problem. The unbiblical requirement of priestly celibacy and the organized conspiracy of silence within the hierarchy helped to explain the cesspool of child sex abuse that has robbed the Roman Catholic Church of so much of its moral authority.

When people said that evangelicals had a similar crisis coming, it didn’t seem plausible—even to me. I have been president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for 25 years. I did not see this coming.

I was wrong. The judgment of God has come.

Judgment has now come to the house of the Southern Baptist Convention. The terrible swift sword of public humiliation has come with a vengeance.

I must confess to being completely taken aback. While Mohler seems to be taking the allegations against Patterson seriously (at least on the surface), he did nothing of the sort when his friend C. J. Mahaney was accused of covering up sexual abuse in Sovereign Grace Ministries churches. Instead, he became one of Mahaney’s most tireless defenders. It’s not that Mohler thought claims that evangelicals had a sexual abuse crisis coming were implausible because he had never seen any allegations or hints of such. He absolutely had.

He was simply more interested in defending his friends. “We can make no judgement as to the truthfulness of the horrifying charges of sexual abuse made against some individuals who have been connected, in some way, to Sovereign Grace Ministries and its churches,” he said in 2014 of allegations that multiple churches in the denomination had covered up multiple instances of child sexual abuse.

That same year, Hannah Ettinger wrote a helpful guide to the scandal engulfing Sovereign Grace Ministries, which resurfaced earlier this year with Rachel Denhollander’s calls for an independent investigation of the organization. As Ettinger wrote:

Mahaney was the co-founder of People of Destiny International (later Sovereign Grace Ministries). He pastored a church in the Washington, D.C. suburbs for around 30 years. …

Mahaney and some other New Calvinist buddies started a conference called Together For the Gospel (T4G) in 2006. Joining him were: controversial Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler [along with John Piper and Mark Dever].

In 2007, conservative Presbyterian pastor Tim Keller and Don Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School formed The Gospel Coalition, a conference and a council made up of representatives from every major faction of the Neo-Reformed movement. Piper, Mahaney, Mohler, Harris, and Driscoll were all members….

[In 2014] CJ Mahaney lost his church, a large chunk of his ministry, and his protégé, all because he won’t own up to his horrific abuse of pastoral power in not reporting child abuse in his church.

Mohler’s response to all of this? Circle the wagons. Mahaney was his friend; the allegations must be false.

If the filing of civil litigation against a Christian ministry or leader is in itself reason for separation and a rush to judgment, no ministry or minister is safe from destruction at any time. Furthermore, the effort to try such a case in the court of public opinion prior to any decision rendered by an authorized court is likewise irresponsible.

Given Mohler’s recent claim that he thought child sexual abuse was “a Roman Catholic problem,” one wonders whether this perception played a role in Mohler’s quick dash to dismiss the idea that Mahaney’s ministry covered up child sexual abuse. Did he assume that because Mahaney was not Catholic, allegations of a child sex abuse coverup ought to be summarily dismissed? Or is this post facto explanation, an excuse for his failure to act, to give credence to the allegations, because Mahaney was his friend?

Those familiar with Mohler will remember other things about him as well. When Mohler became president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1993, he fired the seminary’s female professors. Mohler has pushed a hard line on gender roles, ousting women from the ministry and defending male authority and headship. But while Mahoney has finally admitted that the evangelical world has a #metoo abuse problem, he still does not think his hardline beliefs about gender play any role in this problem.

As Mohler wrote in his Christianity Today article:

Is complementarianism the problem? Is it just camouflage for abusive males and permission for the abuse and mistreatment of women? We can see how that argument would seem plausible to so many looking to conservative evangelicals and wondering if we have gone mad.

But the same Bible that reveals the complementarian pattern of male leadership in the home and the church also reveals God’s steadfast and unyielding concern for the abused, the threatened, the suffering, and the fearful. There is no excuse whatsoever for abuse of any form, verbal, emotional, physical, spiritual or sexual. The Bible warns so clearly of those who would abuse power and weaponize authority.

This “steadfast and unyielding concern for the abused” apparently did not apply when Mohler’s friend and colleague Mahaney was accused of covering up child sexual abuse in Sovereign Grace Ministries churches. It apparently did not apply when many rose to accuse Mahaney of abusing his authority and the power his position gave him. It apparently did not apply when Mohler joked about googling Mahaney, and how what you read about him on the internet must be true (implying the opposite, of course).

Mohler’s words might have more credence if he had actually been a staunch defender of victims and the wounded, and a staunch opponent of those who abuse their authority. But he was not. He buried his head in the sand and wants us to see that as reasonable. How was he to know that child sex abuse coverup scandals weren’t limited to the Catholic world? After all, it’s not as though he had heard of any such allegations made regarding Protestants—oh wait, he very much had.

As Alan Rudnick writes:

According to Mohler, he did not see any reckoning of the power-hungry grab of the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. The firing of female seminary professors, enforcing and teaching complementarianism, and ignoring sexual misconduct within the Southern Baptist Convention are all things that Moher did not think contributed to a culture of misogyny and abuse in Southern Baptist life. …

The problem for Mohler is that he was told it was coming, it was plausible. He did not listen. It is his humiliation, too, not just Paige Patterson and the Southern Baptist Convention.

It is indeed.

And it is not merely Patterson who has gone down, not merely Mahaney who survived a scandal that should have ended his ministry. There is also Judge Paul Pressler, whom Mohler has praised on many occasions. Pressler stands accused of sexually molesting teenage boys and sexually harassing and grooming men employed at his law firm. These allegations go back to the late 1970s, only a few years before Pressler played a central role in the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, alongside Mohler and others.

Curiously, while Mohler mentioned Patterson in his Christianity Today article, he did not mention Pressler. While this is completely speculative, I cannot help but wonder whether Mohler’s willingness to condemn Patterson, in the light of his failure to take allegations that Mahaney participated in a child sexual abuse coverup seriously and his silence on the allegations against Pressler, may have more to do with possible personal differences with Patterson (or possibly a power struggle?) than with actually getting it.

Again, this is mere speculation. The fundamental issue is this: I am having a hard time believing that Mohler suddenly “gets it” given his stalwart, years-long (and presumably ongoing) defense of Mahaney. What is different here? Why is Mohler listening now? If Mohler wants me to believe him when he claims he has turned over a new leaf on this issue, he is going to have to do more than pen a Christianity Today article claiming that he didn’t have any idea anything of this sort could possibly happen within evangelicalism.

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