Category Archives: Church Frauds & Related Crimes

Newspapers vs the Southern Baptist Sex Abuse Coverup

[NOTE: Besides (another) sleazy church “leader” sex saga, the Southern Baptist coverup scandal (which should, if there’s justice, demolish the denomination’s thoroughly corrupt lying superstructure, and send numerous pervy pastors and their protectors to do some praying in prison) is telling another very significant story: the crucial role of a healthy, smart, dogged free press in cutting through the church crap and dragging that cesspool into the light of day.

The “church leaders” who perpetuated the coverup could teach the CIA some lessons about squalid secrecy.  But the key lesson about journalism here is simpler, even mundane: to unmask the coverup and break the story took months of meticulous, quiet but relentless work by a slew of reporters and researchers. as the report below explains.

And to do that work, besides stamina and tenacity, the reporters first and above all had to be there. But viable newspapers and reporting jobs are a vanishing species, as threatened as Monarch  butterflies.

Whatever press awards this story gets will surely be deserved. But more important to them —and the public; that’s us — will be whether their achievements translates into more subscribers, and increases their employers’ business viability.

And the outcome of that story is still hanging in the balance.

Washington Post: How two Texas newspapers broke open the Southern Baptist sex scandal


A 2019 investigation by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News prompted this week’s massive disclosure about church leaders implicated in sex abuse cases.

By Elahe Izadi
 —May 25, 2022

Houston Chronicle city hall reporter Robert Downen was on the night shift one evening in 2018, just a few months into the job, when something caught his attention.

Scrolling through an online federal court docket, he spotted a lawsuit that accused Paul Pressler, a prominent former judge and leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, of sexual assault. While the case had been previously reported, newly filed documents painted an even more damning picture, including the revelation that Pressler had previously agreed to pay his accuser $450,000.

Downen, then 25, probed more deeply and discovered other survivors of church abuse, who made it clear to him, he recalled, that “if you think this problem is confined to one leader, we have quite a bit to show you.”

Downen’s ever-growing spreadsheet of cases soon inspired a larger reporting effort to quantify the scope of sex abuse within the massive Protestant denomination. Journalists at the Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News teamed up to create a database of cases involving nearly 300 church leaders and more than 700 victims for their landmark 2019 “Abuse of Faith” series.

A wave of outrage in response to the series rocked the Southern Baptist Convention, prompting its Executive Committee to hire an outside firm to investigate. The result was Sunday’s release of an explosive, nearly 300-page report that found church leaders had covered up numerous sex abuse cases and belittled survivors.

Among other key findings: SBC leaders kept a secret list of ministers accused of abuse — all the while insisting to the Texas reporters who first inquired about the scope of the problem back in 2019 that such records would be impossible to compile, according to Chronicle investigative reporter John Tedesco. (On Tuesday, the leadership said it was planning to release names of the accused on Thursday.)

“It is beyond frustrating as a journalist and as someone who knows many of these survivors,” said Downen. “How many years of survivors pleading for this and the tears they cried, and how much work and how many hours of journalism we could have put elsewhere, in this story or any other, was wasted because they just didn’t want to say they were doing this.”

Downen worked with Tedesco — who moved from the Express-News to the Chronicle during the investigation — and Lise Olsen, then an investigative editor and reporter for the Chronicle. They spent several months hunting down and combing through court records, traversing the state, interviewing local district attorneys and sending letters seeking comment to every alleged abuser person they had learned about. Data journalists Matt Dempsey and Jordan Rubio helped create the database and verify the case details, as did a team of lawyers for Hearst, the parent company for both newspapers.

They discovered 380 people in the church, including deacons, youth pastors and Sunday school teachers, who had been credibly accused of abuse; at least 218 of them had been convicted or pleaded guilty to sex crimes over two decades. Some of them, the papers found, remained in their positions at the church or returned after serving prison time.

After the newspaper series published in 2019, the Chronicle set up a confidential tip line that was contacted by more than 400 people with accounts of being abused. The newspapers followed up with another three-part series with more victim accounts. “Their courage made all the difference,” said former Chronicle executive editor Steve Riley, who also oversaw the investigative team at the time.

One victim, who was abused as a child by a former pastor, wrote to the Chronicle that “over the years I’ve learned to cope with this and I’ve also realized that I am not alone. Your article reaffirms this and I feel more empowered knowing that more people will now better understand what is really going on.”

The newspapers reprinted “Abuse of Faith” and distributed it free at the 2019 annual SBC meeting in Birmingham, Ala., where the sex abuse crisis dominated discussion. In 2021, thousands of delegates at the annual meeting overwhelmingly voted in favor of having a task force oversee a third-party investigation, rather than the Executive Committee.

“There had been survivor advocates who had been pushing and trying to raise awareness for a long time before we came along,” Tedesco said. “We were part of that puzzle. I think our story opened a lot of eyes, but there were eyes already opened and trying to alert people to the problem before us.”

The Chronicle broke online readership records with the series, and other media organizations around the country relied on their database to investigate abuse cases in their own coverage areas.

But compiling the database — which involved a detailed and extensive corroboration of every case, some relying on court files that could be retrieved only in person — required the efforts of more than a dozen journalists. “In a newsroom of 200, that’s a pretty big commitment,” said Riley. He fears that many local and regional newspapers, struggling with shrinking circulation and ad revenue, will be increasingly unable to tackle similar stories in their own backyards.

“If it is only the New York Times or The Washington Post and ProPublica who are able to do this kind of work, then they’re going to miss a lot and they’re not going to be around to follow up once it’s done,” he said.

And yet local news reports from smaller media organizations that the Houston and San Antonio reporters dug out of archives played a vital role in helping them uncover the big story.

“Sometimes things happen in plain sight: A pastor gets arrested and reassigned from a church and it’s a daily story that maybe gets forgotten,” said Tedesco. “Sometimes you have to put those pieces together, and there’s real value in taking the time to do that.”

It’s all the more reason the public should be alarmed by the state of local news, said Downen, “because we are absolutely losing the source material for so many other investigations.”

Since 2005, about 2,200 local newspapers have closed across the country, and over 200 counties across the country have no newspaper at all, according to a University of North Carolina study.(Emphasis added.)

“That’s why it’s crucial for people to support the press financially and in other ways,” Downen said. “You don’t think that the small-town paper with a readership of 5,000 could be the genesis of a massive and historic report 25 years later, because it is some local journalist writing about a local abuse case. But we can’t know what we can’t see.” (Emphasis added.)

SAYMA 2021: The Post-Mortem

Bob McGahey, the Clerk of SAYMA (Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting & Association), saw what was coming at last week’s 2021 annual sessions.

What did he see? Trouble & woe.

How do I know?

Because he said so, in a Clerk’s letter sent out as the group was gathering (mostly in Zoom) last week.

The key passage:

Unfortunately, as we approach SAYMA yearly sessions, there are those among us who would enforce their deeply held convictions through pressuring, judging, and threatening behavior. One plenary speaker and two workshops have been challenged and threatened with disruption. One of those workshops has been cancelled, and the leader of the second feels genuinely threatened by escalating attacks, asking for protection. As an open religious society, our protection comes from the divine, which resides deep within each of us, acting from within the body, not from a hierarchy of leaders.

He was mistaken about that last item: protection, especially in SAYMA, comes from leaders and staunch Friends with resolve to uphold good Quaker order, or it will not come at all.

Both were essentially absent from SAYMA’s annual sessions. Continue reading SAYMA 2021: The Post-Mortem

Michael Cohen, Trump & the Right Price for Selling Your Soul

Almost by accident, in 1997 I became a crime reporter, specializing in church-related financial frauds.  My first major investigative report, called “Fleecing the Faithful,” is still online.

Michael Cohen’s book “Disloyal” brings back those years.

The crime schemes I covered were obscure, and often complicated to explain. Although they ruined many lives, they did so quietly. Cases typically lacked physical violence, dead bodies or sex. Hence few except the biggest ever got much media attention.

Yet religious based frauds were (& are) plentiful & destructive. And they didn’t have to directly involve “church” to be religious, at least for me. That’s because these crimes, like others, involve one of the central religious issues, namely the reality of evil. In fact, these cases’ lack of lurid melodrama made it easier for me to focus, at least In reflecting on them, on the underlying question:

Continue reading Michael Cohen, Trump & the Right Price for Selling Your Soul

Mayor Pete & his notorious (2019 Christmas) Tweet

So how offensive is this?

“Today I join millions around the world in celebrating the arrival of divinity on earth, who came into this world not in riches but in poverty, not as a citizen but as a refugee. No matter where or how we celebrate, merry Christmas.”

That’s mayor Pete Buttigieg’s Xmas tweet, complete & unexpurgated.

Personally, I thought it was pretty cool, if one is into such things: respectfully restrained, but clear about his own stance. His being “out” about his faith, but not obnoxious or triumphalist, I find an appealing feature of his presence on the political scene.

But it’s blowing up the evangelical internet.

Rev. Dr. Darrell Scott of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, for instance, didn’t put too fine a point on it: “When did you come up with that load of crap?” he explained.

One objection that’s been raised has some merit: it’s not likely that Mary & Joseph were “poor” in first century terms: they could afford to make the trip that took them thru Bethlehem, and likely had the shekels to pay for a bunk in the inn, if it hadn’t been sold out.

OTOH the cries that Jesus didn’t arrive as a refugee are more shaky. First off, he was “homeless” when he landed; staying in a stable was definitely not Doubletree. A lot of things have changed since then, yet stable smells abide . . . .

Then, when the angels quit singing and the three wise guys were gone, there were, you know, diapers, or whatever they called Pampers then. (Jesus may have had a virgin birth, but the prophets hadn’t said squat about a poopless parturition.)

Even worse was the news that King Herod had launched a massacre of male babies, aimed directly at him. I mean, how would he get into the right Betsy DeVos Christian preschool with a price on his head (and no security detail)?

So the parents swaddled the babe & high-tailed it to Egypt, where they were definitely refugees, for a good (if textually unspecified) while. And if they weren’t poor when they started, this long unplanned side trip — several hundred miles, on a donkey, thru hills and across desert, and the roads! (wait, what roads?) –had to bring them close to the edge. (For evidence, check the pictures of homeless camps in your state.)

Okay, whatever: SCOTT and a bunch of other preachers aren’t having it. Still, having their obnoxious “gospel” thus exposed, while it isn’t fun, could be valuable over time: if we’re going to have religion in public life, Mayor Pete’s way of showing it is much more appealing & manageable than that of the prattling theocrats who now cluster & preen around their golden(haired) calf in The Oval Office.

BTW I like Mayor Pete, but this post is not an endorsement.  Too soon for that, and I like others as well. But I do endorse his tweet.

As for Rev. Dr. Scott and his chorus, I can offer but an echo: When did you come up with that load of crap?

“Spotlight”: A Movie About Reporters: A Treatise On Evil

“Spotlight”: A Movie About Reporters: A Treatise On Evil

Just watched “Spotlight.” The reviews are right: it’s a taut journalistic thriller about how the Boston Globe’s legendary Spotlight investigative reporting team blew the lid off the system of pedophile priest protection in the city’s Catholic archdiocese. And through that, opened the door to exposure of a worldwide criminal conspiracy that is still being dismantled, and still being protected.

Spotlight-Break-Story-Silence

 

 

Yeah it’s a fine film: terrific acting, suspenseful even though we know
how it turns out. It has multiple Oscars written all over it, but wears its excellence without flash, much the way the real-life Spotlight team operated. Continue reading “Spotlight”: A Movie About Reporters: A Treatise On Evil

The Pope Resigns . . . Two Reactions

Part 1 — Concerning the impending change in popes:

The level and intricacy of maneuver, plots, schemes, conivings, chicanery and competing conspiracies within the upper circles of the RC church are beyond anything that Dan “Da Vinci Code” Brown or Marvel Comix could imagine. So us outside small fry can only speculate, and wait for the tell-all books to come out in a few years or decades; they should be seriously lurid.

Continue reading The Pope Resigns . . . Two Reactions

The Inhuman Side of Humanitarianism

Philip Gourevitch is a writer for the New Yorker, and a student of foreign affairs, including wars. In the Oct.11 issue of the magazine, he published a stunning piece, “Alms Dealers,” which demands the attention of every one who ever wanted to give money or time to help someone in distress far away, or even nearby. It is especially salient and urgent for Quakers concerned with the transfer of cash from US Quaker groups to churches and projects in Kenya.

Continue reading The Inhuman Side of Humanitarianism

Do Ask, Do Tell: Looking For Love In One of the Wrong Places

There’s this older gay man, I’ll call him Algernon. He’s not a Friend but has recently been attending Quaker meeting in an eastern state.  Early last yearUN peacekeepers he and his longtime partner parted, and Algernon wanted to find some new companionship. So he went onto the net.  Soon he was in touch with a man we’ll call Moncrieff, who said he was a UN peacekeeper stationed near Baghdad. This appealed to Algernon. While he was once in the military, he’s since developed a strong concern for peace issues; I think that’s what helped draw him toward Friends.

Continue reading Do Ask, Do Tell: Looking For Love In One of the Wrong Places

Buddy, Can You Spare A Few Million Shillings? A Kenya Fraud Update & Request

Kenyan 100 shilling noteSeems to me it’s time for an open update for American and other Friends on the struggle against theft and corruption in Quaker institutions and programs in Kenya. This question has been growing on me in recent months, but I figured maybe there had been one and I missed it. But it was brought back to mind by some recent news reports.

Did anybody else see these BBC stories?

Continue reading Buddy, Can You Spare A Few Million Shillings? A Kenya Fraud Update & Request