Texas papers deliver more hard-hitting, must-read reporting on Southern Baptists' 'Abuse of Faith'

Back in February, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News published the results of a six-month investigation into sex abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention.

The “Abuse of Faith” series, which can be read online, was mammoth in size and devastating in its findings. Here at GetReligion, I characterized the project as “exceptionally important, powerhouse journalism.”

Immediately, the stories sent tremors through the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and prompted SBC President J.D. Greear to propose reforms. However, our own tmatt noted that the SBC’s legal structure would affect the fight against abuse.

Fast-forward almost two months, and it’s obvious that the papers that invested so much reporting muscle and newsprint ink into the investigation remain on the case.

The Chronicle (and I’m assuming the Express-News) published important follow-up reports over the weekend. Since I subscribe to the Houston paper, I know that one piece ran at the top of Saturday’s front page and the other at the top of Sunday’s front page:

The Saturday story concerned a Houston church dropping out of the local Baptist association and the national SBC as a result of the Texas papers reporting on its pastor’s sex abuse history.

The lede:

More than 20 years ago, Houston pastor Michael Lee Jones pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl who was supposed to be taking counseling sessions with him to get better grades and stay out of trouble.

Jones was required to register as a sex offender in Texas. But that didn’t stop him from founding a new church, Cathedral of Faith. And it didn’t prevent his church from joining the Southern Baptist Convention, the most influential coalition of Baptist churches in the United States.

Now Cathedral of Faith is no longer part of the SBC. And officials at the Aldine Independent School District, where the church conducts Sunday services at a public elementary school, said they were surprised by Jones’ status as a sex offender. They say they are examining their agreement with the church.

Jones did not return a voice message left with the church phone number and messages sent via email and Facebook.

Jones’ church voluntarily withdrew from the Baptist convention after the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News published “Abuse of Faith,” a series of stories that detailed how 700 people — most of them children — had been sexually abused by pastors, employees and volunteers at Southern Baptist churches across the U.S. since 1998.

It’s a solid story, just as anyone who has read the entire series would expect.

Interestingly enough, I found myself wanting more details not on the religion side but on the legal side. Check out this background from the story:

Jones sexually assaulted the minor two more times, court records show. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office later filed a felony charge of sexual assault of a child against Jones in July 1998. Jones pleaded guilty later that year and was sentenced to eight years of deferred adjudication, a type of probation.

Jones has been a registered sex offender in Texas since 1999.

My questions include: Is it normal for a pastor who sexually assaults a teenager to get probation and no prison time? What was the thinking on the part of the prosecutor and/or judge? What were the circumstances?

I realize those questions have nothing to do with the series’ angle of how Baptist church leaders have handled sex abuse in their midst. Still, I’d love to know. The questions seem relevant to me.

But moving on, Sunday’s story detailed the handling — or mishandling, as critics see it — of past sex abuse claims at the Texas church pastored by a key denominational committee member.

The lede:

For the past few months, pastor Steve Swofford of First Baptist Church in Rockwall has led a national search committee tasked with finding a leader to guide the Southern Baptist Convention through a national sex abuse crisis.

That six-member committee is expected to name a new president of the SBC Executive Committee on April 2 — weeks after the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News published an investigation into sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches. In response to the series, "Abuse of Faith," other SBC leaders already have promised to probe churches whose leaders knowingly harbored child abusers.

But Swofford has never spoken publicly about a scandal closer to home: allegations that a former youth pastor and the youth pastor's assistant each molested prepubescent boys from his own church in the 1990s, according to interviews and information the Chronicle obtained from civil lawsuits and Harris County criminal records.

Swofford has been pastor of the church east of Dallas since 1989, according to the church's web site. Though allegations made by one former youth group member received publicity after his family filed suit in 2015, most of what was alleged about the two men's sexual abuse of minors in Swofford's church in the late 1980s and early 1990s has not before been reported.

Again, this is a solid story.

(A side note: Religion News Service’s Bob Smietana reports that former SBC President Ronnie Floyd has been nominated to lead the denomination’s Executive Committee. That news came after publication of the Chronicle’s report.)

The Chronicle story noted the role of the statute of limitations in cases highlighted in the Sunday story:

Another lawsuit described how Austin twice attacked another Rockwall boy, performing "attempted forced oral sex, attempted forced sodomy, groping, fondling, and forceful removal of (victim) Jonathan H's clothing" inside First Baptist Church of Rockwall property.

Both cases were dismissed in July 2017 because the statute of limitations had lapsed for complaints related to the alleged assaults in the 1990s. But many unsettling questions raised by victims and family members remain unanswered.

If you pay attention to national headlines, you know that lawmakers in many states — 35 to be exact, as I reported last week — are considering statute of limitations reform.

In the news just the last few days:

• The Philadelphia Inquirer had a front-page story Sunday on the differing approaches to this issues in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

• Today, the Washington Post reported that when Maryland gave abuse victims more time to sue, it may have also protected institutions, including the Catholic Church.

• Last week, a bill that would extend the statute of limitations for child sex crimes passed Tennessee House Judiciary Committee, as reported by Tennessean religion writer Holly Meyer.

No doubt, I’ve missed a few similar headlines the nation. Feel free to share the links either in the comments below or by tweeting us at @GetReligion.

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