Predators and pulpits

Predators and pulpits June 18, 2024

Christianity Today does not mince words in its obituary for Paul Pressler: “Died: Disgraced Southern Baptist Leader Paul Pressler.”

Dan Silliman’s report does not compartmentalize or downplay the impact of the Texas Republican’s actions on his denomination:

The things that Paul Pressler did in private changed the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) radically and irreversibly.

In private, in a French café in New Orleans in 1967, Pressler planned the takeover of the largest Protestant group in America with Baptist college president Paige Patterson. He came up with the political strategy for the “conservative resurgence.”

In private, in an airport hotel in Atlanta in 1978, Pressler and Patterson gathered a group of ministers and established an informal network. They instructed those men to organize messengers to go to the SBC’s annual meeting and elect a president committed to using the position’s appointive powers to wrest control of the convention away from leaders they considered too liberal, too bureaucratic, and insufficiently committed to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

When a reporter with the Baptist Standard asked the Texas appeals court judge at the time if he was meeting with groups of clergy as part of a hardball campaign to elect the next SBC president, Pressler adamantly denied it. Then he questioned what would even count as a “meeting,” given the many possible ways you could define that word.

Then he allowed he was, in fact, doing some things in private.

In private, in a sauna at a Houston country club in the late 1970s, Pressler touched a young man’s penis, according to sworn testimony given in a lawsuit that was settled last year.

And in private, around the same time, Pressler started to molest and rape a 14-year-old, telling the teenager he taught in his Southern Baptist youth group that he was “special” and their “relationship” was special but needed to be kept secret because “no one but God would understand,” according to the allegations in the lawsuit filed in 2017.

Eight men ultimately came forward to accuse Pressler of sexual misconduct. All of them did it publicly using their names: Gareld Duane Robbins, Toby Twining, Chris Davis, Peter Wilcox, David Stripling, Sam Tejas, Mason Tabor, and Brooks Schott. The allegations stretch over decades and range from unwanted invitations to join Pressler naked in a hot tub to sexual assault.

Pressler denied all the allegations and fought the lawsuit in every way he could.

The court proceedings prompted the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News to launch an investigation of sexual abuse in the SBC. Reporters found credible allegations against 380 church leaders in 20 states and an apparently denomination-wide pattern of dismissing, diminishing, and hiding abuse.

The picture above of the stained-glass window honoring Pressler comes from John Fea’s post noting the SBC’s extremely muted response to their one-time hero’s death, “What happens when the ‘greatest’ moment in your denomination’s history was orchestrated by a sexual abuser of boys?

That’s not a “gotcha” question. And I have sympathy for those forced to confront it. I studied — and savored — the theology of John Howard Yoder when I was a seminary student. Like Pressler, Yoder turned out to be a predatory monster — something far worse than merely “problematic.” The problem isn’t merely that I once admired him — that’s easy to sort and quick to stop. The problem is that I learned from him.

Some of what I learned from Yoder was probably good and true and right. Abstracted and extracted from his monstrous behavior, there may be some untainted stuff worth keeping. But it’s also likely that much of what I learned from Yoder cannot be fully abstracted or extracted from his behavior, and that some of what I learned from him is tainted or twisted in some way to accommodate all that horror. And it’s not easy to discern, or to be sure, what falls into which category.

So I understand how unsettling this must be for Pressler’s former disciples — people like Al Mohler — whose theology and ideology was formed, in part, by a man they now understand was disgraceful.

I’m not saying here that the Southern Baptist “conservative resurgence” orchestrated by Pressler was bad because it turns out that Pressler raped little boys. I think that “resurgence” was bad and dumb and harmful and hideous for thousands of reasons that have nothing to do with Pressler or the monster he turned out to have been all along.

And this brings us to the stories of two other prominent Christian leaders from Texas. We mentioned one of these last week: “Tony Evans says he is ‘stepping away’ from leading Dallas megachurch due to ‘sin.’” A vague statement from Evans’ church did not say what this “sin” was, but did note that it was not a crime.

If you’re guessing that Pastor Evans may have had an affair, then you’re probably not the only one guessing that. That would be disappointing, of course. And it would be especially disheartening for those in his church who have turned to their pastor for counseling or wisdom about their own marriages. But that’s still in a different category from the criminal acts that Pressler’s many accusers consistently swore he committed against them. Learning that your pastor is only all-too human is not the same as learning that your spiritual leader has been grossly inhuman to others.

The case of Robert Morris — the founder and senior pastor of Texas’ largest mega-church, Gateway Church, near Dallas — seems to be more like the case of Pressler.

On Friday, the church-abuse blog Watchkeep posted this: “A survivor comes forward alleging child sexual abuse by Texas megachurch pastor Robert Morris- Gateway Church.” That survivor, now a woman in her 50s, says that when Morris was a 20-something, married traveling evangelist, he would stay at her family’s house as a guest. From 1982 until 1987, she said — from when she was 12 years old to when she was 17 — Morris molested and raped her there in her parents’ home.

The next day, Leonardo Blair of the Christian Post received a statement from Morris and Gateway Church that confirmed the woman’s story: “Pastor Robert Morris confesses to ‘moral failure’ after woman claims he began molesting her at age 12.”

But while that statement confirmed the details of the woman’s story, it also revealed that neither Morris nor the Gateway elders seemed to understand the gravity of what he was confessing.

“When I was in my early twenties, I was involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with a young lady in a home where I was staying. It was kissing and petting and not intercourse, but it was wrong. This behavior happened on several occasions over the next few years,” Morris said in a statement to The Christian Post after Gateway Church was asked about the allegations.

“In March of 1987, this situation was brought to light, and it was confessed and repented of. I submitted myself to the Elders of Shady Grove Church and the young lady’s father. They asked me to step out of ministry and receive counseling and freedom ministry,* which I did. Since that time, I have walked in purity and accountability in this area,” Morris added.

Morris was a married man with a young child of his own. His victim was 12. She was not a “young lady,” she was a little girl. This was not an extramarital affair in which he strayed from fidelity to his wife. It was grooming, molestation, and rape. He told a little girl “Never tell anyone about this because it will ruin everything” and forced his fingers inside her.

And “the young lady’s father” never told either Morris or the elders steering the rehabilitation of his image that Morris had his “blessing” to return to ministry. “My father told him he’s lucky he didn’t kill him,” she said.

Blair reports that his victim: “Retained an attorney in 2005 to file a civil lawsuit but Morris’ attorney suggested she caused the abuse on herself because she was ‘flirtatious.’ She said she asked for $50,000 to cover the cost of her counseling stemming from the abuse. She said they offered her $25,000 if she signed a non-disclosure agreement, but she refused.”

Sheila Stogsdill got some additional comment from the church, as well as some of its internal statements, for her Roys Report piece on this. That includes a bit more background on Morris’ career/”ministry” in the 1980s as a youth pastor and youth evangelist. It is possible that the one case he is now confessing to was the only such case in all that time he was traveling among and surrounded by teenagers and tweens. It is also quite possible that this was not his only victim and that there may be many more.

Those articles all were posted or published on Saturday. What happened on Sunday, when the 25,000 members of Gateway Church gathered for in-person worship at its ten campuses? Nothing out of the ordinary: “Sunday Silence: Gateway Church Doesn’t Tell Congregation About Historic Abuse Allegations.”

But if Gateway Church isn’t talking about this, the press is now talking about Gateway Church. The story has been picked up by Texas newspapers, local TV news, and CNN. “There is nothing covered that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known” (Luke 12:2).

And when those church members and church-goers do come to hear about the five-year period in which, as a young pastor, Robert Morris was repeatedly raping a child, how will they respond?

I imagine that many will not care. Or, rather, that they will force themselves to pretend that this does not matter, somehow, clinging to whatever pretext they can find for pretending that is the case. Gateway is a MAGA church, after all, and Robert Morris was an official “spiritual adviser” to Donald Trump in 2016 and still supports Trump today. So evidence that someone is a rapist and a criminal who has tried to buy off the silence of his victims is something they already have experience swallowing.

But I suspect this news will be deeply unsettling for many others. This is not the mere disappointment that members of Tony Evans’ church are dealing with after learning that their pastor is also a sinner. It will, instead, be more like the confusion and concern that disciples of Pressler and Yoder were forced to contend with after realizing that the men from whom we had learned so much were, in reality, monstrous predators all along. Things they were sure of will become unsure. Things that once seemed unambiguously good will now seem potentially dangerous or corrosive. And just when these folks are going to need trustworthy pastoral guidance, they will find themselves less able to trust pastors.

That congregation is in for a rough time of it. If they’re looking for someone who understands what they’re going through — who has already had to learn to navigate all of that uncertainty, fear, and betrayal — I can think of at least one woman who might be able to offer them some guidance.

* “Freedom ministry” is a slippery piece of white evangelical jargon that seems to serve the same public-relations function that “rehab” serves for celebrities embarrassed by stories in TMZ. “Freedom ministry” counseling should, like celebrity rehab, be presumed guilty unless proven innocent.

Reading Gateway’s weirdly dismissive mischaracterization of Morris’ actions also reminded me of Philip Jenkins’ recent post looking back at his construction of social problems research on “Clergy Sexual Abuse And American Catholic History“:

But there was another factor in this story that we easily forget, namely that attitudes to child sexual abuse of all kinds changed radically during the late 1970s, so that this became a new social problem in its own right, and an explosively emotive one. If someone claimed in 1970 that a given institution was ignoring or underplaying child abuse cases, that would have had an utterly different resonance from conditions a decade or so later.

Today when we look at child abuse cases, we know that they are appalling and lethally damaging, so that they become candidates for being (almost literally) the worst thing in the world. It is very difficult indeed to recall that such a perception was quite new in the mid-1980s, and that over the previous couple of decades, attitudes had been utterly different, and trivializing. In writing this, please recall that I am assuredly not defending those attitudes, I am reporting them: don’t shoot the messenger.

If we look at the years between (say) the mid-1950s and the late 1970s, then overwhelming majority of professional, scholarly, or other expert authorities dealing with child sexual abuse did not regard it as a grave or pressing issue. Accordingly, the issue attracted little attention in terms of publications, whether scholarly or popular. The scarcity of expert or professional literature itself conveyed a message about the proper degree of concern about issues of sexual abuse, molestation, and pedophilia.

In a sense, Gateway Church is responding to Morris’ behavior in the 1980s as if this was still the 1970s.

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