Walking into the courtroom in Olney, Illinois, to cover the pre-trial proceedings of a pastor facing sexual assault charges involving teenage girls, I noticed the audience seating arrangement.
The rows of seats were raked so the back row was higher than the front. The stairs were in the center of the rows, bifurcating the seats so the public could sit on one side or the other as they observed the court in action.
Those who were present to support the victims sat on the prosecution’s side; those who were there to support the pastor sat on his side.
One of the people in attendance was a southern Illinois pastor and a member of the board of directors of the Illinois Baptist State Association. After the day’s proceedings concluded, I asked him who he was there to support.
“I just wish there was a chair in the middle,” he said.
Of course, the side he had chosen was with the supporters of the credibly accused pastor, who would later switch his plea to guilty once the possibility of having the charges thrown out was exhausted.
And that’s the issue when it comes to sexual abuse in the church. Too many leaders believe there’s a chair in the middle but still choose to sit with the abuser at the end of the day.
My story has attracted renewed interest because it was featured as part of an excellent piece of investigative journalism by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News, which uncovered “380 allegations of sexual misconduct against pastors, employees and volunteers at SBC [Southern Baptist Convention] churches in the past 20 years.”
In 2002, I was editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper, part of the Illinois Baptist State Association (IBSA), when I learned of the charges filed against Les Mason, pastor of Olney Southern Baptist Church, thanks to a concerned heads-up from a central Illinois pastor who now works for the IBSA.
The decision to report on those charges ultimately cost me a job I enjoyed immensely, but I had no regrets then or now.
To remain silent about those charges, which many would have preferred for me to do, would have made me a willing accomplice in covering it up.
Mason, according to the Houston Chronicle article, said churches where he preached after prison “absolutely knew about my past.”
I reached out to the pastors of both churches, Justin Sweitzer at Oblong First Baptist and Jonathan Wiseman at New Hope Baptist, to ask if their churches did know about Mason’s conviction and time served for criminal sexual assault before he preached to their congregations. While both men replied to my emails and texts, they did not answer the question.
IBSA officials also knew Mason was preaching and took no significant action, cowering behind the cloak of local church autonomy. This is a selective excuse that Southern Baptist leadership lurks behind.
When a church calls a woman to be their senior pastor, too many Southern Baptist leaders don’t care about local church autonomy; they move to expel that church.
The same is true if a church chooses to welcome LGBTQ folks as members. State and national leaders don’t care about the local church’s autonomy about its own members; they will oust that church from their regional, state and national associations.
But churches that place convicted sexual predators behind the pulpit? Leaders will claim they can’t do anything because of local church autonomy. The safety of our children isn’t worth them getting involved.
While convicted sexual predators like Mason deserve to be able to earn a living after they have served their time, they should never be allowed to step behind a pulpit again. Churches who permit that to happen are putting the safety of their children on the back burner.
If anything is going to be done about sexual predators in our Southern Baptist churches, it will require rank-and-file Southern Baptists to speak up, loud and long, to demand zero tolerance for sexual predators infiltrating our churches.
Consider these steps:
- Make a recommendation at your church business meeting that calls on your regional and state associations to expel any church that knowingly puts a sexual predator behind the pulpit, whether it’s in a permanent position or to fill in one Sunday for a vacationing pastor. Because this is supposedly an issue of local church autonomy, go on record to say you will not tolerate any church that allows a predator in the pulpit.
- Get involved in your regional and state associations. They each have annual meetings. Make a motion that they change their bylaws to oust any member church that allows a sexual predator to preach at their church. For some associations, a change in the bylaws may require a couple of years of your effort because such a change may require multiple readings before a vote can be taken at an annual meeting. Expect resistance from leadership. They don’t want to oust any church that is giving them money. You’ll need to keep the pressure on.
- Consider funding a nonprofit organization that works with victims of sexual predators. If you’re in Illinois, for example, you can reach out to the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault; one of its regional organizations worked with the young girls whom Mason assaulted. There’s also Prevent Child Abuse Illinois. If your regional and state Baptist associations are unwilling to take action, you can channel some of the funds you give them to help support worthwhile nonprofits like these two. I can think of no better mission opportunity.
When I was forced to resign my position as editor of the Illinois Baptist, the temporary head of the IBSA said at the time that I did not have the “spiritual sensitivity” to work for a Baptist organization.
He’s right. I don’t. At least, not that kind of Baptist organization.
However, since that time, I have been privileged to work for the Baptist Center for Ethics, which through its website, EthicsDaily.com, has featured columnists and news stories on this issue for many years.
And, in my role with the Baptist Center for Ethics, I’ve been delighted to discover many other Baptist churches and leaders don’t have the same mindset as those organizations who prefer to bury their heads in the sand.
As far as organizations like my former employer, I definitely don’t have the “spiritual sensitivity” to turn my head in the other direction when a pastor is sexually assaulting our children.
And I’m in good company because I believe the vast majority of rank-and-file Southern Baptists feel the same way.
That’s why organizations like the IBSA prefer to keep quiet about this issue. They’re afraid of what you’ll do if you know the truth and speak up to demand real change from them.
Michael Leathers the copy editor for EthicsDaily.com and the former editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper.