When a journalist for the Illinois Baptist newspaper reported in 2002 on a Baptist pastor who had sexually assaulted two teenage girls in his church, one apparently just 13 years old, he received a furious reprimand. Glenn L Akins, then running the Illinois Baptist State Association, offered a bizarre objection: that writing about one pastor who committed sex crimes was unfair because that “ignores many others who have done the same thing.” Akins cited “several other prominent churches where the same sort of sexual misconduct has occurred recently in our state.”
In the end, the Baptists ousted the journalist, Michael W Leathers, while the pastor who had committed the crimes, Leslie Mason, received a seven-year prison sentence and then, as a registered sex offender, returned to the pulpit at a series of Baptist churches nearby. So Leathers is no longer a journalist, and Mason remained a pastor.
That saga was cited in a searing investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News that found that the Southern Baptist Convention repeatedly tolerated sexual assaults by clergymen and church volunteers. The Chronicle found 380 credible cases of church leaders and volunteers engaging in sexual misconduct, with the victims sometimes shunned by churches, urged to forgive abusers or advised to get abortions.
“Some victims as young as 3 were molested or raped inside pastors’ studies and Sunday school classrooms,” the Chronicle reported.
Leathers told me he is glad he wrote the 2002 article, even if it cost him his career. He expressed frustration at Southern Baptist priorities: The church leadership would expel a church that appointed a woman as senior pastor, even as it accepted sexual predators.
The indifference to criminal behaviour is an echo of what has been unearthed in the Roman Catholic Church over the decades. The latest sickening revelations are of priests getting away with raping nuns and with assaulting deaf students.
These new scandals provoke fresh nausea at the hypocrisy of religious blowhards like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who thundered at the immorality of gay people even as their own Southern Baptist network tolerated child rape.
I suspect it’s no accident that these crimes emerged in denominations that do not ordain women and that relegate them to second-class status.
“If God is male,” Mary Daly, the feminist theologian, wrote, “then the male is God.”
The result may be threefold: an entitled male clergy, women and girls taught to be submissive in church, and a lack of accountability and oversight. It’s complicated, of course, for many of the Catholic victims were boys, but there does seem to have been an element of elevating male clergy members on a pedestal in a way that made them omnipotent and unaccountable.
“Underneath it all is this patriarchy that goes back millennia,” Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary, told me, noting the commonality of the Catholic and Southern Baptist churches: “They both have very masculine understandings of God and have a structure where men are considered the closest representatives of God.”
The paradox is that Jesus and the early Christian church seem to have been very open to women. The only person in the New Testament who wins an argument with Jesus is an unnamed woman who begs him to heal her daughter (Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28).
The Gospel of Mary, a Gnostic text from the early second century, suggests that Jesus entrusted Mary Magdalene to provide religious instruction to his disciples.
But then conventional hierarchies asserted themselves, and women were mostly barred from religious leadership.
After the Chronicle’s investigation, the Southern Baptists have promised greater training and more background checks, but what’s needed above all is accountability and equality.
“Prohibiting women from the highest ranks of formal leadership fosters a fundamentally toxic masculinity,” Jonathan L. Walton, the Plummer professor of Christian morals at Harvard, told me.
Baptist women have been ready to be heard for a century. I know because my great-grandfather John Howard Shakespeare was the leader of Baptists in Britain from 1898 to 1924 and practiced his sermons on his wife. When she once insisted that she had something else to do, he locked her in an upstairs room.
My great-grandmother Amy, wearing a long dress, then climbed out an upper window and onto a tree branch, and finally clambered down the tree to the ground.
Perhaps inspired by such a strong woman, Shakespeare favoured the ordination of women. “That women are not yet permitted to take their proper share in the life and work of our churches is, to our thinking, a relic of barbarism,” he wrote in 1901.
So much has changed for women since then, yet even today a majority of religious women still belong to denominations that do not ordain women. And as long as inequality is baked into faith, as long as “men of God” are unaccountable, then sexual assaults will continue.
The problem is not just wayward pastors and priests. Rather it is structural, an inequality and masculine conception of God that empowers rapists.