Evangelical Free Church of America

Dallas Morning News offers newsworthy but superficial coverage of church sex abuse settlement

Dallas Morning News offers newsworthy but superficial coverage of church sex abuse settlement

I want to call attention to a story on today’s Dallas Morning News Metro & State section cover about a sex abuse lawsuit settlement involving Dallas Theological Seminary.

I have a rather simple point to make about the superficiality of the coverage.

But first, this important context might be helpful: In news reports everywhere, it’s difficult to miss the ongoing Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal. Just today, Pope Francis acknowledged that the mess is “outraging the Catholic faithful and driving them away.”’

However, if the Catholic scandal is a case of a massive church hierarchy mishandling and covering up countless rotten deeds, how can journalists wrap their minds — and their notebooks — around similar abuse in free-church settings?

Free-church settings are those where congregations — such as independent megachurches, Churches of Christ/Christian Churches or autonomous congregations that are part of a voluntary association such as the Southern Baptist Convention — operate outside the realm of a church hierarchy.

In other words, the buck stops — or fails to stop — with a local pastor or elder/deacon group, as opposed to a formal structure with real denominational control.

As GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly noted just recently:

(I)t is possible for evil leaders to hide in a church bureaucracy. But that same bureaucracy can, with good leaders, be used to confront evil and to document it. It's also easier for lawyers and public officials to attempt to force (think lawsuits aimed at pools of resources and shared insurance policies) larger, united church bodies into action.

It's true. It's rather easy to hide large problems in a great cloud of fog. A reporter with good sources may be able to nail down a problem in one local church. But how does one go about showing the larger picture in the world of independent and near-independent Protestant congregations?

Bad pastors can simply move on and there is no shepherd above them. Who warns the next independent church? Who keeps tracks of the wolves? There is no there, there.

So there is a big story here. But how does one report it, in an age of shrinking newsrooms and budgets to support skilled reporters working for weeks or months to verify information from legions of sources?

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Into the guilt file: Another strange story about a newsroom that contains no telephones

Into the guilt file: Another strange story about a newsroom that contains no telephones

Just the other day, our own Bobby Ross, Jr., did a great job of explaining the concept of the "guilt folders" that your GetReligionistas keep, either in the back of our minds or literally in a digital folder in an email program.

Like he said, sometimes things just stack up and you forget about news stories that you intended to feature in a post. It's like those days when you see that you have 500 emails in your personal in-basket and you really don't know how they got there.

However, there's another kind of "guilt folder" story. Sometimes you read a story and your mind says, "What the heck?" You know that there's something there but it takes you a long time to put your finger on it.

This is one of those guilt-file stories. It comes from The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, Calif., and it focuses on two actions -- one by the board of Southwest Community Church and the other by its pastor. Long ago, it was a timely story, with a timely headline: "California pastor resigns over gay marriage stance."

Here's the top of that story. Try to spot the journalism landmine that it took me some time to figure out.

A few months ago, Pastor Gerald Sharon -- who has been lead pastor of Southwest since 2013 and previously served at Saddleback Church in Orange County -- asked the church hierarchy to look into “the extent to which a homosexual individual could be involved in the life of Southwest Church.”
While the church leadership initially seemed engaged in the discussions, they recently sent Sharon a letter in which they unanimously affirmed Southwest’s current position on homosexuality.
Southwest’s LGBT policy is written down in a document titled “Homosexuality and Human Sexuality.” The document does not appear to be publicly available.

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