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Back to the journalist's lane

"Back to the journalist's lane" Continued...

Issue: "2012 Daniels of the Year," Dec. 15, 2012

Having done my Bible and history homework, I gave our star reporter Lynn Vincent (she has since gone on to ghostwrite and co-write three best-selling books, including Sarah Palin’s autobiography) the green light to proceed with a story that would hit our cover in March 2002 as “Clergy Sexual Abuse: The Protestant Problem.” The inside subhead was, “As sexual scandal rocks the Roman Catholic church, Protestants face a lurking sex scandal as well. Will churches and national organizations take biblical steps to prevent further shame?”

The story began, “Sometimes the truth is unpleasant. No one enjoys discussing the lives shattered when shepherds turn out to be wolves. But Paul told the Ephesians: Do not merely shun the ‘unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.’ Though the apostle concedes it is disgraceful even to speak of wicked things done in secret, he adds that exposure drags dark deeds into the light, waking ‘sleeping’ believers that they in turn might walk wisely.”

Lynn continued, “A disturbing pattern of sexual exploitation is afoot in some churches, including churches that generally teach biblical truth. As God told Cain, sin is always crouching at the door, making it essential for both church leaders and members to understand the problem and its warning signs, if they are not to fall into nightmares like these. …” Lynn then named names and provided detail about three Protestant leaders, including one pastor who quoted Scripture to assure one woman that God approved of their sexual contact.

I knew upon reading her story draft that trouble loomed, so it was also time for a quick review of what we had done during the decade since 1992, when I first became involved in editing WORLD. We had critically investigated plans to nationalize healthcare and pass out needles to drug addicts while harassing Christian anti-addiction programs. We had exposed Fidel Castro’s license to kill and Chinese Communist use of U.S. technology to force women into aborting their children. We had opposed the Clinton administration when it booted Christian homeless missions from the federal surplus food program, but we had also criticized corporate welfare and crony capitalism. Such efforts had rarely brought “cancel my subscription” notes.

It was different, though, when we exposed evangelical leaders who used ghostwriters without acknowledging them, pastors who were silent about abortion, ministries that refused to disclose their finances, Christian counselors who preferred psychobabble to the Bible, and popular Christian musicians who dished out sugar rather than sprinkling salt. We covered the breakdown of Promise Keepers and the attempts to make the New International Version conform to some aspects of feminist ideology. Each time we absorbed some subscription cancellations, but each time we received support from old readers and some new ones as well. 

Twice we thought it necessary to explain ourselves. When we exposed a popular Christian radio personality, we ran a print cover: “It’s easy to be critical of people outside our own family. We do that often at WORLD. Our week-to-week news coverage leads us regularly to report less than favorable things about people who make no bones about being unbiblical in their lifestyles, in their theology, and in their politics. But what happens when that same reporting leads us to negative information about someone known as an evangelical?” 

Later in the decade, we criticized a hugely popular pastor, Charles Stanley, when he moved toward divorce while continuing to preach. WORLD publisher and founder Joel Belz acknowledged, “A number of readers have argued that we had no business mentioning the story at all.”  Joel, though, stood by the decision to publish: “It is a clear biblical principle that to whom much is given, much is required. ... Such people are to be ‘above reproach.’”

Keeping those precedents in mind, I published Lynn’s story of clergy sexual abuse and wrote a column explaining why: “Reporting on evil is always difficult, because we’re well aware of Paul’s injunction to the Philippians: ‘Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure … think about these things’ (Philippians 4:8). That’s our goal. We also know, though, that Paul thought and wrote about sexual immorality in Corinth, idol-worship in Athens, legalism in Galatia, hypocrisy in Jerusalem, and many other false, dishonorable, unjust, and impure practices.”

I went on, “Was he breaking his own rule? No. Imagine a family going to the beach on Saturday, or to church on Sunday, and driving by garbage heaps on the way. Should parents and children be depressed? No, they should concentrate on what is lovely. That’s the goal, so as not to drown in the sewage of the world. But the world will be a better place if a newspaper columnist on Monday describes that garbage dump and insists that it be cleaned up. Paul was called to look at and write about some rotten stuff at times, and so are journalists.”

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