Lessons from the Brethren

Two instructive items from a world Commonwealers rarely visit, that of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

One is a Chicago Sun-Times article about a Southern Baptist pastor who was sentenced to nine years in prison in 1996 for sexually abusing four girls, ages 15 to 17. He was paroled in 2001, re-married, and a short time later become the pastor at another Baptist Church. The parolee pastor, Jeff Hannah, blamed his exploitation of the girls on "urges" due to his troubled first marriage. The real kicker: The congregation knew of his crimes but liked him so much they kept him on in various capacities. "We believe in forgiveness," says a deacon who pushed for Hannah's hire.

Among the many possible lessons, to my mind: 1) Marriage for priests is not a magic bullet; 2) Neither is banning gay men; 3) Lay people can be every bit as obtuse as the most out-of-touch hierarch. There are too many cases of Catholic parishes who loved their priest even though he was an abuser, and demonstrated to keep him on. All religion is local, too. So transparency, accountability, checks and balances.

The second item, via the excellent blog and news digest of the religion staff at the Dallas Morning News, concerns an SBC leader, Thom Rainer, who has withdrawn his endorsement of a chatroom/blog, SBCPost.com, which was set up so Southern Baptists could exchange views. As you can read in his statement, "A plea for a more civil discourse", Rainer says that the Web site has become an arena for conflict and division:

"Whereas most print media have the accountability of boards, bosses and subscribers, much social electronic media does not have clear and explicit accountability - its the communitys responsibility. Words that are hurtful, untrue and even displeasing to our Lord can be written without consequence. The community then becomes collectively accountable."

David Gibson is the director of Fordham’s Center on Religion & Culture.

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