May 27th, 2011
03:50 PM ET

My Take: No justice in Eddie Long's settlement

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

The Roman Catholic Church isn't the only religious institution that has failed to respond directly and transparently to allegations of sexual impropriety.

Bishop Eddie Long, the pastor of the Georgia-based New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, has just settled out of court with the four young men who alleged Long had sexually coerced them. And neither side is talking.

After the allegations surfaced last September, Long said he would “vigorously” defend himself against charges that he used a combination of spiritual authority and material enticements (cars, jewelry, cash) to curry sexual favors from the men, who were 17 and 18 at the time.

Not any more, at least not in court.

And Long’s accusers won’t be talking either. B. J. Bernstein, their lawyer, said yesterday that they would not discuss the matter “now or in the future.”

Over the last few decades, observers of the Roman Catholic Church sex scandal have rightly argued for transparency — for taking sexual assault cases out of the hands of the secretive old boys network of priests and bishops and bringing them out into the open, including into the courts.

Why? So justice could be done, and so Catholic parents might come to feel safe once again entrusting their children to the care of priests.

American Zen centers have dealt in recent years with their own contagion of sexual abuse allegations against Zen masters, and they have done so with remarkable candor and transparency.

In December, a group of Zen leaders wrote a series of letters calling for the dismissal of Eido Tai Shimano from his position as abbot of the New York-based Zen Studies Society.

In her letter concerning the this case, Joan Halifax, founding abbot of the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, did not pull any punches. She called Shimano an “embarrassment to Buddhism” and his behavior, brought to national attention last August in the New York Times, “abusive, gender-biased, predatory, misogynistic.”

But she also compared the situation to “family members in a dysfunctional family,” adding that the wider Buddhist community was “complicit in some way . . . as we all knew what was going on."

To be fair to Long, the case against Eido Shimano was clearer cut (recently unsealed papers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa detail decades of sexual liasons with his female students), as are many of the cases against pedophile priests. But the reason we can say that is because the evidence has come out.

In Catholicism’s sex scandals, critics have commonly criticized structural issues. Rather than blaming this priest or that, they have blamed the Catholic practice of clerical celibacy. Or, in the case of a recent study by researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, they blamed the permissiveness of the 1960s.

So I have to wonder whether there are structural issues in the Long case also. As names such as Swaggart, Bakker and Haggard remind us, he is not the first megachurch pastor accused of sexual abuse.

The Protestant Reformation was in part about getting away from the authority of priests and popes. Why approach God indirectly when you can do so directly, Protestants asked. Why not read the Bible for yourself?

Unfortunately, there isn't much evidence that many American Protestants today are reading scripture with frequency or care. On a battery of 12 questions about Christianity and the Bible, American Protestants got 6.5 questions right on average, for a score of 54%. Many must rely on pastors like Long to tell them what to do and think.

In her letter, Halifax discussed the dangers of “being under the spell of a teacher or person of authority.” But Christians fall under that spell too. And as they do, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to imagine that their ministers might be sexual predators.

I do not know what Bishop Eddie Long did or did not do with these four young men. I will say, however, that I am predisposed in these cases to give credence to the accusations of the alleged victims, if only because I
have seen sexual coercion happen so often in religious groups.

A civil trial might have changed that predisposition. And a complete and public investigation of Long’s actions by the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church could have done the same.

It’s a shame that neither of those things are going to happen. And those who have the most to be ashamed of — perhaps more than Long himself — are the people in the pews who come every weekend to worship him.

If you aren’t familiar with Long’s preaching style, you can view a sermon he gave in 2000 called “Stop the Cover Up.” To which I can only say, "Amen."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Buddhism • Catholic Church • Christianity • Leaders • Pastors • Protestant • Scandal • Sex abuse • United States

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