In case you've somehow missed it, a fellow named George Rekers took a ten-day trip to Europe with a male escort. Rekers is a co-founder, with James Dobson, of the Family Research Council, and the author of books like Growing Up Straight. His traveling companion was a 20-year-old prostitute whom he had located on a website called Rentboy.com, which, as HuffPo drily remarks, is "just what it sounds like."
Rekers, of course, insists that this is all just a misunderstanding. He likes spending time with sinners so that he can convert them; he didn't know that a "rentboy" might be a prostitute; he just needed somebody to carry his luggage. Anyway, nobody is fooled, and the HuffPo page (linked above) has crosslinks to many stories, if you really care. (Best line: Jimmy Kimmel, arguing that "carrying my luggage" should be the euphemism du jour. Surely a relief to Larry Craig).
We mention this sordid tale for only two reasons. First, to further document the dubious ethics of the people who like to give ethical advice in public. (Our favorite example remains Bill "Book of Virtues" Bennett and his $8-million gambling losses).
Second, we mention it because GetReligion hasn't. As you surely know, GR is a site run by professional journalists with experience on the church beat and up-front religious commitments of their own. They specialize in finger-pointing criticism of their colleagues' work, which (given the level of shoddy thinking in general and religious ignorance in particular on display in most newspapers) is like shooting fish in a barrel. A particular specialty is the identification of "ghosts," meaning religious angles in a story which they feel have not been properly explored by the press coverage.
Hello. Rekers is a Baptist clergyman. At a time when the Roman Catholic church is under constant fire for the misdeeds of its clergy in many places and over many years, it seems to us that the time may be right for an examination of how other church bodies deal with parallel issues -- and what that means for believers. For example, the Papist bishops are criticized for taking ineffective action. Logically, this raises the question of what sort of action, if any, the "free" churches are able to take. Is there any means to defrock a Baptist cleric? To assure that he never again exercises the cure of souls?
Probably not; Rekers can be "disfellowshipped" from any conventions to which he may belong, but he cannot be prevented from calling himself a minister and functioning in that capacity, whether in a parish, school or other setting. It is up to congregations and other institutions to carry out their own investigations of his ethical and psycholological fitness.
For many people, this may seem like a preferable system of church organization. It takes the responsibility away from an opaque and often unresponsive hierarchy, and places it squarely on the local community. But is that really the best way? In the case of a high-profile public figure like Rekers, an investigation will be pretty simple -- all you need is Google. But what about the hundreds and even thousands of Baptist (or non-denominational, or et cetera) clerics whose names won't trigger a bunch of search-engine hits? How is a small congregation or school to protect itself? Criminal background checks will only pick up reported crimes; references, by their nature, are carefully selected to include one's friends and admirers.
On the whole, it seems to us that the Rekers case is a reminder of something important about the much-publicized scandals within the Roman church. A highly structured institutional system, when broken, can permit some atrocious crimes. But when working properly, it can also be a safeguard which protects the faithful and encourages greater confidence in their pastors. In the absence of such a system, there are few reliable safeguards.
So whose school system would you rather send your kid through?